Memoryscapes: Memory, Mystery, and Fantasy in the Music of Suzanne Vega
In concert, Vega's music takes on a mesmerizing, transfixing quality one would not think possible given the austerity of her stage set-up (few or no special effects and simple staging) and delivery. A remarkable series of concerts in New York in October, 1997, demonstrated the potency of combining these powerful songs with a no-nonsense delivery. Taken as a whole, her performance of several of these songs-"Tired of Sleeping," "The Queen and the Soldier," "Bloods Sings," "Small Blue Thing," "Undertow," "Freeze Tag"-may be among her finest and were nothing less than an emotional gauntlet, a cathartic memory theatre if ever there was one.
In these shows, a large number of songs were performed solo or only with an accompanying bass, the songs allowed to stand on their own. Others, such as "Tired of Sleeping," were played with a world-weary sadness. Overall, the performance mixed styles from all sorts of musical eras, breaking down the barriers between 1997, 1957, and 1927. "Freeze Tag's" arrangement brought out the jazz feel of this song with a hint of a pre-World War II German cabaret. "Stockings" and "Caramel" had the lush sound of the early 1950's. Vega has increasingly moved freely from one song style to another. The 1993 bootleg, "Dancing Girl," captures how Vega recast the pop song "Left of Center" as a cool, smooth jazz number. "Tom's Diner" has morphed from its original acapella version into a thousand different versions of the tune, only to be reinterpreted by Vega herself at her recent shows in New York. In these shows, "Tom's Diner" came across as a mix of an old dance hall tune and something by Kurt Weill. In these ways, Vega keeps the time machine spinning through her inventive use of styles from all eras, including childhood tunes (e.g. the "Wallaby Song" found on the "Dancing Girl" CD) or old folk songs (e.g. "Coventry Carol").
Vega's approach to her songs and to her performance is serious but never dramatic, never given to cheap sentiment. Indeed for every "Blood Sings," there is a song which has all the cynicism and skewed sense of humor of a die-hard New Yorker ("No Cheap Thrill," "When Heroes Go Down," "Neighborhood Girls," "Tombstone" etc.) Whether by design or through trial and error, this combination of material and delivery is extremely effective and indicates a keen sense of how to keep the emotions inherent in her songs on an even keel. In this regard her dry sense of humour has served her well. There is a wonderful moment on the "Dancing Girl" bootleg--she tells a funny story about some strange question she was asked once on a radio show ("Ms. Vega, what kind of fruit or vegetable would you be?") and then, with the mood lightened, she proceeds to run through a performance of "Small Blue Thing" that is all drama, beauty, and suspense.
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" a secret burning thread "
Watching Suzanne Vega in concert now, there is not only the drama in her music, but also the collective weight of the history of her songs and what they now mean to the audience. In most shows she sings "The Queen and the Soldier." The song is built around the memories, perhaps ancient ones, of the narrator. It has come to represent a great deal to her audience, as if the song itself summarized what her music has come to represent to so many, a song that ties everything together like some "secret burning thread." In the time it takes to complete the song, time is suspended, and we remember.
Sources and References
99.9 The artistic scope of this 1992 album is astonishing. It bridges the "industrial" sound of the early 1990's with references to the 1920's, in one case, in a single song ("Fat Man & Dancing Girl"), contains a Pop masterpiece ("In Liverpool"), and combines the rauchous sound of "Blood Makes Noise" with perhaps her finest ballad, "Blood Sings." The Special Edition of 99.9 is a labour of love and one of the finest examples of album liner artwork produced.
days of open Hand. A record people either love or hate--it's hard to remain on the sidelines with this 1990 album that came on the heels of at least five years of hard touring around the world, under the microscope, after Vega's breakthrough in 1985. The record is dense with the imagery of Vega's inner landscape in songs like "Tired of Sleeping," "50/50 Chance," "Predictions," "Big Space," "Book of Dreams," "Pilgrimage," and "Those Whole Girls."
