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“Fighting” by Suzanne Vega

February 9, 2000

“Fighting” orignally appeared in Details Magazine, July 1995

Suzanne Vega puts her best fist forward

Some girls are taught to be sexy. L.A. girls, for example. They’re taught to be blond and cute and show a lot of skin. It’s different in New York. Here you have to prove yourself, and you can’t let any other kids mess with you. Not girls, and not boys. Boys will say stuff to you to see if you can take it – talk about your shoes, call you names, or say things like “Hey, white bitch, are you really a girl or a faggot?” So you cry or you run. Or you fight. Here are my rules for fighting with boys.


That was my father’s advice. If you have to fight a crowd of boys, it’s best to go for the biggest one. That way you won’t have to fight them all. The others will see that you mean business and you will win their respect.


If Tony W. picks up a lead pipe and swings it at you in the school hallway, he is bluffing. There’s no way he’ll hit you with it. This was proven wrong, though, when Tony W did in fact hit me in the ribs with a wooden board as I went after him in the street. I chased him for blocks and returned to see the younger kids out on the stoop cheering.


If my brother has provoked a fight by calling Tony W. a bastard, then I still have to jump in and defend my brother. If everyone is standing around in a circle downstairs chanting “The Vegas are sick, they suck on big dick,” then you must go and fight all of them and make them stop – even if you are happily reading Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley and do not want to go. You have to defend your honor. And your family.


And always defend your own. I forgot to do this once in a fight with Jonathan R. He hit me in the stomach and knocked the wind out of me, after which my face hit the sidewalk and I chipped my front tooth.


Don’t make a threat and then not do it. (See CALL THEIR BLUFF, above.) I came close to backing down once when I offered to fight Malcolm W. I remember saying “Do you want to fight?” The words popped brightly out of my mouth before I had a chance to bite down hard on them, and I remember Malcolm W’s look of amused amazement, since he was the toughest, meanest guy in the school. He was thirteen, and there were rumors that he had a woman in her early twenties whom he’d gotten pregnant.

So when he turned his cold eyes in my direction and said, “Fight? Yeah, I’ll fight you. I haven’t had a fight in a while. I could use the exercise,: and he began to roll his sleeves up over his hard, tan muscles. I thought I was going to die. The other kids on the stoop looked at me nervously and said, “No, Suzy. Don’t Suzy.” I don’t think I actually said or did anything after that except stare at him, and eventually the whole thing blew over. I was relieved, but at least I had saved face.


Girls are crazy and mean. They don’t fight fair. Fighting fair means hard, tight fists and regular punches. But girls will slap, bite, pinch, pull your hair, rip the buttons off your shirt and the earrings out of your ears. There are no rules in fights with girls. Just hurting.

The one exception was the fight with Carla W., when she challenged me. We never even touched each other. I just stood there staring at her as she wound herself down, and she eventually began speaking nonsense. “I’ll kick you in the guts and two babies will fall out!” Eventually the crowd around us began to laugh, and I won.


” One of these days you Vegas will learn that violence is not the answer!” shouted my teacher Ruth M. as I held Michael E’s face against the floor in the hallway. I had him down but never knew quite what to do after that, as I had no natural killer instinct. She forced me to let him up, and soon after that she quit teaching to enter politics. Today, Ruth M. is Ruth Messinger, Manhattan Borough president. She spends a lot of time fighting some of the boys herself.


“Solo: Women Singer-Songwriters: In Their Own Words” – by Suzanne Vega

February 9, 2000

Delta Books, 1998

Marc Woodworth, Editor

A lot of my writing is not terribly civilized. Sometimes I listen to songs by very smart writers who assume that the world is a civil place with certain formalities that people follow, but I don’t see things that way. My own experience tells me that life is not like that. That’s why I write the way I do. I grew up with people in my face, pulling my hair, saying, “You’re the whitest girl I’ve ever seen.” At one point, after I cut my hair short, I was mistaken for a gay boy and got beat up for that. I couldn’t win! Although the degree of uncivilized behavior I experienced might have been in part a product of the neighborhood where I grew up, I find that the world as a whole is not particularly civilized.

I didn’t go out looking for fights as a kid, but if it was necessary, I’d fight. Fighting was a daily thing where we lived. It was more than being a white girl in a very mixed neighborhood, I was a target because I was a particular kind of girl. I was always reading and interested in books. I didn’t like the world of the street because I wasn’t well adapted to it. I was better suited to the worlds I read about, so I developed a fantasy life. But I also knew that if I didn’t fight, I’d get picked on even more. Fighting was necessary to maintaining my own self-respect.

My family lived in East Harlem for five years before moving to the Upper West Side. Right after my mother’s first marriage ended, she met my stepfather in Los Angeles, they fell in love, and he took her back to New York, to East Harlem, where my stepfather’s mother had a house. My mother had never been to New York-she grew up in the Midwest-so “Harlem” didn’t mean anything to her. She didn’t know what she was getting into. When I asked her recently what she thought when we moved in, she told me she was just happy we were living in a three-story house instead of an apartment. We lived there because there wasn’t any other place to go.

