Who is Suzanne Vega, and what has she done?
Who is Suzanne Vega and What Has She Done?
Suzanne Vega is an American singer/songwriter of rare poetic genius. Her profound insight into the basics of human existence has earned her followers of all ages and walks of life.
Suzanne was born in Santa Monica, CA, on July 11, 1959. When she was about a year old, she moved with her mother to New York City, where she grew up in tough and mixed neighborhoods. She started writing poetry at the age of nine and song when she was fourteen. In her teens, she attended New York High School of Performing Arts — the “Fame” school — where she studied modern dance. It was, however, music that turned out to be her calling, and while she was an English lit. major at Barnard College, Columbia University, she would go down to the Village to perform at small venues. For a while, she belonged to the Coop/Fast Folk group of songwriters. In 1984, she finally got a major label record contract after an enthusiastic review in the New York Times. Today, Suzanne lives in Upper Manhattan, New York City, with her daughter Ruby (b. 1994).
What is Suzanne doing at the moment?
Check the Tour Page for all of Suzanne’s upcoming appearances. Also, make sure to sign up for our mailing list and be the first to find out what Suzanne is doing.
Where Can I Find Suzanne Vega Information on the WWW?
Suzanne’s official website is this one. This site contains all the latest information, hundreds of video and sound files, and hundreds of articles, interviews, bios, special features and more. Suzanne’s official site was www.Vega.net through 2003, at which time Vega.net became a collection of the best Suzanne Vega fan sites on the net, and this site became the ‘official site.’
What About a Suzanne Vega Fanzine?
Over the years, several fanzines dedicated to Suzanne Vega have been published.
The first fanzine was called Undertow. It was a high quality publication made by some UK fans 1988-90, but due to various circumstances, only three issues were ever published.
The most long-lived vegazine was Language, published by the Suzanne Vega Info Center in Holland between 1988 and 1996. The first volumes were in Dutch, but in 1991 the language was changed to English, except for an occasional German article. Among other things, it featured an exclusive interview with Suzanne.
Apart from these fanzines, there was also two Italian ones. The most ambitious was called BLVD, but after only a couple of issues it was rededicated to other folk artists. The man behind this magazine was Fabio Montecchio, who also published a book about Suzanne (see the bibliography). The other one was called Solitude Standing and was written by a fan in Piemonte, Filippo Gasperini.
Finally, there was also a Rumanian fan club that planned to publish a magazine, but since the leading woman was wounded in a car crash, it never happened.
How Do I Get In Touch With Suzanne Vega?
Suzanne requests that questions and comments about music, lyrics, concerts, etc., be posted to Undertow, the message board associated with this website. Suzanne reads each note posted to Undertow and does her best to reply to as many messages as possible. Please don’t email Suzanne directly!
Suzanne also maintains a snail-mail list. If you’d like to sign up to receive the occasional postcard, please send a note with your name and address to:
Suzanne Vega Mailing List
2565 Broadway, No. 395
New York, New York 10025
After most of her concerts, Suzanne will also meet her fans backstage and chat for a little while. Look for Phil Sullivan, the sound engineer, and mention to him that you’re a member of Undertow, and you’ll more than likely be invited back stage for a brief meet-n-greet.
If you are looking for booking information, copyright or use questions, etc., please see our Contact page.
Is There a Discography Of Suzanne Vega?
While we continue to build our discography section, please visit John Relph’s extensive discography of Suzanne Vega. John covers her albums, singles, collaborations and special projects.
Where Can I Find Rare Records?
There is no simple answer to this question. You should be able to find the official albums and perhaps the latest single in your local record store, but that’s about it. Rare records are by definition — rare. And record collecting is a time (and money) consuming hobby. But here are a few tips:
The best way to find rare records nowadays is probably Internet auctions, such as eBay . Before, it used to be the big collectors’ magazines: Goldmine in the USA and Record Collector in the UK, available at newsstands around the world. If you read them regularly, you will get a good overview of the collecting market, but don’t expect to find everything you are looking for in a single issue — hunting is part of the game.
In the larger cities, there are usually stores specialising in “rare” and “import” records (i.e. bootlegs). When in New York City, check out the area around Bleeker Street. In London, bootlegs are somewhat harder to find, but the second hand market is very large — visit Camden Town, and Hanway Street off Tottenham Court Road. Small, dusty and crowded shops are often the best ones, but the really big stores, like Tower Records in New York and London sometimes also keep a back catalogue.
You may also want to visit record fairs, at least the large, international ones. If you want to buy unauthorised live recordings (which is a dubious thing in itself), there are German and Italian mail order firms that specialise in such records.
Of special interest are certain issues of CooP and Fast Folk, the magazines with records that were produced by the Fast Folk cooperative, in which Suzanne took active part in her early twenties. The original magazines, especially the first ones, are long out of print and therefore highly priced, but they have recently been reissued by Smithsonian Folkways as CD-R copies. See the discography for a list of Suzanne’s contributions.
Which Live Album Should I Buy?
To date, no official live album has been released worldwide. There are, however, a few recordings that have been released in various parts of the world:
- Live in London 1986, recorded 27 April 1986, was released on CD and LP in Australia and Japan. 6 tracks.
- Live at the Royal Albert Hall, recorded 18 November 1986, was released on video (VHS PAL) in the UK, and on LP, video, and laser disk in Japan. 10 tracks.
- Making Noise, recorded in San Juan Capistrano 17 February 1993, was released on a limited edition CD in Japan. 6 tracks.
- Sessions at West 54th (also incorrectly known as Acoustic Ensemble from the name of the group of musicians), recorded in New York City 16 June 1997, was released only in Japan but sold around the world, 7 tracks.
- Tried and True, limited 2 disk edition, has a separate CD with 6 tracks recorded live in Belgium, 3 July 1999.
