Memoryscapes: Memory, Mystery, and Fantasy in the Music of Suzanne Vega
"oh mom, the dreams are not so bad "
Memoryscape is not a real word. It is a made-up word that tries to capture but one aspect of Suzanne Vega's artistry. It stands for the idea of memories as an almost physical thing, as if we could look into ourselves and "see" a landscape of memories, images, and fantasies. There are many shadows in a memoryscape. It is full of mystery. It is losing oneself in your body and memories, swallowed whole. It is the "memories" that reside in our blood. It is how, through many of Suzanne Vega's songs, we are taken into to this mysterious place, to see with new eyes, and to remember.
* * *
The inspiration for this essay came from several sources: the phrase "inner landscape," used by Suzanne Vega and Mitchell Froom in their interview with The Independent on Sunday Magazine (March 9, 1997), the 6 CD "Anthology of American Folk Music," Greil Marcus' book, "Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes" (Henry Holt, 1997), Robert Cantwell's essay on the Anthology titled "Smith's Memory Theatre: The Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music," and, of course, Vega's recordings, but most particularly her "99.9 Special Edition" and "days of open Hand" (the special edition was an inspiration especially because of the liner notes and artwork; with the exception of a bonus track, the songs on the special edition of 99.9 are identical to the regular version).
I am also grateful to Hugo Westerlund, who generously provided a tape of a May 18, 1993 performance in Zurich by Vega which was a source of endless inspiration, as well as being a great example of the halucenigenic feel lying just beneath the surface of much of Vega's work. Lastly, a series of concerts at the Knitting Factory in New York (October 2-5, 1997) provided a first-hand example of the power of Suzanne Vega's music as well as the inspiration for the connection between Vega's work and Cantwell's phrase, "memory theatre."
"Nothing but mystery"
Greil Marcus quotes Dylan in September, 1965, after the storm he had unleashed at the Newport Folk Festival, trying to express what it was his music trying to capture:
the main body of it is just based on myth and the Bible and plague and famine and all kinds of things like that which are nothing but mystery and you can see it in all the songs. Roses growing right up out of people's hearts and naked cats in bed with spears growing right out of their backs and seven years of this and eight years of that and it's all really something that nobody can really touch.
What is it that "works" in Suzanne Vega's music? In large measure it truly is "nothing but mystery." What you're reading is the result of the struggle to answer this question. In all honesty, I don't think I've answered the question, if indeed it was even the right one to ask in the first place. As with all writing of this sort, it also probably says more about the writer than it does about the subject. But in the end, the idea of an inner landscape, a memoryscape--a landscape of memories and images--seemed to best capture the essence of what I felt I heard in the best of Vega's work and to explain, in part, why this music--strange, seductive, uneasy, mysterious--continues to hold sway over the imagination of many. The idea of a landscape was appealing in another way: it resonates with Greil Marcus' description of Harry Smith's "Anthology of American Folk Music" (original issue 1952, Folkways; reissue on CD 1997 with original artwork) as constituting the outlines of an "invisible republic," a landscape of memory and myth. In the case of Suzanne Vega, the invisible republic is an inner landscape-the dreams and fantasy worlds inhabited by the narrators of so many of her songs, and into which we are invited.
The inner landscape of Suzanne Vega's music is a landscape of metaphors, images, and words, of escape, of memories, of a republic no less potent and mysterious than Dylan's "Basement Tapes" or Harry Smith's "Anthology of American Folk Music." Through her music, and her presentation of her music in concert, she invites us to contemplate the past, to lose ourselves in memory, to fantasize, to feel completely different perspectives from within the skin of her characters. Suzanne Vega's music is profoundly moving and unnerving, since rememberance is nothing if not full of sorrow, regret, and loss, and the perspectives of her characters are usually from unsettling angles. (Note: Coincidentally, the art critic and historian, Simon Schama wrote a book called Landscape and Memory, that asserted the "primordial link between land and mind," that memories are the milestones of our mental terrain, and the ultimate role of landscape paintings is as a map of the inner self. According to Schama, the act of gazing at a landscape, especially one devoid of people or structures, draws us into "a promised land of memory.")