I’d fall down our narrow red linoleum-covered stairs all the time because I was off in my fantasy world instead of paying attention to what was in front of me. I remember coming face-to-face with the little nails sticking up out of the linoleum on many occasions. I liked to play in the front yard, which was a plain concrete patch enclosed by an iron fence topped with little spikes, but I really adored playing in the backyard with its weed tree. It was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn kind of tree, a tree with no name, that would drop little seeds that I loved to play with. There were caterpillars on the branches that I’d get to walk up my arm. Beyond the tree was a part of the yard that was dirt. Because we were in a courtyard, whatever people would throw out their windows landed there. My mother didn’t allow me to go to that part of the yard, but every so often I would do it anyway, travel all the way across our lot to the place where most of the stuff was. I was fascinated by all this junk. I loved finding little fuses back there. You could clear away the dirt from a fuse’s window and see a little blue thing inside. I’m still a bit of a packrat. I collect stuff and keep it with me. Some of what I collect now is intellectual-ideas or facts that I keep in my notebooks-but some is still physical-little things that I hold on to.

I was the oldest child, and both my parents worked, so I had a great deal of responsibility from a very young age. We occasionally had baby-sitters, but they weren’t always available. After we moved out of East Harlem when I was a bit older, I would take care of my brothers and sister for hours. That was the way things were. Even though I was dealing with the daily realities of life, like taking care of my siblings, I was always in my own dreamworld as well. I’d baby-sit by putting on puppet shows for my brothers and sister. I was always inventing characters and making up stories.

I had some fears as a kid, but I was also relatively fearless. Maybe that’s a result of living half the time in reality and the other half in fantasy. I found it frightening when my parents would argue, which they did constantly. My stepfather had a very explosive temper. That’s the one thing I feared above everything else. The rest of the world was fine compared to that. I wasn’t afraid of going places or doing new things. I would do just about anything or go anywhere. I’d get a notion in my mind and just follow it.

When I was eight, I decided I’d had enough of living at home. I was going to live in the park. I thought I could live on grass and certain weeds that grew there. So I walked uptown to the park by myself, eight years old, through Harlem from 102nd and Broadway, where we were living by that time. When I got to the park, a black boy of twelve or so came over and asked me what I was doing. He said he was looking for a girlfriend. I told him I couldn’t think of anybody. At one point he kissed me on the lips, just a little, gentle kiss, but I started to cry and began to think that maybe I didn’t want to run away after all. That scary feeling of being out in the world by myself and seeing gangs of men hanging around on the street has stayed with me. It was frightening, but I kept going anyway.

Once I got to the park, I realized it wasn’t going to be quite the picnic I thought it was. Still, I stayed for several hours instead of going back home right away. By that age I’d already taught myself not to feel fear and pain by stripping down what I felt so I could put a line around those feelings. If I gave fear a shape and texture, I could “handle” it. I could describe the sensations I felt to myself and, by putting a name on them, make them less overwhelming. The problem with using this technique is that you find yourself doing the same thing with joy and happiness as well. You limit the pleasure from good things because the minute you feel something you say, “This is what it is,” and squash it with a name. My intellect has always been more responsible than my emotions for how I respond to the world. Emotion is something I’ve become gradually more familiar with, but as a kid I wasn’t really sure what my feelings were. I felt safe in the world of ideas and imagination, and that’s where I continue to feel safe most of the time although as I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to feel more.

Both of my parents were political, and their politics came out of the neighborhood. It was a politically charged time. I remember the Kennedy campaign coming through East Harlem. The booklet about Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty included a picture of my sister looking out the window. We couldn’t get away from politics. They were everywhere. So I grew up in a very politically active and aware household. My stepfather was always trying to teach us what lay behind advertising, for instance. He had a real hatred for America’s corporate mentality. No Walt Disney. No Barbie. My mother was interested in feminism, and she and my stepfather wanted to make us aware of the roles men and women assumed in society. My mother wanted me to understand that as a woman I could do pretty much whatever I wanted to, that I didn’t have to use sex or sexuality to define myself. For example, she encouraged me to play ice hockey when I was twelve. Why not? But the organizers of the team wanted me off the ice. They said, “What if she gets a scar? Who’s want to marry a girl with a scar?” Who cares if a girl has a scar? This was twenty-five years ago, well before sports were as integrated as they are now. That’s just one example of how my parents tried to let me know that being a woman shouldn’t turn you into a stereotype. I took those lessons seriously growing up because they were such a big part of the atmosphere at home.

My stepfather felt that being an artist was the only sane thing to do in this society. My stepfather was and is a writer-novels, short stories. He wrote constantly. When he wasn’t writing fiction, he’d make up songs for us. Although I remember standing on a box in the backyard and singing “I love you, yeah, yeah, yeah” (the wrong words) to “She Loves You,” the first song I really responded to deeply was one my stepfather wrote for my brother Matthew. It was loosely based on Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”-“Where have you been my blue-eyed son?,” that format. It was in a minor key, and I thought it was so beautiful and very serious. He put me in the song too, which made me feel really special. I remember the verse: “‘Who will you marry my handsome young man? / Who will you marry my dear?’ / ‘I’ll marry my sister, her name is Suzanne. / She has a butterfly fan.'” I felt celebrated; he’d written about me. Every so often he’d go off to teach or take a job of some kind, but he would realize pretty quickly that he couldn’t stand to be hemmed in and come back to writing full-time. He’d write all night and sleep during the day. I had a great respect for his work and the life he led as an artist.

He loved it when I started writing poems at six or seven and encouraged me to keep at it. When I was seven, he saw me with a book and asked if I had been reading the stories he’d given me. I said, “No, I don’t like those kind of books.” He asked me what kind of books I liked, and I brought him the unabridged edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. He didn’t believe I was really reading it, so he asked me to read two pages out loud. After I answered his questions about the meaning of what I’d read, he called my mother over to tell her that I was actually reading and comprehending Huckleberry Finn. They thought it was a little odd for me to be reading like that at seven, but they were proud that I could and encouraged me.