- FNAC special live 3-track CD, that came with certain copies of Songs in Red and Gray in the French FNAC stores, contains the songs Caramel, Rosemary and Undertow recorded at the London Bloomsbury Theatre in 1999.
- The UK Edition of RetroSpective: The Best of Suzanne Vega contains a bonus second CD with 6 live tracks recorded in 2003. For full track listing, lyrics and sound clips, see the RetroSpective UK page.
- Some live tracks have also been released as B-sides of singles, and in various other formats (notably on Coop/Fast Folk). See the list of live versions for more info.
Especially in America, there are many small, commercial radio stations that cannot produce all their material themselves. Therefore, there is a distribution of records with live material and/or interviews knows as radio shows. These are in themselves perfectly legal. However, they are intended to be used for broadcasting only, usually within a designated slot of about a week’s duration. The records are not meant to be sold, and even less to be copied. Naturally, this happens anyway. Such radio shows are therefore often pirated, while the original copies become estimated collectors’ items. See the discography for further information.
Bootlegs and pirate records
[Editors Note: We strongly discourage the purchase and trading in of bootleg and pirate recordings. The information below is provided by Hugo Westerlund for fans/collectors and does not reflect the opinion of the editor of this site.]
In addition to these official-and nowadays quite rare-releases, there are several unofficial recordings (bootlegs and pirate recordings). Below is a listing of these with gradings (format; sound quality/cover attractiveness; number of tracks). + for good, 0 for alright, and – for bad. N.B. Most of these recordings are illegal in many countries.
Nowadays, you also have to look out for copies of these bootlegs, immorally and illegally made for profit with a CD-R burner in someone’s home!
Recorded in Northampton, MA, 17 May 1984:
Pretty Vegan (7″:-/0; 4 tracks)
Recorded in Italy, November 1984:
Great Acoustics (LP:0/+; 6+1 tracks)
Recorded in Berlin, 13 October 1985:
My Name is Suzanne Vega (LP:0/-; 11 tracks)
Little Big Woman (CD:0/0; 4 last tracks, plus 11 other tracks, see below)
Recorded in Milan, 1 December 1987:
On Stage (2LP:-/+; 17 tracks, not recommended)
On Stage (LP:-/+; picture disk version)
The following are based on a radio show called “The King Biscuit Flower Hour #701″, recorded in San Francisco, 6 August 1987:
Cracking (CD:+/+; 11 tracks)
Little Big Woman (CD:+/0; 11 tracks, additional, see above)
Live at Tom’s Diner (CD:+/0; 11 tracks)
Live on Stage (CD:?/+; 11 tracks)
Luka (CD:+/+; 11 tracks)
Neighborhood Kids (CD:+/0; 11 tracks)
Solitude Songs (CD:0/0; 11 tracks, plus additional, see below)
Toys (CD:+/0; 11 tracks)
It is probable that also Live at the Wilton (CD:+/?; 11 tracks) and Some Velvet Morning (CD:?/?; 7 tracks, plus 9 additional, see below) are based on the above mentioned radio show.
The following are based on a radio show called “In Concert: New Rock #93-22″, recorded in San Juan Capistrano, 17 February 1993 (track list differs from the official Making Noise above):
(Suzanne Vega) In Concert (CD:+/+; 9 tracks)
Short But Sweet (CD:+/0; 9 tracks)
Solitude Songs (CD:0/0; 9 tracks, plus 11 additional, see above)
Some Velvet Morning (CD:?/?; 9 tracks, plus7 additional, see above)
The following are from Zürich 18 May 1993 and probably recorded off FM radio broadcasts. Track lists differ slightly:
Dancing Girl (CD:0/0; 19 tracks complete with stories!)
Live in Zürich ’93 (CD:0/?; 18 tracks identical to “Dancing Girl”)
100° Fahrenheit in Montreux (CD:0/+; 18 tracks, whereof 2 not on “Dancing Girl”, no stories)
Recorded at the BBC Radio Theatre, 19 October 1998:
By Invitation Only (CD:+/+; 13 tracks)
Blue Box (CD:0/-; 9 tracks, plus one low quality dub), an audience recording from San Juan Capistrano 24 May 1993
Live Performance is possibly only another name for “Live at Tom’s Diner” (q.v.)
Solitude Standing: Live in 1986 (CD:+/?; 15 tracks) is probably pirated from the pirate “Little Big Woman” (q.v.)
Has Suzanne Published Her Lyrics and Poetry Somewhere?
Yes. The most complete and up to date collection can be found in:
Vega, S. The Passionate Eye. New York:
Avon Books, 1999. ISBN: 0-380-97353-7.
This book is also available in a paperback edition:
Vega, S. The Passionate Eye. New York:
HarperEntertainment, 2001. ISBN: 0-380-78882-9.
This highly recommended book contains some early poems, songs from 1974 through 1998, plus essays, notebook entries and an interview. The songs from the three first albums have also been published in the UK:
Vega, S. Bullet in Flight. Songs. London:
Omnibus Press, 1990. ISBN 0-7119-2225-X.
I’m Going On A Pilgrimage to NYC. What Should I See?
First of all, after equipping yourself with a good map, I suggest that you take the subway line 1 to W. 116th Street and get up at Broadway. Then you’re in the middle of Columbia University, which was a kind of centre for the civil rights movement of the 1960′s. As a small child, Suzanne would go to rallies there with her parents. Later, her stepfather worked as professor of literature at the University. After high school, Suzanne enrolled at Barnard College, which is the women’s part of the University, with its main building between W. 116th and 120th St. and Broadway.
