Memoryscapes: Memory, Mystery, and Fantasy in the Music of Suzanne Vega
" and so I think of you, in memory "
Suzanne Vega's songs invite us to remember, to lose ourselves in the landscape. "Walk with me/and we will see what we have got," Vega writes, the invitation as much to enter the landscape of the narrator's imagination, as it is to wander the streets of New York. In so many of her songs, the narrator is wandering, not only physically but also in her mind. And it is a mind that may or may not be entirely reliable. Where was I wandering? How long have I been wandering? Why was I wandering? In the song "Cracking," we can't be sure. Her characters often possess vivid imaginations, are off-center (or pre-occupied), or are given to flights of deep fantasy. In the song "Headshots" we are pulled into the memories, guilt, and imagination of a narrator who is wandering some city street. As in "Cracking," the way Vega contructs the song makes it equally plausible that the story takes place entirely in the mind of the narrator as it does in the city streets. "Headshot's" narrator is bound-up in her memories, guilt, and imagination-her reverie broken only by a lovely musical interlude, where she pauses to survey the cold, grey sky before plunging back into the prison of her thoughts.
Old films figure prominently in the fantasy life and inner landscapes of Vega's narrators. There are brief flashes of film actors and references to films in several of her songs-Marlene, Bogart, Bacall, film noir detectives in "(If You Were) In My Movie." Vega's songs are disturbing, in part, for the same reason Hitchcock's or Fritz Lang's films are disturbing-the songs, like these other works-are delivered with a sharp-edged precision, but the scenes and images they describe are often irrational or appear suddenly in the strangest contexts, much like a disturbing dream or a waking hallucenation.
(Note: Perhaps the film that comes closest to mirroring the sense of memory, loss, hallucenation, and the sharp-edged clarity of the images in Vega's music, is the short film "La jetee" made by French filmmaker Chris Marker in 1962. Voted by Sight and Sound Magazine as one of the 10 best films of all time, there is more emotional impact in this 24 minute film than almost any other 100 films combined. Marker makes extensive use of photo montages to convey the haunted memories of a survivor of a nuclear conflagration who was at Paris' International airport during the attack (the film was the basis for the Hollywood movie "12 Monkeys"). Like Marker, photographs are explicit and implicit through much of Vega's work. An instrumental score by Suzanne Vega for Marker's film is an intruiging "what if". Another artist whose mastery of sound and image creates an hallucenagenic "memory theatre" is Laurie Anderson, whose one-woman shows make extensive use of large-scale rear-projection images, computer-generated graphics, and distorted vocals. Similarly, Philip Glass' work often strikes deep subconscious chords within the viewer/listener--his string arrangement on "50/50 Chance" from "days of open Hand" is but a sample of the emotional effect his music can generate.)
" spreading a memory all through the sky "
In Vega's music, the sound of church bells, a poster on the wall, an old photograph, are devices for triggering memories. The song "In Liverpool" is built around memory, memory embodied in the light in the sky, the sound of the bells, and, most appropriately, the "clock that told the same time." It's also a song that comes as close to capturing the anxious tension that comes with a waking dream, a memory that comes in the early morning before you're fully conscious. If the studio version of "In Liverpool" is a pop masterpiece, highlighted by a glorious and hypnotic guitar riff, then her solo acoustic version of this song, captured in a 1993 BBC recording, is like listening to a ghost, like an acetate pressing from 1921, a recording guaranteed that can send shivers down your spine.
Her guitar playing on the verses of "In Liverpool" is sparse and simple, each note plucked precisely and in an hypnotic cadence, sounding like a bizarre combination of a lullaby and the doom-laden soundtrack to a gothic romance, or like the sound of an old clock in someone's parlour. She establishes the tension immediately in the first verse with her precise guitar picking, releases the tension somewhat on the chorus through her strumming of the guitar, but with each verse continues to ratchet-up the suspense until its nearly unbearable. In the 1993 concerts after 99.9's release, Mitchell Froom would introduce the song with a single, repeated piano chord. To hear this sound is to begin to get a sense of what tension must sound like: the anticipation created by this insistent piano chord is extraordinary.