Solitude Standing. For an album that was a major commercial success, "Solitude Standing" is a remarkably dark recording. Beneath its shimmering instrumentation, "Luka" is a sad and disturbing song whose lyrics seem at odds with the arrangement on the album. "In the Eye" is full of paranoia, "Wooden Horse's" instrumentation and lyrics are dark, "Solitude Standing" is full of mysterious images and feelings of alienation, and "Calypso" has a dark, mysterious, swirling, dream-like quality.
Suzanne Vega. One of the finest, most influential debut albums in rock history alongside The Band's, Elvis Costello's, and the Clash's. Were it not for the self-evident quality of her subsequent recordings, one would have bet that following-up, and living up to, this album would be nearly impossible. "Cracking" alone is worth the price of admission. "Undertow," "Freeze Tag," "Some Journey," "The Queen and the Soldier," "Small Blue Thing," and the rest are all now classics.
Nine Objects of Desire. Vega's most recent album features
strong melodies, rich arrangements, and her best vocal performance yet. A wide
range of music styles are referenced, ranging from 1940's and 1950's ("Thin
Man," "Stockings," "My Favorite Plum"), the Beatles
("World Before Columbus"), Santana ("Lolita"), and perhaps
even Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir?" ("Stockings"). "Headshots,"
one of the outstanding tracks, is an uneasy recording, combining the street
feel of hip-hop with the perspective of "Cracking." The whistling
that ends the song is both inspired and downright creepy.
Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes (Henry Holt, 1997), Greil Marcus. I don't think there is a finer writer on American culture and popular music than Marcus. To read this book is to rediscover, or to discover for the first time, whole new aspects of American music. The other must-read book on music, in my humble opinion, is his 1975 book, "Mystery Train," that provides some of the best writing ever on The Band, Sly and the Family Stone, Randy Newman, and Elvis Presley.
Highway 61 Revisited, Bob Dylan. One of the greatest albums ever, it is fascinating to listen to this seminal recording after sampling "The Anthology of American Folk Music." Featuring "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," "Like a Rolling Stone," and the tension-ridden "Ballad of a Thin Man."
The Anthology of American Folk Music. Produced by Harry Smith and originally issued in 1952 by Folkways Records of New York, the "Anthology" is the founding artifact of the American folk revival, a strange, bizarre, memerizing, brilliant, and downright weird collection of six long playing vinyl disks (now reissued by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings on Sony Music Special Products SW CD 40090 on a six CD box set including original artwork and CD-ROM with archival information such as old photos, essays, and additional audio). Smith, then 29 years old, used the fairly new long playing "micro-groove" format to piece together an album from 78 RPM discs from the late 1920's and early 1930's. He was born in Portland Oregon in 1923 and died in 1991 in New York City. He was nothing if not an interesting character, in Marcus' words "a dope fiend and an alcoholic, a legendary experimental filmmaker and a more legendary sponger " He had also built an enormous collection of old recordings. It was from these that he programmed the semi-bootleg that is the "Anthology." Writes Marcus: "The whole bizarre package made the familiar strange, the never known into the forgotten, and the forgotten into a collective memory that teased any single listener's conscious mind The Anthology was a mystery-an insistence that against every assurance to the contrary, America itself was a mystery."
Laurie Anderson. Born in Chicago, Anderson earned a Masters in Fine Arts in sculpture at Columbia University. Two years after her graduation she began using an electronically amplified violin (she studied violin for 12 years) plus film and slides in her performance art. This started the format that has formed the core of her approach and style. Perhaps her most impressive work is her seven-hour, 5 album, "United States."
Chris Marker. Filmmaker Chris Marker has an eclectic
resume. He's written a novel ("le coeur net', 1950), written numerous travelog
books featuring photos and his poetry as accompanyment to the images, and made
several documentary films (such as "Olympia 52" on Finland (1952)
and "Letter from Siberia" (1958)). This documentary approach is evident
in "La jetee": his use of photos is so authoritative that one is convinced
a catastrophe has occurred. Much of his work during the 1980's and 1990's has
appeared as installation pieces in art musuems (such as "Zapping Zone"
for the Centre Pompidou in 1992).
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