Now walk a couple of blocks to the south east, and you’ll find the Cathedral of St. John the Divine at Amsterdam Av. between W. 110th and 113th St. This imposing – though neither old nor completed – gothic cathedral is the one that features in Tom’s Diner (“Oh this rain / It will continue / Through the morning / As I’m listening // To the bells / Of the cathedral”), and possibly also in Tired of Sleeping (“Oh mom / The kids are playing in pennies / They’re up to their knees in money / In the dirt of the churchyard steps).
You’re close to Harlem here, but as long as you don’t stray too far north or east, it should be safe. Why, Suzanne grew up here as a white girl, and she’s still alive!
From the cathedral, walk W. 112th St. back west, until you reach Broadway again. There on the corner you’ll find Tom’s Diner, [pictured left ] where you should enjoy a ceremonial breakfast. Very likely, Suzanne has been sitting on the very seat you choose! Don’t expect the service to be first rate, though…
Having refreshed yourself thus, you should be ready for a walk down Broadway to 240 W. 102nd St., where Suzanne lived for ten years between the ages of 8 and 18. It was a mixed neighborhood. To the north, there was the university with its students, to the west, the beautiful Riverside Park, and to the east the dangerous F. Douglass’ Housing Projects where people would throw things at you from the windows. Today, the area has been gentrified.
Avoid the projects and turn right on W. 102nd street and enjoy the nice, English looking buildings you’ll find before you reach Riverside Park. Cross the Riverside Drive, and you’re in the charming park by the Hudson River, where Suzanne loved to play as a child. Rest there for a while, looking at the the river and the joggers and imagining that you are a tough little girl on a quest to find the Silver Lady.
If you like, you can then have a look at Public School PS163 at W. 97th St. where Suzanne went as a child. From here, continue down Broadway to ??? W. 46th Street and the former building of the High School of Performing Arts – the Fame school – where Suzanne studied dance as a teenager. You’re now in the theatre district, with all it’s famous places and sights. Enjoy!
Unless you’re too tired and unused to walking, I suggest that you continue walking down Broadway until your reach Union Square. Turn right, and walk towards 10th Av. through theMeat Market District. “In the morning [...] the place bustles. [---] It’s crowded with trucks and truckers – to get anyway you wind and dodge your way through a thick traffic of men in bloody white aprons and slabs of meat swinging on hooks. By 2 in the afternoon it has settled down. By 4 o’clock it has regained the stoic feeling of an Edward Hopper painting, with calm cubes of color and long rectangular shadows, and a soft, windy rustle of pigeons and the river.” (Blood and Blue Sky on 10th Avenue) It’s a grimly fascinating place (“I walk to your house in the afternoon / by the butcher shop with the sawdust strewn”) where (“Fancy poultry / Parts sold here / Breasts and thighs and hearts”). But make sure you get there before dark – it’s also a fishy place (pun intended).
From the Meat Market District it’s just a short walk to Little West 12th Street. Don’t mistake this address for W. 12th St. which is further south. The little stump of a street you’re looking for runs between West Street (the quay, which is kind of a continuation of 10th Av.), and Greenwich St., immediately south of W. 13th St. (“Let’s go back to the building / On Little West Twelfth / It is not far away / And the river is there / And the sun and the spaces / Are all laying low / And we’ll sit in the silence / That comes rushing in and is / Gone”.) Perhaps it’s that Hopperesque building at the corner of Little West 12th and Gansenwoort Street?
A block or two further south (and here the blocks are small) you’ll find Horatio Street, where Suzanne lived during her first time in Greenwich Village, for that is where you are now. Spend some time roaming the Village. There are some addresses you might want to remember here: old Folk City at 11 W. 4th St., The Bottom Line 15 W. 4th St., the formerSpeakeasy on 107 MacDougal St., and Cornelia Street Café (29 Cornelia Street) where the Songwriters Exchange used to be held. There are lots of places you’ll recognise from songs and modern myth here: Bleecker Street, Christopher Street (Lou Reed), Washington Square etc. Take your time – and find a nice place to eat. Look at the billboards, too. Even if Suzanne isn’t performing, there is a good chance that some other interesting act is on tonight or tomorrow.
You might wonder where Suzanne lives now. The answer is south of the Village, in Soho near the river. But you’re not going to spy on her, are you? Right! So there.
Instead of stalking Suzanne, return to the wonderful serpent called Broadway and turn south. Tired? You’re on a pilgrimage, remember! On your left hand side, you’ll find Little Italy and Chinatown, which are well worth a visit, but since there are no particular shrines for the Suzanne Vega worshipper there, you can as well read about these areas in a normal guidebook. Walking on, you’ll see where the mighty World Trade Center used to stand and Wall Street on your left. At long last, you reach the very tip of Manhattan, Battery Park, where you have a good view of the Statue of Liberty.
At the Eastern end of the park, you’ll find the landing place for the Staten Island Ferry. Buy yourself a return ticket, it’s cheap, and don’t worry if if has become late, the ferry runs all night. Best of all, there is a chance that you may recognise a fellow passenger – our very own favourite poet singer Suzanne Vega. Especially if it’s after midnight…
After this long walk you can call it a day and take a cab back to your hotel. Sweet dreams!
Now, did you miss anything? Sure. Especially 304 E. 109th St. where Suzanne spent five years as a really small kid, where she made the dirt in the street become a town (As a Child), but for your safety you might be well advised not to go there after all.
Note: New York City isn’t as dangerous as many people believe, but leave your small town naiveté at home. Avoid Harlem and other areas you don’t know, especially after dark. Don’t wear an expensive camera round your neck. Don’t flash with jewelry or show your thick wallet too openly. Try not to behave like a tourist, but blend in. Walk as if you knew where you are going, sure of yourself. Take a taxi at night or if you’re in doubt about the neighborhood. If someone looks at you funny, make sure you don’t show that you notice. Above all, never ever let anyone provoke you! That way, you’ll avoid most of the dangers of the Big Apple (or any other big city).