Given the artistic environment at home, it wasn’t surprising that I went to the High School for the Performing Arts. I loved it there even though I was something of an outsider. It was very disciplined and gave me a real structure, which I liked because my family life often had none. There was always a bit of pandemonium at home, so I really responded positively to the strict routine at school. I focused on dance. I loved the atmosphere of the dance studios-the wooden floors, the big mirrors, everyone dressed in pink or black tights, the musicians accompanying us-and the feeling of ritual the classes had. You were considered a serious artist at that school. When classes ended, I went to a private studio on scholarship, so on a normal day I danced for seven hours. That helped me learn about the discipline art requires. I took dancing very seriously and was very ambitious. I was considered aloof. In my junior year other students grumbled because they thought I was acting like a prima ballerina. They’d call me Prima because I sat in front, off to the side always, but in front. I was extremely competitive and in my own world.

Even though I graduated with eight academic awards and was in the top five of my class, I was disappointed because my prospects as a dancer weren’t as promising as I wanted them to be. I knew my technique would never be as good as that of the best dancers. At eighteen you’re mature enough to know whether you’re going to reach that level and I realized I couldn’t. In my disappointment I gave up performing as a dancer. My teachers encouraged me to do more academic work and not to have all my hopes in dancing.

Besides dancing at school and the studios, I’d written all these songs and had begun to play them at auditions. I felt I’d have a chance to shine more if I focused on writing instead of dancing. One of the pianists for my dance classes knew I wrote songs and told me that I wouldn’t do well in the world of commercial music because I was so shy and the music business was so horrible. He suggested that I buy the Village Voice to find where the little coffeehouses were and then go audition at them. He said it was a very gentle scene that I’d be comfortable with. So I read the Voice and went to one coffeehouse in a church basement on Eighty-sixth Street. There was a woman there named Mary Grace in a long white dress playing an autoharp and singing “Wild Mountain Thyme.” I said to myself, Okay, I can do this. Mary liked my songs, and she gave me a booking seven months from the date of that audition-the following year-January 2, 1976. So that was my first gig.

Once I started auditioning at music clubs in the Village at eighteen, I realized that I was surrounded by men who were mostly in their thirties. In that world I was very young and precocious whereas in the dance world I was already considered mature, nearly too old to get where I wanted to go. I felt happy playing and hanging around at folk clubs in the Village. I’d heard that the way to break into the scene was to try the Bitter End first, then graduate to Folk City, and, finally, if you’re really good, play at the Bottom Line. I took this advice as strict gospel. So I went to the Bitter End and tried to get a gig there for two years. I’d go down once a month or so, sing my songs, get rejected, come home, and prepare for next month. I’d come back with new songs or a different outfit-the most ridiculous costumes-and the same guy, Stefan, would be there. He’d say, “Oh, hi,” then listen to me and say, “Well, no.”

Finally after two years of this it occurred to me that I could try Folk City, just forget the path my friends had told me about and jump ahead to the next club. I found the idea of playing at Folk City really daunting because of its association with Bob Dylan, but to my surprise, I found a great group of people there I really liked and who liked me. We could talk about songwriting together, which I found to be really exciting. I loved the group of people at Folk City. For the first time in my life, I felt that I’d found a tribe I could belong to.

Even though I wasn’t a typical folksinger, nobody really cared. It was the Village, and everybody was into poetry anyway. I was never considered a folkie in that scene; I wasn’t asked to play the big folk festivals because I wasn’t well known enough and my style was considered very idiosyncratic. That’s why it was shocking to me when I got the record deal and found myself being touted as a traditional folkie. I wrote “Cracking,” for instance, in 1980, when that kind of song was considered anomalous and more than a little strange in the folk world.

During those years I was also in college. Out of everything I was doing, I was least passionate about studying. I faked my way through a lot of assignments. I bluffed my way through my first philosophy test and, to my surprise, got an A, so I thought I could fake it all the time. It worked until my adviser pulled me out of my junior colloquium and told me that writing stream of consciousness wouldn’t do. She asked me to drop the course and take it again when I felt like reading the books. She kicked my butt. She was right to. I wasn’t doing any of the work. Instead I was hanging around the theater and performing music whenever I could get a gig. There were also boys. I was always attracted to someone new. I was completely infatuated by people. I’m still that way a little; I fall in love easily. I have a reputation for being aloof, but I really become very infatuated-with bands, people, characters-and then let an infatuation take over for a while before I return to my neutral corner.

When I graduated from college, I worked at a publishing company. I didn’t give up my day job until about ten months before I actually signed a record contract. Even then I gave it up with a lot of hesitation. I felt that it was stupid to quit a good job for some pipe dream. I wasn’t convinced I would get a deal, but my manager finally insisted that I give up the job and play more regularly. There was also a moment when I had to choose between starting a family or signing a record deal. I chose the record deal and gave up that particular relationship-along with the possibility of having a family. That decision stayed with me for a long time, but now I have a family, a husband and a daughter, so I didn’t have to give up that part of life in the end. Even though I gave up the chance back then, I have a different version of it now. Other than that, I couldn’t say what I’ve sacrificed in order to do what I do. Perhaps I could tell you twenty-five years from now. It’s something that I wanted to do so much that I put everything aside for that one thing.

