Hey, Mom! The Explanation.

Here's the permanent dedicated link to my first Hey, Mom! post and the explanation of the feature it contains.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Old Blogs that never got Posted pt.1

- The Ark in Ann Arbor, Michigan
Saturday, Sept. 29 2007

This may be over a year old, but it’s still relevant.

If I made a list of musical artists with whom I would like to have dinner and a good conversation, Suzanne Vega would be at the top of my list. She radiates such keen intelligence that I think the conversations would be fabulous, and she also possesses such a warm and open manner that I think I could overcome the intimidation I might feel around other “celebrities.” I am sure that I am not the only one who would like to have an extended talk with Suzanne Vega, asking questions about the origins of her songs, the choices she makes, the scope of her career, and her plans for the future.

On stage, she has a tendency to explain the origins of her songs in a way that invites dialogue and did at the intimate venue that is Ann Arbor’s Ark. With a “stage” that is more of a platform in a room with seating on three-sides, everyone was within conversation-distance with Vega, and she encouraged this exchange. For the song “NY is a Woman,” she announced that if NY is a woman, then what is Ann Arbor? Apparently, the answers in Pittsburgh were... colorful. Answers in Ann Arbor included “liberated, Goddess, Hippy, and pretentious,” the latter which became a running joke throughout the evening. After Mike the bassist called Vega “pretentious,” she jokingly told him she wanted to speak him to after the show.

Vega opened the show with an acappella version of signature song “Tom’s Diner,” as the band drifted on stage. The drummer even brought a newspaper, pointing to an article inside when Vega sang the lyrics about the actor who died while he was drinking, “it was no one I had heard of.” From there, Vega launched into “Marlene on the Wall,” with the full band accompaniment, to the delight of her longtime fans and others who have recently discovered that much-loved first album.

The show continued with Vega alternating between solo acoustic versions of some songs or with just the accompaniment of the bass or bass and drums. Some songs she sang without playing her guitar, but others, like “Gypsy,” were rendered beautifully by her precise picking talent.
Vega’s explanations of song origins and interactions with the audience made the concert one of the most enjoyable evenings I have spent at a show in years (and I see A LOT of concerts). The intimate setting was much more suited to her demeanor than the grander Michigan Theatre where she played in 2001. Vega did not have time to play all the songs the audience wished to hear: “The Queen and the Soldier,” “Calypso,” “Those Whole Girls (Run in Grace),” and “When Heroes Go Down” were all called out numerous times. In fact, she played nothing from Days of Open Hand, which seemed curious. Posted set lists of the tour so far also showed she was skipping Songs in Red and Gray, but to the delight of many, she played “(I’ll Never Be) Your Maggie May” after telling a story, though somewhat veiled in privacy, of how Rod Stewart’s original inspired her.

The show was dominated, as it should be, by the songs of the new album, – Beauty & Crime – which are fantastic. Many in attendance seemed to know the new album already and were excited to hear songs such as “Frank and Ava,” “Pornographer’s Dream,” and “Zephyr & I.”
Vega carefully avoided becoming too pedantic or morose about the events of Sept. 11, 2001 in New York. Prior to the beautiful new song “Angel’s Doorway,” she mentioned the work at Ground Zero in almost an off-hand way, which was probably much more effective than anything else she could have done.

The show closed with a dance version of “Tom’s Diner” with a groove and a beat that the band obviously really enjoys. Vega inserted “Bound” from the new album into the double encore (off and back on twice), something she had not done other places, at least according to posted set lists. With “Anniversary” and “Small Blue Thing,” the concert ends a little melancholy but still exquisitely. Vega’s music is like fine sweet wine, nectar, but the kind of liquid poetry that infuses the body, mind, and spirit, lingering, evolving, illuminating.

Suzanne Vega is an artist whose music has been a frequent and faithful companion of mine for twenty-two years, seeing me through heartaches and triumphs. Her music has enriched my life in too many ways to enumerate here. I would be thrilled to have the chance to talk to her about her work and its impact, but I also respect her privacy. I would certainly drop everything to see her in concert again. I encourage everyone to do the same. It’s an unforgettable experience.