Miscellaneous Suzanne Vega Trivia
- Suzanne Nadine Vega was born 11 July 1959 in Santa Monica, California.
- Suzanne was a premature child and spent her five first weeks in an incubator.
- Suzanne’s mother Patricia is a computer program analyst of Swedish/German extraction.
- Suzanne’s stepfather Ed Vega is a novelist and literature professor who passed away in August of 2008.
- Suzanne’s biological father Richard lives in California, works with architectural renderings and is of English/Scottish/Irish extraction.
- Suzanne’s paternal grandmother Helen Grant was a professional musician on the road, and the drummer in the Merry Makers Ladies Orchestra touring the Midwest in the 1920s and 1930s.
- Suzanne has one younger sister, Alyson, and two younger brothers, Matthew and Timothy. Timothy, a gifted graffiti artist, passed away in 2002.
- Suzanne wrote her first song Brother Mine on 12 May 1974 at the age of 14.
- Suzanne’s first public performance with her own songs was in a church basement in New York City on 2 January 1976.
- As a teenager, Suzanne studied modern dance at the High School of Performing Arts, the “Fame” school.
- Suzanne has a BA in English literature from Barnard College.
- Suzanne was brought up an atheist, but in her late teens, her family converted to Nichiren Buddhism. Buddhism has been an important influence in her life.
- Francis Bacon, Edward Hopper and Egon Schiele are among Suzanne’s favourite painters.
- Suzanne has a broad taste in literature, but you shouldn’t be surprised if you found Steinbeck, Kafka, Dickens, H.C. Andersen, T.S. Eliot, e.e. cummings or Annie Dillard beside her bed.
- Among Suzanne’s musical influences and favourites, you’ll find Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Laura Nyro and the Smiths.
- Between the ages of four and twelve, Suzanne was crazy about the Beatles, knew everything about them and loved their music.
- Suzanne collects books.
- She likes to play chess, Snood, solitaire and poker.
- The music group Soul Coughing named their album Ruby Vroom after Suzanne’s daughter Ruby Froom.
- Suzanne’s daughter Ruby got her surname from Suzanne’s ex-husband Mitchell Froom, who also produced 99.9Fº and Nine Objects of Desire.
- Suzanne once performed in a bullet-proof vest after a death threat to her long-time bassist Mike Visceglia at the Glastonbury Festival.
- Suzanne’s most famous and commercially successful songs are Marlene on the Wall, Luka and DNA’s remix of Tom’s Diner.
- The imagined narrator in Tom’s Diner is actually a man, Suzanne’s friend the photographer and singer/songwriter Brian Rose. Originally, Suzanne wanted a piano to accompany the song, but lacking a pianist, she made it a cappella.
- In March 1988, Suzanne was invited to the presidential palace by Mario Soares, president of Portugal.
- In June 2001, Suzanne met Queen Elisabeth II of the United Kingdom because both are working for the same charity, Casa Alianza.
- Suzanne has worked for a number of other charities, notably Amnesty International.
- Songs in Red and Gray had the working title The Mother and the Matador.
- The song Room off the Street was originally called Cuba.
Also see the Fun Facts section of this website.
Unfounded Rumours/Incorrect Info About Suzanne Vega
Q: Was Suzanne Vega born 11 July 1960 in New York City?
A: No, she was born 11 July 1959 in Santa Monica, CA, but moved to New York City with her mother when she was about a year old.
Q: Did Suzanne Vega star in a film called “The White Girl”?
A: No, she did not. This is a misunderstanding that has spread in the press. It comes from an interview where Suzanne talks about a music troop she was part of as a child called The Alliance of Latin Art, where she surprised the audience by being the only white girl. The reason why Suzanne took part in this otherwise Caribbean troop is that her stepfather, novelist Ed Vega, comes from Puerto Rico.
Q: Is there an Internet album by Suzanne Vega called “The All of Nothing”?
A: Well, The All of Nothing is a clever work of post-modern cyberart, but it is not an album you can buy or download and listen to. Nor is it a work by Suzanne Vega, strictly speaking, but by Entropic Empire. But don’t tell anyone – the value of this “product” lies in the mystery that surrounds it.
Q: Is Suzanne Vega a vegan?
A: No, despite her name and her compassionate heart, she does in fact eat meat. She is no teetotaler either, but enjoys a good drink.
Q: Is Suzanne’s mother a jazz guitarist?
A; No, Suzanne’s mother doesn’t play the guitar.
Who are Bogart and Bacall?
In Freeze Tag, Suzanne Vega sings:
You will be Bogart
and I will be
Who are these people? Well, Humphrey Bogart (1899-1957) and Lauren Bacall (b. 1924) were among the most famous film stars from the black and white era, especially during the 1940s and 1950s. They both tended to play tough, shadowy characters in hard-boiled films noirs and were perhaps the most succesfull screen couple ever. Famous titles are To Have and Have Not (1944) based on a Hemingway novel adapted by William Faulkner, and The Big Sleep (1946) based on a novel by Raymond Chandler.
Who Is Calypso?
Calypso is a nymph in Greek mythology who appears in Homer’s Odyssey. She is the daughter of Atlas, the giant who holds up the sky, and she lives on the mythical island of Ogygia. It is there she has taken Odysseus (Ulysses) after having saved him from drowning in the angered waves of the sea god Poseidon after his ship has been struck by Zeus’ thunderbolt. Calypso keeps him there on her lusciously wooded island as her captive lover for seven years. But despite the beautiful woman’s love, he cannot forget his own country, the rocky island of Ithaca, and his clever and faithful wife Penelope. After an intervention by the council of the gods, especially the powerful, bright-eyed Athena, Calypso must finally let Odysseus leave.