I still feel conflicted because I don’t always get to spend as much time with my daughter as I’d like, given my work. It’s not always easy to balance time with my family and working on the writing and singing. Music comes as second nature. I’ve been a performer for twenty-five years. Being a mother and being a wife is more difficult for me. I’ve been a mother for two years and a wife for one year, and I find that there are some things involved with those roles that I’m just not trained for. It takes as much discipline to be a mother and a wife as it does to do anything else. It takes all your imagination, all your involvement, so much more energy than you’d ever dream. But then you have a nearly perfect day that makes it all worthwhile. Maybe it’s a Sunday, like one we had a few months ago, when the three of us are actually home together with no pressing issues, commitments, or illnesses. Everything’s peaceful. All three of us are happy. We get to spend a lot of time with Ruby, who eats right on schedule, then takes a nap. Those are great days.

Being pregnant really changed my sense of myself as a woman. I was really big. I know some women who stay small even when they’re pregnant. If they’re very thin beforehand, they stay thin throughout the pregnancy and then go back to how they were. I assumed I’d be like that. I wasn’t. I was much bigger than I expected to be. When you’re pregnant-especially the way I was pregnant, which was huge-you can’t hide it. I had a sense of myself as a very big person in the world. When I walked down the street, people would move out of the way. In the past I might have been anxious about how big I was, but in this case I felt great. I started to wonder how big I could possibly get. It occurs to you that you’ll lose control completely and keep expanding until you’re inconceivably enormous-out to there. I felt like one of those sexy Italian women you see in pictures. That was a lot of fun for me. I felt comfortable and womanly.

You can’t pretend to be androgynous in that state. In the beginning I thought it would be cute if I could dress like a potbellied man. I’d see one and feel a kinship for the silhouette. I could wear my suspender pants, the really big baggy ones, with an undershirt and look like a paunchy man of fifty, but by the eighth month you’re not interested in looking like a potbellied man. All you want to do is get dressed and go eat something. Your breasts are too big, your rear end’s too big to pretend you’re a guy. It’s not useful. It’s not necessary. I was biggest in June, and I found I was more comfortable in dresses and sandals. That wasn’t my style before.

So you eat, you sleep, and then this wonderful child comes out, but you don’t feel like you have any control over that process, over her, over her character and who she is. It seems to me she was born fully formed. When you’re writing a song, you can manipulate things a bit more or throw out what you don’t like. Ruby, on the other hand, is her own creation. Maybe it’s just that she ahs an unusually strong personality. I’ve seen children who were more subject to the editing process than she is. With her, I have a very strong sense of negotiating with a person whose will is as strong as mine. To see so much of myself in her was kind of shocking when she was only three days old. You figure, She’s a baby; of course she’s going to be cooperative; of course she’s going to breast-feed, but then you find you’re facing this really strong-willed person saying, “No, I won’t.” She’d go thirteen hours without eating rather than give in. Songs don’t normally resist that strongly. She has her own coded ways of dealing with the world. She’ll arrange her dwarfs in perfect symmetry; if I mess the pattern up, I’m in trouble. I can never tell when she’s in one of those moods when things have to stay just as they are. Her code is not the same as mine, so I have the sense of working at a puzzle. Ruby’s a big mystery to me.

The fact that Nine Objects of Desire is more sensual than some of my other records is directly related to my pregnancy. The new sensuality made me feel really weird at first. I wasn’t prepared for it. When I was pregnant, I felt filled with life, and I felt really happy. I ate well, and I slept well. I felt much more useful than I’d ever felt before. That was the climate this album was conceived in, and my feelings at the time are reflected in the work. For example, “Birth-day,” which is about giving birth, is a song that had to be written by a woman.

That said, I’ve never thought the fact that I’m a woman was important to my work. I’ve written songs that men could sing. I’ve written songs that women don’t necessarily identify with. I’ve had men come up to me and say they completely identify with “Small Blue Thing” while some women tell me they don’t feel any connection to that song at all. A song like “Cracking” could have been written by a man or a woman. But then there’s “Birth-day.” I think that I can go either way. I don’t think gender is aesthetically defining for me.

That’s not to say that being a woman isn’t an important part of my identity. I still consider myself a feminist. I don’t go to demonstrations as often as I might, but I still feel strongly about the movement that first affected me a lot when I was twelve or thirteen. Books like Sisterhood Is Powerful have stayed with me. I’m not sure why feminism is such a reviled thing in so many quarters today. Perhaps it’s because of the stereotypes associated with it. To me, a feminist belongs in the same category as a humanist or an advocate for human rights. I don’t see why someone who’s a feminist should be thought of differently. The humanist umbrella covers all of those things whether you’re working for children’s rights, women’s rights, or social justice. Gloria Steinem is still as vital a presence as she has ever been. She’s been consistent as a good leader, a good speaker and writer. She’s reasoned and balanced. There’s nothing hysterical or shrill about her work. She’s not any of those things people would have her be. When it comes to feminism, what people are responding to negatively is the caricature of someone who’s militant or doesn’t shave-that kind of thing. It’s only the caricature that’s outdated as far as I’m concerned.

I wouldn’t characterize my work, however, as directly political. I’m not trying to make a point as a feminist, for instance, when I write a song. I write most often about things that are very personal to me. When I’m writing, I’m dealing with what’s in front of my face. Of course, sometimes when you write personally, you are also writing about society, obliquely reflecting topical issues, but not in a way that people would expect you to or in the way that someone trying to make a point would. I don’t care about making a point.