In "Tom's Diner," the bells of the cathedral trigger memories, transporting us a million miles away. In "Some Journey," where the narrator envisions alternate pasts, "journey" might refer to travel through her imagination, through the landscape of memory, real and imagined. "Pilgrimage" is a journey through time and memory as well as space. In "Big Space" we lose ourselves in the inner landscape of the narrator ("All feeling/falls into the big space"--a triple metaphor of inner mental and spiritual space, physical alienation, and the anonymity of a large city). Kasper Hauser, in her song "Wooden Horse," is a boy who, imprisoned for ages, sings at us as though from beyond his grave, entreating us to remember to him, even after his death ("and when I'm dead/please tell them this/that what was wood became alive"). In "Blood Sings" we gaze at a photo from the past and see how blood reaches across time to speak to us ("see his eyes and how they start with light/getting colder as the pictures go"). The sense of loss, of unrelieved sadness, is palpable in this, perhaps Vega's most emotionally powerful song. "The Queen and the Soldier" draws on the memories of the narrator, but these memories could be from a year ago, a week ago, or from another lifetime, we can't tell. In Suzanne Vega's landscape, time itself is up for grabs.
Perhaps no song better makes this case, as does "Fat Man & Dancing Girl". The song could come from virtually any time--the 1980's, the 1880's, or the 1920's. The people in it speak to us from a distant time. Billy Purl, the "international fun boy," smiles at us from a yellowing, faded photograph, dressed in his best bandleader's costume. The beautiful girls are dressed in their beaded dresses, their smiles all white, just like Suzanne's grandmother. During the tour to support the release of 99.9, Suzanne would use a megaphone for some of the lines, her voice sounding like something from an old phonograph, all as though distorted by the journey through time itself.
"It could be normal but it isn't quite "
Vega's landscape reaches into her approach to her album design and artwork. Her work on the Special Edition of 99.9 (A&M 31454 0026 2) is particularly revealing. In the best tradition of Harry Smith, her album notes and artwork are like souveniers from a strange inner landscape, with all the distortion that photos from someone's dreams might have. Writes Marcus: "(Smith's) booklet was decorated with art from record sleeves advertising "Old Time Tunes," with woodcuts from turn-of-the-century catalogues of musical instruments, and with faded, hard-to-make-out photos of performers." The Special Edition of 99.9 is presented in an old-fashioned brown hardboard sleeve, its pages of translucent paper full of cryptic pen and ink sketches and script, like some ancient manuscript or the diary of an alchemist.
The titles and lyrics to the songs on 99.9 are set in a riot of Victorian type fonts, more like newspaper headlines than song lyrics. They seem like kindered spirits to Smith's song summaries, which were presented as one-line headlines: example, for the song "The Butchers Boy" we read this:
FATHER FINDS DAUGHTER'S BODY WITH NOTE ATTACHED WHEN RAILROAD BOY MISTREATS HER.
Or this summary for "Fatal Flower Garden:"
GAUDY WOMAN LURES CHILD FROM PLAYFELLOWS; STABS HIM AS VICTIM DICTATES MESSAGE TO PARENTS.
This is not far removed from the 24 point font format that throws these words at us from the special edition of 99.9's liner notes:
IT COULD BE NORMAL BUT IT ISN'T QUITE/ Could make you want to stay awake at night.
Suzanne stares out at us from a number of photos in both
versions of 99.9, surrounded by characters who might have made the cover of
Columbia's official 1975 2 LP release of Dylan's "The Basement Tapes"
or even Smith's "Anthology." There maybe nothing as powerful or as
melancholy as an old photograph, like the ones that haunt "Blood Sings."
Likewise, her award-winning album artwork for her 1990 record, "days of
open Hand," is full of ancient objects-games, puzzles, toys-that seem to
exert a strange force field, as if they alone could transport us back in time
(Vega and Len Pelltier won a justly deserved Grammy Award for its Art Direction).
There is also, in "days of open Hand," a sense of fate and chance
in the form of the dice, dominoes, and other images of game pieces that fill
the album artwork. They remind us that the past is full of missed chances and
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