Suzanne Vega’s song is told from the perspective of the nymph, just before dawn on the day that the man she loves will leave her. She has even helped him to build the craft that will carry him away from her, and remembering the sweet and salty pleasures that will no longer be hers to enjoy, she stoically tries to accept her lonely future.
In the very beginning of the Odyssey, Homer describes how king Odysseus is caught on Calypso’s island, several years after the sack of Troy, where he had taken part as an allay of the Greek overlord Agamemnon. For those of us who are unfortunate enough not to know classical Greek, here is an excerpt from E.V. Rieu’s prose translation of 1946 (Book I, 11-21):
All the survivors of the war had reached their homes by now and so put the perils of battle and the sea behind them. Odysseus alone was prevented from returning to the home and wife he longed for by that powerful goddess, the Nymph Calypso, who wished him to marry her, and kept him in her vaulted cave. Not even when the rolling seasons brought in the year which the gods had chosen for his homecoming to Ithaca was he clear of his troubles and safe among his friends. Yet all the gods were sorry for him, except Poseidon, who pursued the heroic Odysseus with relentless malice till the day when he reached his own country.
Later, in Book V, Hermes, the messenger of the gods, travels to Calypso’s island, where he tells the nymph of Zeus decision that she has to let Odysseus go:
The divine Calypso listened in fear and trembling. When he [Hermes] had done, she unburdened her heart: ‘A cruel folk you are, unmatched for jealousy, you gods who cannot bear to let a goddess sleep with a man, even if it is done without concealment and she has chosen him as her lawful consort. You were the same when Rose-fingered Dawn fell in love with Orion. Easy livers yourselves, you were outraged at her conduct, and in the end chaste Artemis rose from her golden throne, attacked him in Ortygia with her gentle darts and left him dead. And so again, when lovely Demeter gave way to her passion and lay in the arms of her beloved Iasion in the thrice-plowed fallow field, Zeus heard of it quickly enough and struck him dead with his blinding thunderbolt. And now it is my turn to incur the same divine displeasure for living with a mortal man – a man whom I rescued from death as he was drifting alone astride the keel of his ship, when Zeus had shattered it with his lightning bolt out on the wine-dark sea, and all his men were lost, but he was driven to this island by the winds and waves. I welcomed him with open arms; I even hoped to give him immortality and ageless youth. But now, goodbye to him, since no god can evade or thwart the will of Zeus. If Zeus insists that he should leave, let he be gone across the barren water. But he must not expect me to transport him. I have no ship, no oars, no crew to carry him so far across the seas. Yet I do promise with a good grace and unreservedly to give him such directions as will bring him safe and sound to Ithaca.’
So when Hermes has left, Calypso goes to find Odysseus:
She found Odysseus sitting on the shore. His eyes were wet with weeping, as they always were. Life with its sweetness was ebbing away in the tears he shed for his lost home. For the Nymph had long since ceased to please. At nights, it is true, he had to sleep with her under the roof of the cavern, cold lover with an ardent dame. But the days found him sitting on the rocks or sands, torturing himself with tears and groans and heartache, and looking out with streaming eyes across the watery wilderness.
Calypso tells Odysseus that she will let him go, but he mistrusts her and makes her swear a solemn oath that she “will not plot some mischief against” him. This the beautiful nymph does smilingly while gently stroking his head with her hand. Later, she makes a lame attempt to persuade him to stay, but he is determined to go, and after a night in the cavern, where “in each other’s arms they spent a night of love”, she helps him to build a small ship:
By the end of the fourth day all his work was done, and on the fifth beautiful Calypso saw him off from the island. The goddess had bathed him first and fitted him out with fragrant clothing. She had also stowed two skins in his boat, one full of dark wine, the other and larger one of water, besides a leather sack of corn and quantities of appetizing meats. And now a warm and gentle breeze sprang up at her command.
There Homer leaves Calypso to mourn alone on her island, while we hear that “it was with a happy heart that the good Odysseus spread his sail”. Almost three thousand years later, Suzanne Vega took pity on the poor nymph and gave her mourning a voice.
Who Is Caspar Hauser?
Kaspar Hauser (variously spelled with C and K in both English and German) was one of the great enigmas of the 19th century, a so called “wild child”.
On 26 May 1828, Kaspar was brought before the authorities in Nürnberg, apparently bewildered and incoherent. With him he had a letter purporting to have been written by a labourer, into whose custody, it stated, the boy had been delivered on 7 October 1812, with the provision that he should be instructed in reading, writing and the Christian religion but kept in close confinement. Enclosed with this letter was one purporting to have been written by the boy’s mother, giving his name and his date of birth (30 April 1812) and stating that his father was a deceased cavalry officer. The boy could only say a few words, and kept repeating one phrase variously reported as “I want to be like my father” and “I want to be a rider like my father”.
Kaspar was under five feet tall, broad shouldered, yet physically delicate, with blue eyes and curly, light brown hair “cut in the peasant style”, and the lower part of his expressionless face was “rather prominent, giving him an animal look.” Kaspar was first detained as a vagrant but later he was taken under the care of the educationist Georg Daumer. Next, the 4th Earl of Stanhope took the boy under his protection (1832) and sent him to Ansbach, where he became a clerk in the office of the president of the court of appeal, Anselm von Feuerbach, a well-known German jurist and criminologist.
Kaspar claimed to have been held captive in an underground cell all his life. After having learned how to talk and write, he described it thus: “The prison was six or seven feet long and four feet wide, there were two tiny windows eight or nine inches high and wide, and the ceiling was like in a cellar. There was nothing in it but the straw I lay and sat on, and the two [wooden toy] horses, the [toy] dog, and the woolen blanket, and in the earth beside me a round hole where I did my business, and the water jug; and apart from that there was nothing, there wasn’t a stove either.” Kaspar was, however, not able to remember his gaoler, possibly because he had been regularly drugged before being washed and given other basic physical care.