So it was a big surprise to write a song like “Luka” that became so popular in part because it was written from the perspective of a boy being abused by his parents. I suppose you could see certain songs I’ve written as products of more than a purely aesthetic impulse. You could say that “Cracking” is about mental health, “Fifty-Fifty Chance” is about attempted suicide, or “Men in a War” is about posttraumatic stress syndrome. I don’t know why “Luka” should take off, and not those songs. Maybe at that moment it touched a nerve in society that the other songs didn’t, at least not in such a widespread way. I got a lot of letters from people in child abuse agencies complaining to me about “Luka,” saying that I’d written it “incorrectly” and that the correct thing to do is empower the child rather than make him feel bad. I didn’t follow that way of thinking about the issue. Because they made me so angry, I kept those letters for a while before throwing them away. My correspondents wanted me for a cause and felt I hadn’t expressed myself according to their rules.

There are other songwriters who have written about child abuse in the “correct” way by taking the point of view of the neighbor, for instance, and describing the situation in a civilized way. As I said before, I don’t think being civil as a writer is always adequate to the reality. There are moments onstage when I cringe at the prospect of having to sing my own words. They’re not always pretty, but they reflect something I’ve seen or understood, however unseemly it is. I do write about horrible things, but not exclusively, and when I do, there’s another level there as well. Yesterday, for example, I was being interviewed by a very young girl on television who asked me, “Why do you write about suicide and amputation, things like that?” I tried to explain to her that I was not writing so much about literal amputation in “Men in a War” as I was using amputation as a metaphor. I’m writing more about a psychic state than a man with no leg. But trying to explain that in the heat of the moment when the microphone is in your face and the camera’s rolling can be sort of daunting.

I don’t think my writing’s limited to “those kinds of things,” as my interviewer dubbed them. I do write about a wide range of topics. Not everything’s about the painful side of life. I write about romance at least as much as I write about, say, psychic amputees. But I never want to get to the point where I write a safe song or one that represents my sense of a subject in order to appear civilized. There has to be some kind of urgency there. What I like best in other writers’ work are the lines or passages where the urgency behind the words makes the language really sing itself.

When I was preparing to write a song for the Dead Man Walking sound track, I read the book by Sister Helen Prejean on which the film is based. There were a few pages where you could really feel her fear and anxiety in the words. She describes what she sees, how she feels-all her physical sensations-when she went to the jail to meet the killer for the first time. In those descriptions the words begin rhyming, seemingly of their own accord.

There’s really beautiful alliteration that sparkles on the page. I knew those descriptions were where I needed to go in order to write the song. Because the rhymes were already there, it was just a question of pulling them out and putting them together. The experience of making a song from that heightened, urgent passage was much more powerful than if I’d chosen some other moment. If I don’t feel that something really needs to be written, I’d rather not write it.

When I was pregnant, I was having a great time, so there was no reason to report back to the notebook that I felt happy. It was enough to feel good, to eat breakfast or-and I found great pleasure in this-eat two breakfasts. What was I going to write, “I had sausage today”? That’s not something for the notebook. It was probably the mostŠcontented is not the right word because it makes you sound like a big cow in the middle of a field eating grassŠlet me say instead it was the most joyful I’d ever felt. I just didn’t feel like writing anything. The urgency wasn’t there, so I let it go.

That doesn’t mean that what I feel compelled to write about is always directly about what I’m doing at any given time. Writing is always personal in some way but not always in a direct way. Writing dramatic monologues, which is exactly what I’m doing in many of my songs, allows me to put on a different face. Every single song that I’ve written from a character’s point of view mirrors something that was going on in my life but not always in an obvious way. In “Casper Hauser’s Song,” for example, I’m telling the truth about Casper Hauser, and I’m also telling the truth about myself. What I make the character say about himself has to be true to that character and at the same time reveal something about my own life. I’ll work it both ways by using a line like “I want to be a rider like my father,” which Casper Hauser actually said while he was playing with a toy horse. In my life I want to be a writer like my stepfather. In that line it’s a play on words-“rider” and “writer”-that creates the connection for me. I love the doubleness of words. Certain kinds of jargon, the language of physics, for example, take on a double meaning when you use them in a song or poem. There are certain words that sing to you out of these other disciplines. They leak, in a sense; a phrase that means something very specific in one world becomes poetry when it enters another world. It’s like creating a secret code.

There are some songs that work exactly like that and others where the double meaning is more about experience than wordplay. When I wrote “Calypso,” I didn’t take on the voice simply to be a figure from Homer. There was someone I was involved with who was constantly leaving at the crucial moment. So by writing from Calypso’s perspective about losing Odysseus, I was also expressing my own point of view. Almost all my songs have that double quality. I’ve been inventing voices like that since I was a kid putting on puppet shows. You could have different characters talking to one another, but of coursed each character was also in your own voice. Writing this way allows me to step out of myself. It takes me away from my own ego and leaves room for listeners to put themselves into a song. Writing in other voices is almost Japanese in the sense that there’s a certain formality there which allows me to sidestep the embarrassment of directly expressing to complete strangers the most intimate details of my life. It allows me a neutral place to put the stuff about myself so that someone can talk to me about Luka or Casper Hauser without my completely revealing myself.

This distance creates a form of politeness or discretion that acknowledges the fact that we’re not all intimate. We can be friendly, we can be pleasant to one another while we talk, but we’re not intimate. In society today I find myself puzzled sometimes by having to look at the body of someone in an ad or a movie, for example, who’s not my lover or child. Why should I have to look at her breasts? Do I know her? No. For some reason, the climate in our society right now is one of premature intimacy with everyone wanting to get to know one another quickly, right away, with all the details. Ultimately that kind of knowledge doesn’t mean much. It makes life like having a stranger sit down next to you on a bus and tell you all about the most intimate details of her love life, leaving the bus right away and being replaced by the next person, who does the same thing. That’s not a relationship. It’s not even very human, really.

