Tom’s Essay (2008)

This month’s challenge for me is getting used to my “in-ear monitors.” These are little monitors that go into your ear so you can hear yourself onstage. I used them a month ago in Sweden for the
first time in front of a live audience. Hmm, I thought, These feel weird. Not all they are cracked up to be. Very much like ear plugs, in fact.

I felt like I was in a pantomime, or underwater, and finally I remembered there was a little dial poking up out of my pocket that I had access to. I decided to turn it up — thereby turning it on. I had performed
half the show with the monitors turned off! Oops. No wonder I couldn’t hear anything.

This is the world of technology. Although I am attracted to it, it’s not something I have a real knack for. Not like my mother, for example. When she comes over and sits down at my computer, she says, “Why
is your computer running so slowly? When was the last time you cleaned out your applications? Have you repaired your permissions lately?” Other moms tell you to clean out your cupboards or your closets.

My mother is a computer systems analyst, just retired from the New York City transit system, where she was a troubleshooter. I remember one day in the ‘70s when, as a teenager, I wandered into the kitchen in
search of food. My mother was at the table with a huge contraption next to her on the floor, something about the size of a small refrigerator, waist-high, with the receiver of our telephone cradled into it.

“I am accessing the Hunter College Library, isn’t that neat?” I thought it was, but wondered, when was dinner?

So never mind the bizarre rumors that persist about my mom being a jazz guitarist, which came from one journalist who asked if I was from a musical family. I told her my stepfather played the guitar, and my mother played
jazz around the house. Meaning records. The journalist then invented this image of my mom as a jazz guitarist and published it far and wide, and unfortunately it has been set up as fact by many different Web sites.
Thank goodness for Wikipedia. It doesn’t bother my mother, though. She says, “I’ll take some lessons and have a comeback!”

My daughter also seems to have a knack for technology. One rainy Saturday afternoon when she was 10, I asked what she was doing. “Doing HTML for my friend’s Web site! Graphics!” she said cheerfully.
Sometimes I will find her recreating Rihanna’s “Umbrella” song, track by track, on Garageband when she’s bored.

Whereas I tend to get frustrated and do things like bang on the hard drive with my fist, which is how I destroyed all the data on my last computer.

So why, given all that, am I called the “Mother of the MP3”?

In my last blog, I was discussing the idea of being a two-hit wonder, and wrote about the song “Luka.” The
other hit AOL cited in its story (called “Two-Hit Wonders”) was “Tom’s Diner,” which was a hit for me in 1990. This wasn’t just a plain ordinary hit, if there is such a
thing. To this day it is sticky with the modern issues of technology and copyright law.

Handwritten lyrics to 'Tom's Diner.'

I got the idea for “Tom’s Diner” in 1981, but I wrote it in the spring of 1982, making the song 26 years old now. When I was at Barnard College in Manhattan, I used to go to Tom’s Restaurant
for coffee, and after I graduated I also ate there before going to work. It was then a cheap, greasy place on 112th and Broadway, and it still is, in spite of its celebrity. (Sorry, but I have never been to the
one in Brooklyn, though I hear it’s really cute. The real one isn’t cute, and isn’t atmospheric. It’s just plain, which is why I liked it.) And yes, it is the same one they use in the
Seinfeld credits — the neon sign that says “RESTAURANT.” I actually once saw Jerry Seinfeld right near there!

I have a photographer friend, Brian Rose, who has taken pictures of the Lower East Side of Manhattan and the Berlin Wall. He told me once long ago that he felt
as though he saw the world through a pane of glass. This struck me as romantic and alienated, and I wanted to write a song from this viewpoint.

I had been taking classes at Barnard with titles like “The Dramatic Monologue.” I was in Tom’s and I thought it would be fun to write a song that was like a little film, where the main character
sees all these things but can’t respond to any of it unless it relates to him directly. The part about the actor dying was true — it was William Holden. Some fans recently looked up the day he died
and named the next day Tom’s Diner Day. (In addition, see here.) I made up the part about the woman who was fixing her stockings.

The part where I sing about the “midnight picnic” is from an actual picnic I had with the songwriter Jack Hardy on the steps of the Cathedral of St. John
the Divine one night.

The melody hit me as I was walking down Broadway, fast. I wanted something jaunty. I remember liking the near rhymes of “diner” and “corner,” “sitting” and “waiting.”
Although it is actually Tom’s restaurant I changed it to diner as it sings better that way.