Kaspar died from a wound that was either self-inflicted or, as he claimed, dealt by a stranger. As legend has it, Feuerbach was also murdered investigating the boy’s death. Already during his life, it was alleged that Kaspar was a hereditary prince of Baden, and other fanciful stories became associated with his life. The rumours of his royal origins have persisted into our time However, it was recently proved by DNA analyses at two different laboratories that he was not the son of Napoleon’s adopted daughter, the Grand Duchess of Baden Stéphanie Beauharnais, as many had believed.
The case inspired a great output of literature and art, as in poems by Paul Verlaine (Sagesse, 1881) and Georg Trakl (Kaspar Hauser Lied, 1913); novels by Jacob Wassermann (Caspar Hauser oder Die Trägheit des Herzens, 1908, which probably was Suzanne Vega’s inspiration), Sophie Hoechstetter (1925), and Otto Flake (1950); plays by Erich Ebermeier (1928) and Peter Handke (Kaspar, 1968). Kaspar’s story has also been made into film, most notably by Verner Herzog (Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle/Every Man For Himself and God Against All, 1974).
Cognitive and linguistic development
Apart from the mystery of his origins, people have been fascinated by Kaspar’s cognitive, linguistic and moral development. He is said to have been a gentle, almost Christ-like being who was especially friendly with animals. Others, however, accused him of being a habitual liar without any understanding of religion. In the beginning, he was very sensitive to light, smells, food and other things normal people are used to. He could see exceptionally well in the dark and it is reported that he could identify small pieces of metal through a sheet of paper. Meat, beer and brandy was strongly repulsive to him, and although he was later taught to eat meat he still preferred water and rye bread.
Apart from the sentence about his father, which he kept repeating, and the curious fact that he could write his name (but nothing else), Kaspar seemed to have no understanding of language. He was quick to learn, though, and only a few months after his appearance, he wrote an account of his earlier life in the underground cell. Thanks to his language ability, it was also possible to gain quite a lot of insight into his thinking, which was in some ways very naive from lack of exposure to the world outside his dark prison. When he first saw a candle, he put his finger into the flame until it burnt him. He asked his teacher why a grey cat didn’t wash to become white again, and when seeing a high tower he commented that it must have been built by a very tall man. Although some of his peculiar outlook on life seems to have persisted, his intellectual and social development was so rapid that he could work as a clerk after a few years.
Other ‘Wild Children’
Kaspar has been compared to a number of other so called “wild children” who had apparently grown up without normal human care. In 1724, a “naked, brownish, black-haired” boy aged about 12 was found “running up and down” near the German town of Hamelm without uttering any human sounds. Wild Peter, as the boy was named, was later transferred to the Royal English Court, where he was a big attraction. Despite efforts to teach him to speak, he never acquired any language. The nearest to speaking he ever came was saying “ki scho” for King George and “qui ca” for Queen Caroline, his two guardians. In 1799, another boy was found in a similar condition in the Caune Woods in France, where he was looking for roots and other edible plants. He seemed to hark to the sound “oh”, which gave him the name Victor, and although he learned to respond to simple commands and requests, he was never able to speak. He could say “lait” and “oh dieu”, but apart from that made only hissing sounds. His caretaker, Dr. Itard, believed that Victor didn’t really respond to sounds at all, but rather to visual and tactile clues, something which he found out by blindfolding the boy.
Both these children and Kaspar Hauser fit very well with the late eighteenth century Romantic interest in Nature, which is exemplified by Jean-Jaques Rousseau’s Émile ou l’education. Rousseau believed that children were born innocent and good, only later to be ruined by the influence of civilisation. This is of course in stark contrast to the Christian concept of Original Sin or Freud’s later theory of the primitive Id. A lot of this idealisation can, however, be found also in the second half of the twentieth century, when the interest in the environment and other “natural” things has grown.
In 1920, Reverend J.A.L. Singh found two girls living with wolves in a jungle in India. It is said that they huddled together with two cubs in the cave when he found them, and that they tried to scare him by showing their teeth like wolves. The older girl, who was about eight, he calledKamala, and the younger, aged around one and a half, Amala. Singh took them to his orphanage, where he studied their progress. After a few months, Amala died from a severe disease. Mrs. Singh tried to teach Kamala to behave like a human, and she learned how to stand, walk and run – and to say a few words in an idiosyncratic way. After nine years, also Kamala passed away in a disease.
The most well-researched case, however, is that of Genie, an American girl found at the age of 14. For almost all of her life, she had been confined to a small room, where she had been tied to a potty chair by her mentally retarded mother, who would punish her for making the slightest sounds. Genie’s linguistic development was studied by Dr. Susan Curtiss, whose book (Genie: A Psycholinguistic Study of a Modern-Day “Wild Child”, New York: Academic Press, 1977) is eminently readable also for the non specialist. Genie was very shy and had fits of extreme anger, but showed good progress in her behaviour, at least to a certain point. She learnt quite a few words, which she could combine into simple sentences, but her ability never went beyond that of a four year old. After some years of fierce academic and public interest, Genie was transferred to an orphanage, where she was apparently neglected. After some years she died in obscurity.
It has never been fully established whether Genie and the other children mentioned suffered from mental or physical retardation, or if their difficulties in language acquisition were due purely to lacking stimulation in early childhood. On balance, it seems as if these cases do indeed lend some support to the theory of a critical period, during which languages can be successfully learned. According to this theory, human children are endowed with a ‘program’ for language acquisition, without which we could not learn to master such a complicated communication system. Beyond a certain age, this ‘program’ is no longer effective, why it is too late to learn a language properly. Once we have mastered one language, however, it is obviously possible to learn other ones, although not quite as well as the mother tongue. The existence of such an innate ‘program’ is of course anathema to those who believe that a child is born as a tabula rasa (blank slate) who is then ‘written upon’ by social conditioning alone.