It’s striking how commercially viable that impulse for instant intimacy is right now, especially in songs and writing. Just spill your guts and you’re on. I love my niece and think she’s a wonderful girl, one who’s very passionate and eloquent about her feelings, so I’m interested as a close relative in her emotional life, but if I were a stranger and she were a performer, I wouldn’t pay twenty-five dollars to see her throw a fit. I don’t want to pay to see a stranger purge herself. Writing in other voices other than your own allows you to organize yourself and arrange an experience in words that have a form. I favor T. S. Eliot’s aesthetic of impersonality. He doesn’t have to blurt out his intimate feelings to make the Four Quartets, for example, deeply moving. I prefer to arrange a song in a way that has order and beauty.

There are other things I need to work on as a writer. How do you write about those moments when you are fulfilled or feeling completed? Maybe you need to write more anthemic songs, like U2, to do that. I haven’t found a way to write about falling in love with my husband, Mitchell. How do you match that feeling of almost operatic passion? We weren’t able to fling ourselves together in the way that we might have were we younger or in different circumstances. He was married. I didn’t want to be involved with someone who was married. Plus we were working together in a professional situation, so we stayed apart. There was that odd feeling of being apart but feeling this thing growing that neither of us was talking about. If I could have walked away from the relationship, I would have. It should have been the easiest thing to do because he was everything I didn’t want in a person: a producer and a keyboard player who was married with a child. No way! At the same time there was this amazing sense of inevitability, a feeling that this was something that had to happen. It took six or seven months before we were finally able to work everything through. All of a sudden I started to understand the feelings in operas where people are singing to one another across the stage. That made sense in a way it never had before. Some of the emotion was because of the restraint we had to exercise. There was also a great feeling of risk. How do I write about that? I don’t know. How do I write about those six months when I was feeling things I never felt before? I don’t know yet. That’s the job. The older I get, the longer it takes to filter experiences so they can become songs. “Tired of Sleeping” took eight years; “Stockings” took ten; other songs take fifteen. By the time I’m seventy-five I should have it all worked out pretty well.

Copyright © Suzanne Vega. All rights reserved.


“Have Guitar, Must Travel” by Suzanne Vega

February 9, 2000

“Have Guitar, Must Travel” was originally published in the NYTimes, February 17, 2002


Have Guitar, Must Travel


There was a time when Bob Dylan aspired to be “as big as Dave Van Ronk,” the folk singer who died last Sunday at 65. Anyone with even a passing interest in Dylan knows of Van Ronk, the well-loved “Mayor of Macdougal Street,” who started performing in Greenwich Village in the late 50’s and whose apartment became a gathering place for musicians like Tom Paxton, Janis Ian and Christine Lavin.

Van Ronk’s boisterous, salty character and anecdotes illustrate the many Dylan biographies. It’s well documented how Dylan first came to the Village a scruffy waif in 1961, and flopped at Van Ronk’s place. But Dylan quickly grew to mythic stature and outgrew the scene that had once nurtured him, although in later years he would still sometimes drop by for one of Van Ronk’s home-cooked dinners.

What remains of that scene today? Do new songwriters still gather in Greenwich Village, sitting on the benches in Father Demo Square (the patron saint of demos, perhaps?) and drink, and discuss poetry and politics? They do. Some things have changed, of course. Rents being what they are, none of the newcomers live in Greenwich Village. They couldn’t afford it.

The only Village folkie left that I know of is Jack Hardy, who finally won his well-publicized battle with the landlord to keep the rent-controlled apartment on West Houston Street he has had since 1975. (The landlord wants to contest, by the way.) So most of the songwriters come in from Brooklyn, New Jersey or Washington Heights, or even farther. Then they go home.

The problem is: where do they play? Where do they go to perform, get feedback from other writers, socialize, drink, fight and learn how to put on a show? Some of this happens at the Ear Inn on Spring Street, within walking distance of the Village.

But nothing quite takes the place of Folk City, which folded in the mid-80’s just as a new wave of acoustic singer-songwriters hit the charts. Folk City was the club where Dylan got his start. Everybody knew this; it was a focal point for songwriters inspired by Dylan, who wanted to write literate songs not bound by top-40 rules. It was also part of the pilgrimage to the Village for those who had heard the music, read the books, seen the movie and wanted to be there live.

Still people come, teenagers, men and women, of all abilities, with their guitars, and try to find a way to survive here. You can share a bill with five other people at a number of clubs, though you may or may not be paid. Or after years of trying, you might get an industry showcase at the Bitter End. But a piece of history is in danger of being lost. The folk scene is still healthy, if homeless for a while. We can’t flop at Van Ronk’s anymore. We need a new home.

Suzanne Vega released her sixth album, “Songs in Red and Gray,” on A&M/Interscope, in September. She lives on the Upper West Side.


Street Legal, Finally by Suzanne Vega

February 9, 2000

Originally printed in The New York Times: Sunday, August 24, 2003

The Metro Section

EVERYBODY says: “Don’t learn to drive in the city. It’s crazy.” But as the song says, if you can make it here, and so forth.

And I really wanted a driver’s license. I was 43, had my learner’s permit and had failed the test once already – but that was in Riverhead, on Long Island. I’m an urban girl. This time, I would learn how to drive in the city. My city.