I was imagining it as a kind of French film soundtrack, something vaudevillian on piano, like a background to a Truffaut film. But I didn’t play piano and didn’t know anybody who did. So I kept it a cappella,
and began to sing it this way in my live show. This detail, singing the song alone with no accompaniment, affected everything to come.

I noticed right away, at my shows, that whenever I opened my mouth and sang, “I am sitting, in the morning…”, people would stop drinking and talking, and immediately whirl around and stare at the
stage. So I used it as an opening song. I can’t think of a single time that this didn’t work. Even at the Prince’s Trust concert in 1986, in front of 10,000 people, I went onstage as the opening
act and began the entire concert with that song — and it worked!

It was a short step to recording it that way and opening my second album with it, since it was such a successful song live.

For the album we created a reprise, which I hoped sounded sort of Brechtian.

As I mentioned before, the single “Luka” was on the same album, “Solitude Standing,” which ended up selling three million copies around the world. So it was a widely available album that
led off with an a cappella song. I had heard some people used it to test their speakers — not just that song, but the whole album, because of the sonic quality. (I know for sure that Philip Glass used it
at his sound checks and Karl-Heinz Brandenberg told me he knew people used it to test their speakers…)

A few years later, in 1990, I was on tour promoting “Days of Open Hand,” our follow-up. It wasn’t going that well, to put it bluntly. We had devoted a year to creating the album, spent a lot of
money, thought and rethought every note and syllable. But the reviews were mixed. In the end, it sold “only” a million, which these days would of course be considered a miracle.

We were backstage at the Arsenio Hall show when my manager told me that some boys calling themselves DNA, in England — Bath, to be specific — had taken “Tom’s Diner” and put a dance
track to it. They had “re-mixed” it. (I don’t remember what we called that type of music back then — house? rap? hip-hop? It wasn’t “disco” or “thrash-metal.”)
My manager, Ron Fierstein, told me that A&M and Polygram were considering taking legal action against them for copyright violation.

I thought, well, let me listen to it — and immediately liked it. It made me laugh. It wasn’t a parody, which is what I was afraid of. The song is the same, my voice is still my voice, the story still the
story, even though they left out the very end (they told me later they thought it sounded weird, musically, to keep the ending).

After “Luka” there had been an onslaught of parodies that I hated, but there was one cover I really liked — the Lemonheads version, which we called “thrash” for some reason; now it
would be considered “alternative.” I thought it was really cool and felt it expanded our audience. I put this version of “Tom’s Diner” in that category of cover song.

Apparently DNA had made vinyl copies of their creation in plain white covers labeled “Oh Susanne!” Their story was: they had tried to ask permission from the record company but no one returned their phone
call — which I believe. They didn’t want to wait. They decided to sell them at their local corner record shop. It sold a lot right away. That’s when the record company found out about it.

It was so obvious that these boys were not slick hi-fi wizards, as the sound was boomy and the arrangement repetitive, but the raw energy of the idea jumped out right away. These were not boys with means and money,
and I liked it that I had kindled their imagination.

We decided to arrange a meeting. I was backstage and someone said, “The DNA boys are here!” I looked up . . . and saw the manager and the accountant.

“Bring them in!” I said. Because of the sound of the remix, I had assumed DNA were black, and so I looked over the heads of these two white men, trying to see whoever was behind them.

“These are DNA!” said my manager.

“Oh!” I said, confused. Nick Batt, the artistic one, said hi, looking shy and skinny (the “accountant”). Neal Slateford was more cocky and blustery (the “manager”).

Instead of sending the boys to jail, my manager worked out a deal with them for a flat fee. A&M Records paid the fee, and we retained all rights.

I made the decision to call the remix “Tom’s Diner,
by DNA featuring Suzanne Vega” because I didn’t know if the audience would accept the new sound, and I wanted to make it clear that it wasn’t my production. To my surprise, I didn’t have
to worry about that as it was accepted everywhere. DNA were surprised to find themselves suddenly classified as an “act,” since they did mostly production.

I had imagined that a few dance clubs would play it, and that would be the end of it. But it was played on radio right away, including the R&B stations, a new experience for me. I even received a plaque congratulating
me for having one of the most played R&B songs of 1990. R&B! How cool.