Kaspar Hauser, with his rapid development, is somewhat different from the other wild children, and it has been speculated that he might have acquired some language at a very early age, before his confinement in the dark cellar, where he would spend most of his childhood with only a wooden horse to play with.
Suzanne Vega’s song Wooden Horse
Suzanne Vega’s song Wooden Horse (Caspar Hauser’s Song), written in 1987, follows the known facts of Kaspar’s early existence quite closely. In contrast to many other artists, however, Vega refrains both from speculations about Kaspar’s origins, and from projecting an idealised ‘natural’ goodness on the hapless child. Instead she concentrates on the existential perspective of a person from whom almost everything has been ripped away. In an interview in Sounds (6 December 1986), Vega says that “every time I look at someone I think, You could strip everything away. You could strip away their name, you could strip away their beliefs, strip away who they think they are and you’d still have a person there you have to address. So when I write, that’s the part of the person I’m aiming for”.
With insight and empathy, Vega describes how Kaspar, deprived of most normal stimuli, survives through imagination (“In the night the walls disappeared”) and by investing the few things around him with meaning and life (“What was wood became alive”). She also portrays Kaspar’s mixed feelings about the world into he is set free and the fear that he will soon loose that which he has got (“Alive / And I fell under / A moving piece of sun / Freedom // I came out of the darkness / Holding one thing / I know I have a power / I am afraid I be killed”).
The text on Kaspar’s grave reads:
And an enigma he certainly remains.
(Text partly adapted from Encyclopædia Britannica and other sources.)
Who Was St. Clare?
St. Clare is the title of a song on Suzanne Vega’s album Songs in Red and Gray. It is the first cover Suzanne has recorded on a regular album – the song is written by her friend Jack Hardy. In the song, St. Clare appears as a generic saint, but for those who are curious, here is the legend:
St. Clare (1194-1253) of Assisi was a follower of St. Francis and founder of “The Poor Clare Order” (1228), a community of women practicing poverty, austerity and contemplation. Clare was noble born, but refused to marry at the age of 12, and six years later she ran away from home to become a nun. It is said that she twice saved her home city Assisi from enemy armies – they fled at the sight of Clare holding the Sacrament at the city walls.
In 1958, Clare became patron saint of television by apostolic letter (feast day 11 August). The reason for this is that according to legend, she once saw a Christmas service in a vision when her health did not permit her to attend it physically.
Who Are Dietrich and Dean?
In Freeze Tag, Suzanne Vega writes: “I will be Dietrich / and you can be Dean”. Who are they?
Both are movie stars from the black and white era. Dietrich is Marlene Dietrich, who is also the Marlene on the Wall. She is covered in another section of the FAQ.
Dean is James Dean (1931-1955), who quickly became a legend and a symbol of the confused, restless, and idealistic youth of the 1950s. He is famous for his interpretation of the son in the film version of Steibeck’s East of Eden (1955), and for his parts in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956). His tragic, premature death in a car crash further contributed to his lasting public image.
Who is Luka?
The song Luka is written from the point-of-view of an abused child and tells his story in a subtle and psychologically realistic way, only hinting at the horrible secret of his life. Some people have also read it to be a song about an abused woman, and although this was not what Suzanne though of when she wrote the song, it is certainly also a valid interpretation.
The name “Luka” is indeed taken from a real person with that name, whose outer character Suzanne borrowed. There is, however, no reason to believe that Luka was an abused child in real life. This is what Suzanne said in a Swedish television special recorded 3 November 1987:
“A few years ago, I used to see this group of children playing in from of my building, and there was one of them, whose name was Luka, who seemed a little bit distinctive from the other children. I always remembered his name, and I always remembered his face, and I didn’t know much about him, but he just seemed set apart from these other children that I would see playing. And his character is what I based the song Luka on. In the song, the boy Luka is an abused child — I real life I don’t think he was. I think he was just different”
Who is Maggie May?
One of the tracks on Songs in Red and Gray is called (I’ll Never be) Your Maggie May. Who is this woman? As far as I know, she does not exist in real life, but is the character in Rod Stewart’s famous song Maggie May. In this song, Maggie is an older woman, with whom the narrator, still a school boy, is infatuated.
Wake up Maggie
I think I’ve got something to say to you
It’s late September
And I really should be back at school
I know I keep you amused
But I feel I’m being used
Oh, Maggie I couldn’t have tried
You led me away from home
Just to save you from being alone
You stole my heart
And that’s what really hurts
The morning sun when it’s in your face
Really shows your age
But that don’t worry me none
In my eyes you’re everything
I laugh at all of your jokes
My love you didn’t need to coax
Oh, Maggie I couldn’t have tried
Transcribed excerpt from Maggie May by Rod Stewart and Martin Quittenton from the album Every Picture Tells a Story, 1971
Who is Marlene?
Marlene of the song Marlene on the Wall is the glamorous German actress Marlene Dietrich, of whom Suzanne used to have a framed picture on her wall. She got this picture from a friend, who knew that Suzanne had been watching every movie she could find with Marlene Dietrich.
Marlene Dietrich, original name Marie Magdalene von Losch, was born in Berlin on 27 December 1901 as the daughter of a German police officer. She first studied the violin and later acting under Max Reinhardt, the innovative theatrical director. She eventually joined Reinhardt’s theatre company. Seven years after her first appearance in German film as an extra, her stardom was established by her role as Lola-Lola, a sultry and world-weary nightclub performer in Joseph von Sternberg’s Der blaue Engel (1930; The Blue Angel). Adapted from Heinrich Mann’s novel Professor Unrat, the film was an international success. After its premiere, von Sternberg brought her to the United States, where they collaborated on pictures such as Morocco (1930), Dishonored (1931), Blonde Venus (1932), Shanghai Express (1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934), and The Devil is a Woman (1935), Desire (1936) and Destry Rides Again (1939) revealed her talent as a comedienne.