But my quest, like driving in New York (and like life), was full of stops and starts, unexpected dead ends and mysterious spirals (like the streets of Greenwich Village). In the end, my pursuit of the elusive New York State driver’s license became about much more than a divorced woman’s learning to drive for the first time.

I recently moved back to my old neighborhood, near 102nd Street and Broadway, where I lived from 1967 to 1979, and I decided I would learn to drive there. It was strange, rolling down the very roads where I had taken my first small steps away from home. We moved to 102nd Street when I was 7, and I remember crossing Broadway for the first time. It was as big as an ocean. I remember learning to navigate the neighborhood in concentric circles – you can go around the corner to the grocery store to get Daddy’s cigarettes, but you can’t go across any streets. O.K., you can cross four streets to get to your friend’s house, but you can’t go down to 96th Street. Eventually, I could walk to school on 97th Street, several blocks from my house.

How weird it was to drive streets I knew so well. What a different perspective. I could rumble down streets I would have been too afraid to walk on, especially as a kid. Now I zipped past everyone, and everyone was a pedestrian. There were lots of them. Big ones, too. I didn’t hit any, even the slow ones who took their time strolling though the intersection when I had to turn right.

My first lesson last fall was given by Mr. R., an elderly, gentle Puerto Rican man. I got in the car, an old beat-up Toyota, and started it up. He smiled encouragingly.

“Let’s just go forward,” he said. “Are you nervous? Don’t be nervous. Make a left here.”

As I drove, he hummed or sang old Spanish ballads under his breath. From time to time, he talked on his cellphone. I figured I was doing well since he didn’t seem very concerned. At the end of the first lesson, he said: “You are a smart, careful driver. How many lessons did you buy? Ten? At the end you will drive better than me. And you look like a driver!”

I didn’t know what to say, but I thanked him.

I liked Mr. R. He never yelled. Here was his method: “What color do you think that light was back there?” he would muse.

“Um, green?” I said hopefully as my mind raced: What light? I saw a stop sign, so I turned left. I didn’t see any light.

“It was red” he murmured. “Try not to do that again.”

Once, as we zipped along 125th Street right above Columbia University and Barnard College, where I went to school 20 years ago, he said, “You are going to have to merge here.”

How did he know this? Did he just feel it in his bones? I asked him. He just smiled.

“Let’s do that again,” he said. The third time through, I saw the merge sign. “Oh, there’s the sign,” I said. We did it a fourth time, to make sure I kept seeing the sign.

One day, instead of getting Mr. R., I got Nelson, a short, square-shouldered young man. Hmm, I thought. There had been a Nelson in my first-grade class in East Harlem. That Nelson’s name had been Badillo and his birthday was in July, like mine, and his coat hook was next to mine. We were delighted by these discoveries; they seemed significant to us. I remember him saying, “Maybe we’ll get married.”

Wouldn’t it be amazing if it were the same guy?

“How old are you?” I asked the current Nelson.

“Twenty-four,” he said.

I am 19 years older than he is. I could be his mother. But the coincidence of his name makes me feel as though I am traveling a spiral, around the same streets but in a different time. Those were the 60’s and 70’s, when Manhattan looked the way it did in “Shaft” and “Serpico” and “The French Connection.” Now it’s cleaner, mostly, and there are “Safe Haven” stickers in the stores on Broadway. My daughter, who is 9, has never stood on the sidewalk unattended or crossed a street by herself.

Nelson is different from Mr. R. He is casual, funny, streetwise. He chats with me about Howard Stern, about 9/11, about how much coffee he drinks, the merits of Starbucks over Bustelo. Every time we start a lesson he wants to be reminded of what problems we are working on.

Parallel parking and observing.

“Oh, yeah.”

I learn fast as we sail around all my old neighborhoods. Here is where P.S. 179 used to be, where I was the only one who could read in the second grade. Here is 110th Street, where we had a family friend whose cat’s name was Bonnie and Clyde. Here is the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, where I once had a midnight picnic. Each street is saturated with emotion, with memory.

One day I get stuck behind a stalled bus. I have to do a real three-point turn into oncoming traffic, fast. Amazingly, I do. I make eye contact with the driver on the opposite side and motion for him to stop. He does! I do my three points and dart up the other side, thrilled.

Another time I have to begin the lesson by backing down the street the whole length of the block, turning backward onto Broadway. Wow.

I learn about the different times of day and the obstacles they bring. At 10 a.m. there’s U.P.S. trucks and FedEx trucks, double parkers, women with strollers. And 3 p.m. brings the masses of yelling schoolchildren.

We work on parallel parking. For days that’s all we do: me, Nelson, the car and the curb. There is a formula, a parallel parking geometry, if you will:

Pull up to the car you want to park behind. Indicate right. Line up the wheel of your car with the front tire of the car next to you. Try to be parallel and not sticking out. Rotate the steering wheel one full revolution to the right. Put the car in reverse. Look behind you and try not to depend on your mirrors while the car is in motion. When your right mirror has lined up with the left rear taillight of the car in front of you, cut the wheel the other way, turn it left as far as it will go. Slide into the space without hitting the curb, or the car in front of you, or the car in back of you, or the garbage on the sidewalk.

Nelson doesn’t even open the door. He is cracking himself up laughing. “Well, you paralleled, but you didn’t park.”

The formula has failed, or I have failed the formula. I am indeed parallel, but nowhere near the curb. I am about three feet away. For an hour I try. And fail.