SET LIST (The exact position of some of these songs may be off): Tom’s Diner (acappella), Marlene on the Wall, Ludlow Street, New York is a Woman, Caramel, Frank & Ava, Gypsy, Some Journey, Left of Center, Blood Makes Noise, Angel's Doorway, Zephyr and I, Pornographer's Dream, (I’ll Never Be) Your Maggie May, Luka, In Liverpool, Tom’s Diner (dance version).
Encore#1: Bound, Anniversary. Encore#2: Small Blue Thing

The above review appears at
Who knows how long it will stay before it is archived?
But I was proud to have my review posted to Suzanne Vega’s web site.


Like so many people outside of New York, I heard of Suzanne Vega for the first time in 1985. It’s one of my beliefs that much of what we like best, those things we come to cherish, come to us from other people, from, in my case, girlfriends, mostly. And so it was with Suzanne Vega. I had started dating this woman named Julia. She did not own many record albums, but she owned a copy of Suzanne Vega’s debut solo album with the eponymous title.

Given that this all occurred 22 years ago as of this writing, and not far off in time of year (I met Julia in September of 1985), I don’t remember the exact details. I am sure she must have thought I would like Suzanne Vega as we were surely discussing the women performers I already adored: Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell, Laurie Anderson, and that’s about it. Back then, I thought I knew a lot about music, but I was just learning. I had not heard Marianne Faithfull nor did I even know who she was. I had heard of Linda Thompson, but knew nothing about her. I had not even heard the name Laura Nyro let alone heard any of her music. For that matter, I had yet to discover Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, or Bessie Smith. So, surely, I was neophyte when it came to music, especially the music of women artists.

I am probably still a neophyte.

Perhaps this is a meaningless exercise in narcissism. Surely, there’s little to interest other people in my journey of remembering hearing Suzanne Vega for the first time. Then again, there’s some good material that results from my exploration. If you’re reading this at all, you’re a kind soul; bear with me.

Julia’s apartment had a rather large picture window before which she and her two roommates had set up the record player. I remember the sun streaming through the window. It was the fall, and the window faced west. The afternoon sun came through with such blinding intensity and warmth that it lit the whole room with bright, white-yellow light and heat. Since we knew winter approached, the sun felt renewing and transforming.

There was the promise of nesting. I think people often form relationships in the fall and spring. In the spring, relationships begin because of the planting instincts. The time to sow seeds has arrived. In the fall, people are preparing to hibernate for winter. They seek warmth, comfort, and companionship. I think we listened to the album the first time I visited, so all of these promises were implicit. Probably, we listened to the whole album while we talked and maybe drank wine. I know it seems as if I am building to something profound. But that’s all there is. I am trying to articulate why I came to love Suzanne Vega’s work so much and that first album in particular.

As an artist myself, I think one of the most precious things about creative works is how they become experiences of connection. Julia and I connected over listening to Suzanne Vega’s music, and I felt as if I had been given a great treasure.

And yet, my Suzanne Vega experience is intermingled. I can never think of Julia and not think of Suzanne Vega, and when I listen to Suzanne Vega’s first album (and often any of her albums), I think of Julia, and I remember that sunlight. I am sure we must have discussed them, if not that day, then in the weeks that followed as I listened to the album incessantly until I knew every word by heart. I am sure Julia told me the things she liked about the album, though I have forgotten. I seem to remember that she liked songs that were not my favourite at the time, (like “Small Blue Thing”) songs that I may have listened to more closely because she liked them so much, and I wanted to figure out why. In fact, I learned a lot from investigating songs she liked and figuring out why. I learned a lot about my own flawed evaluation process. I learned a lot about the difference between personal taste and reasonable, open-minded evaluation.

There’s a confluence of ideas here. Suzanne Vega, connections between people, obtaining things we love from others, learning to evaluate without using personal taste as the only criterion, how memory permeates every experience with an artist’s work. And so, returning to my original comment about having dinner with Suzanne Vega, all of these ideas would make for a great conversation, I think. I would like to hear her reaction to these ideas and her experiences with creating and performing her music. Has she had similar kinds of experiences? Have others shared with her similar stories of how they have encountered and listened to her music? What varied experiences have people shared with her?

But perhaps it’s disingenuous for me to make the hasty claim that I would like to have dinner with Suzanne Vega. I don’t know Suzanne Vega at all. From what I know of her concert chatter and her music, my intuition tells me that we would have a great conversation. But maybe, what I was and what I am really thinking of is that day in Julia’s apartment with the sun cascading through the window, listening to Suzanne Vega for the first time. In a crazy sense, deep down, I may think Suzanne Vega and Julia are the same person, and so I think that talking to Suzanne Vega will be like talking to a dear friend that I care about very much but have not seen at all in over 10 years.

