Coffee in a Cup (A Journalist's Song)
What is life? It is a flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.
—Last words of Crowfoot, Blackfoot warrior and orator
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.
—T.S. Eliot, Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
One summer morning, a man with a backpack entered a cozy corner store diner behind an elderly gentleman who smelled of licorice and pipe tobacco. After finding it a week ago, the backpacker had frequented this diner every day since, ordering a cup of the city’s worst decaf, always choosing the booth at the end farthest away from the diner’s old-fashioned jukebox.
As he settled into the worn seat cushion of his booth, he did what he’d done all week: he laid his black baseball cap on the table near the salt and pepper shakers, and then he retrieved his CD player, notebook, pack of pens purchased at the dollar store, and digital voice recorder from his backpack. He placed these items in front of him, almost in a semicircle. In the center of his writing tools, he positioned his coffee and the CD he intended to review for the day.
Today, the coffee went down more easily than normal. Less bitter. Today, he was writing about Suzanne Vega’s “New York-themed” Beauty & Crime.
He’d listened to Beauty & Crime several times already, and it resonated with him, mostly due to Ms. Vega’s lively and detailed storytelling. Her soft yet emotive voice was her paintbrush and, with it, she captured the extraordinary elements of ordinary life with breathtaking subtlety.
He enjoyed the works of a great number of female singer-songwriters—with Tori Amos, Ani Difranco, Sarah McLachlan, Fiona Apple, Paula Cole, Feist, and Joni Mitchell being among his favorites. Yet, his interest always returned to Suzanne Vega, as it had ever since her 1987 album Solitude Standing, like a kid in a game of tag running to “home base”. He remembered how her hit song “Luka” caught everyone’s attention, regardless of genre and radio station format and how Ms. Vega had written of her surprise that “Luka” had been such a popular tune. Examining the effects of abuse from a young boy’s perspective, the song evidently reached the audience in ways many of her other “important” songs (like “Fifty Fifty Chance” and “Men in a War”) never quite did.
Of course there was also “Tom’s Diner”, the studious account of the goings-on in a local greasy spoon. The exterior of the real-life diner was the front for “Monk’s Diner” on Seinfeld, while the song itself became all the rage and sported dozens of remix makeovers. “Tom’s Diner” was also used as the test song for the development of the mp3 format.
Throughout her career, Ms. Vegas style had been endearing and remarkably consistent. Her albums—Suzanne Vega (1985), Solitude Standing (1987), Days of Open Hand (1990), 99.9F Degrees (1992), Nine Objects of Desire (1996), and Songs in Red & Grey (2001)—have shown her to be a writer’s songwriter; that is, the type of lyricist a writer wants to write to. He noted that there were some artists who inspire people to create similar works of art (as in, “I want to write like she does!”), while other artists fuel the journey for individuality (as in, “She makes me want to find my voice!”). Suzanne Vega, he felt, belonged in the V.I.P. section of the latter group and, as he recalled the many late nights he’d spent penning verse and chapter to her insistence that she would never be “your Maggie May”, he scribbled a note in his notebook’s margins as a reminder to mention this in his review.
Those poor souls who hadn’t heard Suzanne Vega since the days when “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner” enjoyed radio ubiquity—they would be pleasantly surprised by Beauty & Crime, even as it was a crime for them to miss the beauty of her previous efforts. He chuckled as he thought of this, thinking himself clever. Beauty & Crime was a familiar yet proudly contemporary album that would allow the prodigal listener to rekindle a connection with Ms. Vega’s acoustic guitar. Longtime fans longing for her studio return would revel in it too.
He recorded a few reminders for this writing in his digital voice recorder, and then, in his notebook, he wrote:
The first five cuts on Beauty & Crime are absolutely gorgeous—near and sheer perfection. Beginning with the galloping “Zephyr & I”, inspired by a conversation with the legendary graffiti artist, Ms. Vega begins her tour of New York, offering poignant lines along the way, like, “Out on the corner by the Fireman’s Monument / This was the place where all the fatherless teenagers went.” You’ll rock to it, as if you’re impervious to its melancholy, shielded by the song’s thumps and romps—bass, violin, cello and all.
Next, there’s “Ludlow Street”, inspired by Ms. Vega’s late brother, visual artist Tim Vega, who died in 2002. “Love is the only thing that matters,” she begins, “Love is the only thing that’s real,” acknowledging in the next line that “we hear this every day” while recognizing “it’s the hardest thing to feel”. Her impeccable melody, tender vocals, and lush arrangements make this track an instant favorite.
“New York is a Woman”, “Pornographer’s Dream”, and “Frank & Ava” establish a suite of relationship-oriented tunes, in addition to their provocative and evocative titles. In “New York is a Woman”, the city is personified as a woman who will “not only spread herself before you” but will also “make you cry”. To her, “you’re just another guy”. Incidentally, the album title appears in this song, in the line, “You were dazzled by her beauty and her crime”.
This is followed by the Walter Mitty-esque surrealism of “Pornographer’s Dream”. Imagery, it seems, is as potent as any aphrodisiac, imbued with the power to bypass logic. “It’s out of our hands, over our heads,” she sings, accompanied by lilting strings and piano, “Out of our reach, under this real life.” As she says, we are often “dreaming of what might be”; occasionally, we stop to consider what exists and what’s real in the present.
No review of B & C would be complete without covering “Frank & Ava”. Who wouldn’t adore this song, based on a love affair so timeless you need only type “Frank & Ava” as your Internet search to get the scoop! Ms. Vega depicts the famous couple as lovers living in a house of cards, their bond formed by the strength of their feelings, even if feelings by nature are fragile and ethereal. Indeed, “Everything must come undone”. We are, to quote Morris Day and the Time, very much like “ice cream castles” in summer.