Then Nelson says: “You just touched that man’s BMW. Let’s get the hell out of here.”

Finally, I get the date for my actual driving test. I do so much want to be a good driver, but I just don’t get how. It is so frustrating. I ask my neighbor if I can go driving with her. She has a great big van with exquisitely responsive brakes. I try to show her where Nelson and I usually go – the lovely drive down Morningside overlooking a little park that nobody knows about, that winds so beautifully you don’t even know you’re in Manhattan.

Somehow we end up on the other side, but at least there are parking spaces. She watches me.

“What are you doing?” she asks. “Why are you throwing the wheel to one side, and then the other? Here, watch me.”

She gets in and expertly handles the big machine, adjusting first one way, then the next, keeping the distance between the car and the curb in her mind at all times.

I decide that I have been following an abstract principle instead of living in the real world. This is a good lesson. Don’t follow the formula. Just look at the curb as it really exists, and adjust to it. This works!

On that I day I feel enlightened. I have learned a basic principle I should apply to my entire life.

But this joy is blotted out when I become distracted as we approach the parking garage. for one moment, as we are talking about something, I get the brake and the gas pedal confused, and accelerate hard right toward a brick wall. I finally brake, but my friend has her head in her hands, whispering in horror. She thinks we are going to die. I look out the window. Everyone is staring.

The garage attendant and all the passers-by, are staring at me as I get out of the van.

“Hello!” I wave cheerfully. “Sorry!”

But I go back to Nelson with my new, hard-won knowledge. This time I get half the parking right, a huge improvement. I would be really happy about it, but one of Nelson’s relatives is in jail, and he’s not happy about that, so I am not happy either. He talks on the cellphone.

He tells me: “My cousin’s girlfriend is pregnant, and when he gets in trouble, she calls me up. Do I look like the president?”

I assure him that he doesn’t. I have had relatives in jail, too, and wonder if I should tell him I know how it can be? I start to, but he is not listening. So I drive here and there, parking randomly in all our usual spots as he sighs into the cellphone.

Next time, the incident is gone from Nelson’s mind. But he starts to tease me about my powers of observation. On the way to the lesson, I notice the tarot reader on the same street, past the sign for the driving school. This begins a chain of thought, and I sail right past a bewildered Nelson, standing in the doorway.

“Where are you going?” he shouts at me. “How can you work on your observation when you don’t even observe the teacher!”

We go up to Harlem. “Oh, here is Convent Avenue!” I say. “My sister just got married up here! Look at the great old Gothic buildings!”

We head toward Broadway and students from City College clog the intersection. I slow down.

“Why you slowing down?” Nelson says to me.

“Mr. R. told me not to hit the pedestrians.”

“These guys are wiseguys. They see your student sign, and they are giving you a hard time. Don’t slow down.” He reaches across me and honks the horn. The students scatter, laughing.

Another time we are on Riverside, about to turn right. I notice two old ladies in the car to my left. They cut me off, still chatting away, while I seethe. I think to myself, as Mr. R. said, if someone wants the right of way, give it to them, it’s not worth getting into a fight over. So I let them go and turn right myself without stopping, but in hot pursuit of the two old ladies.

“You know what you did back there?” he said.

“What?” I say, jolted back to reality.

“You went through a stop sign. Didn’t you see it?”

I explained to him that I wasn’t going to let those two ladies get ahead of me. Nelson throws his head back and laughs.

“You’re competitive,” he says. “I like that.”

The morning of the test arrives, bright, clear. I wonder if I will pass this time? I show up for my warm-up lesson. Nelson confides that the job is getting to him. He puts his life at risk every day, and he’s only getting $10 an hour. His dream is to be a truck driver. A truck driver? He has never been outside New York except to go to Puerto Rico and back. I imagine him on a highway, droning through the Midwest somewhere, and wonder what he would think of the huge flatlands, all that open space.

“What’s horrible is how you’re driving today,” he says.


“Your problem is you got to observate, and that’s not something I can teach you. If you keep your head on your head you should do O.K. But I can’t teach you to observate.”

With that endorsement ringing in my ears, I’m ready for Yonkers, ready to face the test again.

The tester gets into the car, looks at my permit. “What a nice smile,” he says.

It flashes through my mind that the photograph is from the day my husband and I separated, but I figure there is no need to go into that.

“Thanks,” I say.

As we drive, he corrects a couple of things without writing them down: slow down, you nicked the yellow line here, you have to look both ways on the three-point turn.

We parallel park. I seize the moment. I adjust. I look at the curb. I do not touch it, and I am close, though, three inches to be exact. I turn the wheel so the tires face forward, pull the car up and ease it into park. I try not to act surprised. Imagine if I fainted? He looks at me.

“What do you think?” he says.

“I think it’s pretty good.” I say.

“I do, too.” he says. “I am impressed.”

I feel victory in my bones. I pass the test! I can’t believe it! I want to throw my arms around this man’s neck and kiss him. But I don’t. I’m relieved that I won’t have to take any more lessons, although I had gotten used to Nelson and his moods, his humor. I suddenly realize that I will probably never see him again.

Even though I got my license, I still feel cautious about driving, and I haven’t driven in the city since I passed. I am still an urban girl, but right now I feel most comfortable driving in Orange County, Calif., when I visit family, because the roads are nice and wide, and the signs are really big.

And, from time to time, I wonder about Nelson, wonder whether he’ll ever end up on that highway, driving a truck through the Midwest.

Suzanne Vega

We Of Me