From 1943 to 1946 Dietrich made more than 500 personal appearances before Allied troops. After World War II she continued to make successful films such as A Foreign Affair (1948), The Monte Carlo Story (1956), Witness for the prosecution (1957), Touch of Evil (1958), and Judgment at Nurenberg (1961). She was also a popular nightclub performer. In 1978, after a period of retirement from the screen, she appeared in the film Just a Gigolo.
Marlene Dietrich died in Paris on 6 May 1992, leaving a very complex memory, being variously described as a sophisticated lady, a temptress, a selfish mother and an Anti-Nazi war heroine. For Suzanne Vega, she has been an inspiration and fascination ever since she, whilst her television set was warming up, heard a woman’s voice counter an accusation of having lead many men to death with her body by saying: “Give me a kiss!” It was Marlene Dietrich.
What Are The Nine Objects Of Desire?
Suzanne’s fifth album is called Nine Objects of Desire. It is so called, because there were nine “objects of desire” that inspired her to write the songs.
These objects were:
- Ruby — Suzanne’s daughter
- MF — Suzanne’s husband (and producer) Mitchell Froom
- Lolita — the “nymphette” of Nabokov’s book
- The figure of Death
- 3 men
- 1 woman
- A plum
And here’s the list of which object inspired which song:
- Birth-Day — Ruby
- Headshots — man number 1
- Caramel — man number 2
- Stockings — the woman
- Casual Match — man number 3
- Thin Man — Death
- No Cheap Thrill — MF, in the beginning of their relationship
- World Before Columbus — Ruby
- Honeymoon Suite — MF
- Tombstone — Death
- My Favorite Plum — a plum
Is There a Real “Tom’s Diner”?
Yes, there is. It’s a small diner near Columbia University called “Tom’s Restaurant” and you’ll find it on 112th St. and Broadway. It’s not know for the best food in town, but it’s pretty cheap and well worth a visit. While you’re there, have a look at Barnard College a couple of blocks to the North, where Suzanne was once an English lit student, and the cathedral of St. John the Divine, the world’s latest (and last) Gothic cathedral. Here you’ll find the “churchyard steps” of Tired of Sleeping and if you’re lucky, you may even hear the “cathedral bells” of Tom’s Diner.
Not far south, on 240 West 102nd St. and Broadway, you’ll find the building where Suzanne lived between the ages of seven and seventeen. A short walk to the West, and you’re in the beautiful Riverside Park, where Suzanne loved to play as a child. Don’t go eastwards, though, to avoid the dangers of the infamous “Projects” where Suzanne was strictly forbidden to go. It’s a mixed neighborhood, but not dangerous at daytime.
The exterior of Tom’s Restaurant has featured in the television comedy Seinfield, although the interior is of course from a studio. Tom’s Restaurant was also immortalized in a comic strip by Thomas Hart called Maggy Stone (see the CD booklet of Tom’s Album [pictured above]).
What Is “The Carmen of the Martyrs”?
In the song Rosemary (first released on the 1998 best of album Tried and true), Suzanne writes about “The Carmen of the Martyrs”.
In the Carmen of the Martyrs,
with the statues in the courtyard
whose heads and hands were taken,
in the burden of the sun;
I had come to meet you
with a question in my footsteps,
I was going up the hillside
and the journey just began.
What is this place? Here is what Suzanne herself answered on the Undertow mailing list in December 1998:
El Carmen de los Martires (The Carmen of the Martyrs) is a garden near the Alhambra in the south of Spain, in Granada. It is one of many gardens near the main one. In this garden are statues of saints. Many (if not most) of them are missing their heads and their hands because people have stolen them. I guess they feel it brings luck to take these pieces of the statues home.
From The Gardens of Spain, text by Consuelo M Correcher:
“The carmen is peculiar to Granada, like the can in Catalonia, the son in Majorca, (etc.)…all signify some form of cultivated land, and each has its distinguishing characteristics. A carmen (the word derives from the sixteenth-century Castilian form of the Arabic word karm ,meaning vineyard or grapevine) is a house, often well-protected and small, with a garden and a huerta attached…. Carmens can be found scattered throughout the vega and in the hills surrounding the city of Granada…”
Here is a better description, from “Guide to Granada”:
“The ‘carmenes’ are a relic of Granada’a Arab traditions; houses with large kitchen plots and well-kept gardens that add a touch of color and of charming intimacy to the city’s fascinating panorama, especially in its higher areas. According to Ramon de Ayala’s definition, ‘The carmen’ is a closed garden, a hanging garden laid out in terraces, like those of Babylon. There is a dwelling in each one. A ‘carmen’ is in retreat; it has elements of a monastery and of a harem. They are sometimes very humble, like a Carthusian cell and orchard. But they are an epitome of peace, love and beauty; and in their tranquility, perhaps of restlessness.
“The most genuine, enchanting ‘carmenes’ are perhaps the ones spread out on the hill where the Albaicin quarter stands…Other justly famous ‘carmenes’ include those standing on the slopes of the ‘Colina Roja’ (Red Hill)… and the ‘Carmen de los Martires.”
Suzanne wrote, “I was there for a couple of weeks in May of 1995, and yes, I did meet someone in that garden, though if anyone were to have watched the scene, nothing exciting happened – he was someone who lived in Granada, and he was showing me the town. That is, nothing happened on the surface. “