Usually I don’t like to put myself in a group of what I arrogantly consider to be “ordinary” fans. And yet, am I not being a weird, creepy fan by thinking I know an artist because I know her music and because she’s personable on stage?

Again with the narcissism.

After a while, traveling performers must have trouble distinguishing one concert from another. What may seem memorable to me, may be lost in the haze of travel and nameless faces in the half light of concert halls for someone like Suzanne Vega.

But for me, and I suspect that this is true of others too, when I experience an artist’s music, her chatter in interviews or between songs at concerts becomes a part of my experience. But also how a close friend experiences the artist’s music is absorbed by the evolving, growing membrane surrounding how I know and think about this artist. In fact, my thoughts and feelings become inseparable from the thoughts and feelings of others. There’s clearly a deeper topic here. Something worth exploring another time: connections between people, a kind of collectivity of experience.

Lastly, before I close this blog entry, (which is hideously long, so thanks for reading), one in a series of infrequent entries on random subjects, I want to point out my own unfair segregation of artists. Earlier, when mentioning my own inexperience with music before discovering Suzanne Vega, I listed women artists with whom I was or was not acquainted. This is quite unfair. Why should Suzanne Vega be compared only to other women singer/songwriters?

Often in the teaching of my class at WMU, I bring up this issue in regards to Joni Mitchell because Joni’s peers are not just Marianne Faithfull, Carly Simon, and Carol King, but Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Paul Simon, too. And yet we all seem to indulge in this kind of gendered comparison system without questioning how fallacious it is. Bob Dylan is the same as Joni Mitchell in many ways, except he’s a man. They have both had a huge impact on music and on me personally. I feel neither is more important than the other, musically speaking (though, personally, I have always preferred Joni Mitchell).

Q Magazine recently listed the 21 people who changed music and Bob Dylan was one of those 21 people. Joni Mitchell was not. Of the corollary list of 21 albums that changed music, both had albums featured. But of the 21 people who changed music, only one of them, Madonna, was a woman. Yet again, here’s a topic for another time. Has Madonna been more important to music than Joni Mitchell? How does Suzanne Vega fit into this hierarchy?

But back to the peers thing, it’s not that Dylan does not deserve his pedestal. It’s the way his impact is greater because of his gender. Would Joni have been listed over Dylan if she had been a man?

And then there’s the way we refer to our artists. I have tried to be consistent with the norm for references knowing I would make this point. Why is it “Dylan” when people refer in short to “Bob Dylan,” but “Joni Mitchell” is reduced to “Joni?” Is this part of the way the culture reveals itself? The way it elevates the men to levels of importance in large part because of their gender. They are referenced by their last names because of that inherent respect. But no matter how great, influential, pioneering, original, or powerful women artists are, their accomplishments receive diminished respect that manifests unconsciously. Joni Mitchell is Joni, but Bob Dylan is Dylan, not Bob.

And do these cultural attitudes make me more likely to think that I could have dinner and a great conversation with Suzanne Vega? Because there’s lots of artists who have had as profound if not a more powerful and lasting impact on my life, such as David Bowie, but I did not select him because he intimidates me. He’s up on that pedestal. He seems untouchable. Maybe. Or maybe it’s that he’s not nearly as personable as Suzanne Vega in concert.

Still, I want to talk with Suzanne Vega, share a meal. It’s not a wish that I ever expect to be realized. It’s an extension of my adulation and respect for Suzanne Vega as an artist. She has given me so much; this is my small way of giving a little something back.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

More word play...

The words Fire Department make it sound like they're the ones starting the fires, doesn't it? It should be called the Extinguishing Department. We don't call the police the Crime Department. Also, the Bomb Squad sounds like a terrorist gang. Ditto, WRINKLE CREAM. Sounds like it causes wrinkles, doesn't it? And why would a doctor prescribe pain pills. I already have pain! I need relief pills!

And another thing, I hope no one asks me to show them the ropes; I have no idea where they are. Maybe I could pull some strings and find out.

"Play is the exultation of the possible." - Martin Buber