If there was a downside, it was that nothing was helping the sales and the reception of my new album, “Days of Open Hand.” It was crazy to release something from three years before, from a different project
entirely.(In fact, one girl wrote to me complaining that she bought the original a cappella one by mistake and wanted her money back. She wanted to know: where was the music? And implied that somehow it had come
apart from the vocal in the shipping process.) Confusing for everybody.. However, the public demanded it! So I learned that hard work and long hours does not guarantee success. Raw energy and great ideas spark the
public interest better than attention to “quality.”

It was astonishing to me to hear that the kids at Joan of Arc Junior High on West 93rd Street were dancing in the street to it one day, since as a kid growing up on the Upper West Side, I was ostracized in some of my
classes for being “white.” In African Dance class in 1972, I was smacked in the back of the head for being there at all. (I was raised in a half-Puerto-Rican family, as half-Puerto Rican. I found out
at the age of nine or so that I actually had a different father from my brothers and sister — my birth father was English-Scottish-Irish from California.)

Suddenly, with the remix of “Tom’s Diner,” that world that I had grown up in and struggled with had accepted me and my music in a way I couldn’t have predicted and couldn’t control.

Other versions came flooding in from all over the world. People made them up and mailed me cassettes. I loved one by Michigan & Smiley, a kind of reggae improvisation. And Nikki D, a young black woman from Los Angeles
with a gold tooth, changed it into a song about teenage pregnancy — that was another one of my favorites.

What was I going to do with all these “Tom’s Diner” songs? They were going to waste filling up boxes in my apartment. So, along with an engineer, Denny McNerney, I gathered all the songs together
into a collection called “Tom’s Album,” using some cartoons that an artist called Tom
Hart had given me when he heard the song originally. I wrote some liner notes and approached A&M about releasing it.

Why would you put out 11 versions of the same song?, they wondered. One reason was that I had hired DNA to do a remix of another song — one called “Rusted Pipe,” from “Days of Open
Hand.” I was still looking for a way to channel all of that enthusiasm into selling the new project (and I wanted to include it on “Tom’s Album”). That didn’t work so well. But
15 years later, “Tom’s Album” continues to sell. People think it is a bootleg and sidle up to me whispering, “Have you seen this? Someone put this together.”

“Yes. That someone was me.”

However, it was a logistical nightmare to administrate. I had to go back to all the people who had taken the song without permission, and ask their permission . . . to use their version of my song! This is the main
reason we have not put out “Tom’s Albums” 2 and 3, which we certainly could, as now we are up to almost 30 remixes including (really good) ones from Danger Mouse and Tupac.

There a few new remixes or interpolations every year. Some ask first, and some don’t. The last one to ask permission was the artist Pink, who I love. I feel I have a liberal remix and usage policy — I
have said yes to almost every request regarding “Tom’s Diner” — except one, for pornography. The most extreme one is probably “Came in the Door Pimpin’” by Dave Hollister. I approved it because I felt it was his authentic point of view.

I love the remixes, I embrace them, I am proud of many of them. Yes, they have “revitalized and extended my career,” as someone put it to me recently. They make me feel connected to the world beyond New
York City in a way I never could have imagined when I wrote the original song about a single person feeling isolated. Absolutely. However, I still believe in copyright protection. This issue alone could take up
a blog by itself. Maybe for another day.

The DNA boys and I later worked together a few times, including on a song of mine called “Salt Water” that appeared on their 1992 album “Taste This!”. But it all started with “Tom’s
Diner,” and I asked them once why they had remixed my song.

“We were fans,” said Neal. “It was obvious. The rhythm was already in the song. If we didn’t do it, someone else would have.”

One reason someone else would have done so is that it was so easy to lift the voice right off the record and place it in whatever context you wanted, because of the simplicity of the production. I could see how a good-quality
recording of a single voice could be attractive to some one designing an MP3, for example.

One day in 2000, I dropped my daughter, Ruby, off at nursery school and was approached by one of the fathers I didn’t know very well. Imagine my surprise when he said, “Congratulations on being the mother
of MP3!” he said.

“Sorry?” I said, wondering what he was talking about.

“There is an article this week in a magazine called Business 2.0, calling you the ‘mother of the MP3.’ They used one of your songs to create it.”

“Really. Well, thanks. I’ll check it out.”

I ran home and found the article online.

The title was “Ich Bin Ein Paradigm Shifter: The MP3 Format is a Product of Suzanne Vega’s Voice and This Man’s Ears.”