Add “Bound”, a quick tempo number with killer live drums courtesy of Graham Hawthorne, and that’s a total of six dynamite, hard to beat tracks. “Bound” plays brilliantly upon the motif of redemption and rejuvenation that builds the atmosphere of this LP. Along these lines, “Unbound”, which cleverly arrives right after “Bound”, is a simple, brilliant poem. First, the narrator describes the plight of a plant whose roots are bound; she digs it up, makes it her own, and feeds it. Eventually, it grows “beyond its simple need”. But later, the narrator admits that she too was once “bound at the root”, unable to be free until she cut loose from being “confined with twine” in both “mind and foot”.
The remaining songs, while enjoyable and meeting Ms. Vega’s usually high lyrical standards, don’t gel quite as smoothly…
He paused, leaned back, and surveyed what he’d written. Just then, he watched a stream of lukewarm brown liquid fall on his notebook, almost in slow motion, staining the pages and smearing his blue ink.
“Why did you do that?” he demanded of the waitress, to which she said:
I was reading you over your shoulder. Sorry about the coffee. It was an accident, I swear. But, if you don’t mind me saying so, you’ve taken Vega’s album so literally, even in mentioning the personification, that I’m not convinced you’ve really experienced it. I’m a big fan of her work and I’ve been listening to this CD all morning, so maybe mine isn’t the most objective opinion. But her songs have always been personal, sensitive and insightful, and that’s why her fans love her. I’m not sure you can critique someone’s very subjective, sensitive artistry in an “objective” way.
Regardless, your notes in the margin say the songs are “too short”, that “only two out of the 11” are longer than three minutes and 30 seconds. But what does this prove? Do you think you can count the minutes, plug them into a formula, and arrive at an exact artistic rating for your review? Do you think that, by mentioning KT Tunstall’s background vocals or Jimmy Hogarth’s producer skills and his guitar and production work, you’ve somehow illuminated the essence of her album?
Yes, it has a New York theme, but have you really listened to and felt the beating heart of New York in “Zephyr & I”? Did you feel the beauty of the city and the beauty of loss in “Ludlow Street”? Did you consider the fact that “New York is a Woman” not only personifies the city, but also shows how the city represents the people, and specifically this woman, and maybe it’s not so much about a city at all but, rather, about the real flesh and bone woman? Did you notice how her use of the second person “you” makes the audience “masculine”, how the city’s femininity makes such a powerful statement and constructs quite a socio-psychological dynamic? No, you simply quoted the lyrics and moved on.
Did you notice, in “Ludlow Street”, right around the two minute mark, when she sings those lines you quoted—“Love is the only thing that matters…”—there’s a feeling of complete isolation? Didn’t it almost drive you to tears when you heard that? Didn’t the strings play shivers up and down your backbone? Do you have a backbone?
Those are the moments I’d like to hear about. Not how you think “Edith Wharton’s Figurines”, “Angel’s Doorway”, and “Anniversary” are the weakest tracks on the LP—they’re not, by the way. Not how those songs “disrupt the album’s momentum”—they don’t. I want to know how this album and these songs affected your life, how you crossed the street a little bit differently after listening to them, how the sun looked a little bit brighter and felt a little bit hotter after you heard them. I want you to tell me how it got in your veins, how interesting it is that September 11 is alive in the backdrop of Suzanne Vega’s New York, how it stands in the background for all of us, how something so tragic could inspire, at least in part, something so wonderful and so effective, and how it makes us all a little more “unbound”.
I want to know how you experienced Suzanne Vega’s New York, and if you even marveled at how New York itself lives inside this tremendous singer, like a big fish of emotion swallowing smaller fish—it’s like music’s version of a Salvador Dali painting!—and how her lyricism and acoustic guitar make it sound like she had no choice but to make this album, otherwise she would have exploded in the failed attempt to contain it all.
“Edith Wharton’s Figurines” is so lovely it’s a crime, and what’s funny is how you didn’t even make the obvious connection to Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Age of Innocence, which was also “New York-themed”, as you called it. More than that, you didn’t mention this song’s dedication to Olivia Goldsmith, author of The First Wives Club, who died during a plastic surgery operation. When Suzanne Vega sings, “We lie under anesthesia / Our wit and wonder snuffed / In our routine operations”, how do you ignore the play on the word “lie”? Also, there’s an awesome connection there, like the scenes in the movie “The Hours” that, although, they were separated by time, managed to link writer Virginia Woolf to her characters and to us all. WE are those figurines in Suzanne Vega’s song. “Ludlow Street” is our street.
How will you capture the totality of this album’s brilliance? Are you going to move your pen fast enough to keep pace with the nuances and textures you hear? Or will you be cool with just saying, “This is her debut album for Blue Note”, or telling us that Tchad Black mixed it, or summing it up as “deeply moving”?
How about this: try advising your readers to experience this album, live with it, make love while it’s playing in the background, go walking with it, fire it up on their headsets and stereos. This album is about life, my friend, and how life can leave stains like spilled coffee over notebook paper but…sometimes…the beautiful thing about this world is merely the act of dabbing that spill with a napkin. We all need that napkin sometimes.
And, yeah, I’m sorry about the spill. You’ll get a meal on the house. My apologies.
He watched her fold her apron and place it on the diner counter. She was headed resolutely for the front door when he stopped her, saying, “Is your shift over?”
She laughed and said, “No, not really.” With a shrug, she added, “But I own this joint, so my shift is never over. See? Things aren’t always as they seem.”
He watched her leave, then returned to his booth, where he smiled, pleasantly surprised to see his digital voice recorder still running.
// Notes from the Road
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