Robert Cantwell essay on the Anthology is called "Smith's Memory Theatre." I can't think of a better phrase to sum-up Smith's collection of six LPs, or describe a big part of the magic that goes on when Vega performs: her albums, and her concerts, are like memory theatres, where songs invoke memories and mystery. Cantwell writes:
"Listen to 'I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground' again and again. Learn to play the banjo and sing it to yourself over and over again, study every printed version, give up your career and maybe your family, and you will not fathom it."
He could have been describing Suzanne Vega's finest songs--you will listen and listen, analyze them again and again, and just when you get to the edge of the song's consciousness, just when you think you've captured it, you lose your grip on it and it vanishes. Several of Vega's songs might have found a good home on a 1997 version of Smith's Anthology. In other ways, her albums, especially the liner artwork on "days of open Hand" and "99.9," are like latter day versons of Smith's work, crowded with mysterious images and text. Vega's music might have found a home on the Anthology also, because, in Marcus' words, "the music Smith wove together was not exactly made by a folk. It was made by willful, ornery, displaced, unsatisfied, ambitious individuals: contingent individuals who were trying to use the resources of their communities to stand out from those communities, or to escape them, even if they never left home." I can't speak for whether Suzanne Vega is "ornery" or "displaced," but her music and career has all the hallmarks of an ambitious and willful individual who has put in an enormous amount of hard work to make a mark, to stand out.
" something is cracking..."
As a writer and performer, Vega has defied categorization. But since the business of music seems to require that each performers fit into a taxonomy of styles, critics have nonetheless placed Vega in their various categories. They have mostly got it wrong, sometimes spectacularly. Or they got it right, but for the wrong reasons. In what may be the greatest irony of all, some critics slotted Suzanne Vega into the folk category, although her music bore little or no resemblance to the mainstream definition of folk music. This definition seems to go something like this (and here I lean on Marcus): that what matters in folk is not the singer but the song and that folk music is about, among other things, is the painstaking collection and documentation of songs. It is a view of folk music as something to be preserved. (Says Dylan via Marcus: "traditional music is too unreal to die. It doesn't need to be protected.") It is a view that that "the poor are art because they sing their lives without mediation and without reflection, without the false consciousness of capitalism."
Nothing in Vega's work really meets this particular definition of folk music as political statement or as a labour of historical research. But in a bizarre twist, Vega's music may well be closer to capturing the true essence of folk music, that is, if we subscribe to Dylan's wonderful expression that folk music is really "nothing but mystery." The best of Vega's work is nothing if not full of mystery. I think this point is important to the extent that if Marcus is even half right, then a good case could be made that Vega's place in music lies as much in the sensibilities of 1990's America as it does in the world captured--no, created--by Harry Smith's 1952 "Anthology of American Folk Music", music that dealt with death, loss, mystery, madness, and inhabited by strange characters and willful individuals, sometimes sane, sometimes insane, or sometimes a bit of both.
It is this ambiguity that one hears in a song like "50/50 Chance" or "Cracking," a song that makes transparent the inner thoughts-the inner landscape--of a person on the verge of a breakdown, or perhaps going through a breakdown right before our eyes. It's in the magic and mystery of a song like "Predictions," which conjures-up a time before science was God, when soothsayers held all the cards. Or it's in a song like "Fat Man & Dancing Girl," a strange, powerful, disturbing song, a song that fires-out image after image from another time and place like a demented time machine or like the train of thought of an halucenigenic narrator.
Music is said, along with the sense of smell, to be one
of the most potent and primeval triggers of remembrance. The best of Suzanne
Vega's music is nothing less than keys to triggering memory, of triggering our
own memories, of conjuring up people, faces, objects, images from the past--your
past, my past, her past, our collective past--as embodied by dreams, myths,
and words. When Vega writes, in "Tired of Sleeping," that "the
old man has ripped out of lining/tore out a piece of his body/to show us his
clean, quilted heart," we are in the same territory of mystery and myth
as Dylan's "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," when you're "lost in
the rain in Juarez/and it's Eastertime too." Are they nonsense lyrics?
Do they mean anything? Or have the words taken on a life of their own, creating
new meaning within the landscape of each new listener, now fully beyond the
power of even the composer. It's all truth, mystery, and power, something beyond
analysis, but something that works.
Home | page 2 | page 3