“The MP3 fools the ear by eliminating the least essential parts of a music file…To create MP3 [Karl-Heinz] Brandenberg had to appreciate how the human ear perceives sound. A key assist in this effort came
from Suzanne Vega. ‘I was ready to fine-tune my compression algorithm,’ Brandenberg recalls. “Somewhere down the corridor a radio was playing “Tom’s Diner.” I was electrified.
I knew it would be nearly impossible to compress this warm a cappella voice.”‘

So Mr. Brandenberg gets a copy of the song, and puts it through the newly created MP3. But instead of the “warm human voice” there are monstrous distortions, as though the Exorcist has somehow gotten into
the system, shadowing every phrase. They spend months refining it, running “Tom’s Diner through the system over and over again with modifications, until it comes through clearly. “He wound up
listening to the song thousands of times,” the article, written by Hilmar Schmundt, continued, “and the result was a code that was heard around the world. When an MP3 player compresses music by anyone
from Courtney Love to Kenny G, it is replicating the way that Brandenburg heard Suzanne Vega.”

So goes the legend. The reason I know what that MP3 originally sounded like is that last year I was invited to the Fraunhofer Institute in Erlangen, Germany, where I met the team of engineers who worked on the project
— including Mr. Brandenberg, who I had met once before at the launch of the Mobile Music Forum in Cannes in 2001.

All the men are obviously intelligent, but Karl-Heinz is a character. He stands out, because he looks like a mad scientist. His hair and tie always look as if they have been blown askew in a stiff wind, and he taps
the tips of his fingers together constantly, smiling beatifically.

The day I visited — “The Mother of the MP3 comes to the home of the MP3!” said the woman in charge of press (the slightly odd implication being that I would be meeting the various “fathers”
of the MP3) — we had a press conference at which they played me the original version of “Tom’s Diner,” then the various distortions of the MP3 as it had been, which sounded monstrous
and weird. Then, finally, the “clean” version of “Tom’s Diner.”

The panel beamed at me. “See?” one man said. “Now the MP3 recreates it perfectly. Exactly the same!”

“Actually, to my ears it sounds like there is a little more high end in the MP3 version? The MP3 doesn’t sound as warm as the original, maybe a tiny bit of bottom end is lost?” I suggested.

The man looked shocked. “No, Miss Vega, it is exactly the same.”

“Everybody knows that an MP3 compresses the sound and therefore loses some of the warmth,” I persisted. “That’s why some people collect vinyl…” I suddenly caught myself, realizing
who I was speaking to in front of a roomful of German media.

(Actually, I recently read an article that said the high end is distorted and the low end uncompromised, so I guess there is room for subjectivity in this argument.)

“No, Miss Vega. Consider the Black Box theory!”

I stared at him.

“The Black Box theory states that what goes into the Black Box remains unchanged! Whatever goes in comes out the same way! Nothing is left behind and nothing is added!”

I decided it was wiser at this point to back down.

“I see. O.K. I didn’t realize.”

They were happy again. Then they showed me a seven-point sensurround system, their latest project. But as I was a kid who grew up with transistor radios and lousy record players that were left at our house after our
parents’ parties, I kind of like a hard, tinny sound. The lo-fi approach works for me. Still, I appreciated their enthusiasm. It was a great day and I was very proud to have been a tiny part of history.

So, that’s my long and winding history of a little postcard from the Upper West Side of Manhattan!

Thanks for reading this and thanks so much for your wonderful comments about “Luka.” I read them and re-read them, and soon I will write some future blogs like, Is it demeaning to work in an office or
have a day job? (Answer: no!) What if you work in an office and it is your heart’s desire to do something else? (Still no.) If I wrote a song about child abuse, and you thought it was about spousal abuse,
did you get the song “wrong”? (Answer: No. Absolutely not!)

I was shocked by all the apologies! Can you ever get a song “wrong”?

Well, yes. I wrote a song called “Undertow” that my sister wanted played at her wedding. My brother said it was inappropriate, since he thought it was about oral sex. But that was not what it was about
at all.

I’ll tell you about it some other time.

Suzanne Vega

Suzanne Vega, a singer and songwriter whose success in the 1980s helped establish the acoustic folk-pop movement, has released eight albums, including the platinum-selling “Solitude Standing” (1987) with the hit single “Luka” and the 2007 recording “Beauty and Crime” on Blue Note Records. She is also the author of a book of poetry and was a host of the public radio series “American Mavericks.” Her Web site is

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