Neighborhood Girl

David Bowman interviews Suzanne Vega, whose poems and lyircs were recently published in the volume 'The Passionate Eye'.

Topics: Patti Smith, Music,

Suzanne Vega’s new collection of lyrics, poems and journalism, “The Passionate Eye,” published by Avon in a handsome volume, is more substantive than a mere fan’s book, but the singer-songwriter’s elliptical and strangely impersonal Dickinson-ish verse will most soundly resonate with readers who already belong to her cult.

Oh, Vega has one. Many members are men. You know the kind of guy I
mean — suckers for aloof, wounded women. Think back to Vega’s first, self-titled record. Not only did she proclaim Marlene Dietrich as a chilly heroine, but in “The Queen and the Soldier,” a young soldier is executed on the order of the frigid queen who is “strangling in the solitude she preferred.” Back in the spring of ’85, when “Suzanne Vega” was released, a thousand young men (myself included) dreamed of her as an unobtainable ice maiden.

Vega released just four more records over the next 15 years. While her hit was the beaten-neighborhood-kid number “Luka,” her best CD so far is 1990′s “Days of Open Hand.” Discreetly electric, its elegance makes it a classic somewhere between Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bookends” and Leonard Cohen’s “New Skin for the Old Ceremony.”

Although Vega’s next two albums contain strong songs, both are marred by Mitchell Froom’s heavy-handed production — the man wrecked Vega’s sound as thoroughly as he did Richard Thompson’s. Ah, but a fellow who is about to interview Vega inside a conference room at her publisher’s office better watch what he says! Vega married Froom back in 1995 and bore his child …

So what’s with Suzanne Vega in the ’90s? Leonard Cohen has put out more records than you.

[Laughs] That’s not true! How can that be? I had one come out in 1990. Then 1992. And 1996. That’s three. How many do people want? Three seems like plenty to me. And I had a baby. And all this other stuff happened, too.


When we were kids, musicians came out with a record every year …

Except Leonard Cohen. Yeah, but it was a different time. I don’t think I could ever do that, because I find the whole thing of promoting records and being on tour absolutely exhausting. Try taking the ferry from England with a 2-year-old who has just had a chicken pox vaccine and is throwing a screaming fit. You won’t think, “Oh, I’ll sit down and write a beautiful, poetic song.”


Have recording plans?

Not really. I’m just reorienting myself. A lot of things changed this last year. I had been recording with Mitchell and so we’re not going to work together anymore. Then my record company was swallowed up by another record company. I used to be on A&M, and now I’ll be on Interscope — that is, if they don’t do some massive housecleaning.


Nervous?

They’ve told me I’m one of the artists they’re happy to work with. That’s nice to hear. I believe it. I’ll continue to believe it until I hear otherwise. [Pause] Yeah, I guess I’m a little nervous.


What year did Folk City [where Vega got her start in Manhattan] close?

Probably ’86. Which is so ironic. There was this big folk boom that we were all supposed to be enjoying and then it just closed. Robby [the owner] was going to open Folk City somewhere else. But then he just disappeared.


Folk music still exists, but there’s nothing about your work remotely
hootenanny-esque. Do you care about music labels?

No. [Laughs] Over the years I’ve collected a fairly eclectic audience that appreciates me for the thing that I do. On the other hand I have to say that I really had a home at Folk City from the years 1980 to 1985. I was in heaven because I found other writers who were really interested in lyrics and in playing the acoustic guitar. You could argue with them and stay up all night and drink. It was great.

I didn’t mind being called a folk singer back then, although I have to say it didn’t help me get any gigs. I was considered kind of odd. Usually if a college coffeehouse wanted a folk singer, they wanted someone who could make the audience feel cheerful and I didn’t do any of those things.


So when did you go electric?

What do you mean — when did I put a band together? As soon as I could. Probably in 1983 I started to fool around adding a bass player. Then a synthesizer. And in 1983, the synthesizer was a big deal, a big scary step.

People have tried to get me to play electric guitar and I can’t. The strings just ring out. I was trying to play electric guitar up in Woodstock and the amp caught on fire.

I was doing research and found this Musician magazine interview [June 1990] about how after your Puerto Rican father announced he was not your biological father, you hired a private detective to track your real dad down. Has this experience ever shown up in a song?

One song, “Blood Sings.” The audience always cries at that song, but they have no idea what I’m talking about. I’m completely cryptic. You’d never guess that I’m looking at photographs of my relatives, and I’m actually singing about an uncle that died before I got to know him.

This is the only time I really dealt with the issue head on. Strangely enough, I react to it more visually. Because my father sent me all these photographs, I found myself wanting to do weird self-portraits or family history scrapbooks depicting the different configurations that my family has gone through.


It’s like you’re a character in a Ross MacDonald novel — some lost child who hires Lew Archer to find who she really is.

Boy, tell me about it. I definitely sometimes feel like I’m living something. I can’t tell whether it’s Dickensian or film noir. Families are so strange these days. It’s so hard to stay connected. All up and down my blood relatives is the story over and over again of people having children and leaving them somewhere. The bloodline to my father’s line starts in 1850 when a baby was abandoned on an Indian reservation in Missouri. She was my grandmother’s great-grandmother or something.


Wasn’t your grandmother a glamorous singer?

She was a drummer.


A female drummer?

Yeah! There were all these women bands in the 1930s doing the vaudeville
circuit in the Midwest. I’ve seen her picture. She is utterly beautiful to look at. She ran into this trumpet player on the road. The two got married for five years. She had four children. Then he left her. She put three of her kids in an institution. And gave up my father for adoption. From what I can gather, she continued with her career. My father only learned who his parents were two years before I contacted him. I come from a family of traveling musicians and orphans, basically.

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Do you feel you’re leaving a public legacy for your 4-year-old daughter?

Nah. [Long pause] I don’t know. She is a curious girl. She wants to know where she’s from. She grills me about who is related to whom. We’re sitting at the dinner table and she is asking, “Who’s your step-grandmother? Who is your brother-in-law?” She wants to know how it’s all related.

As for my public work, she’s told me that when I play the guitar she does not like it. She and Tigger [her doll] feel very jealous. I was like, “Well sweetie …”


Has she seen you onstage?

Oh sure. When I opened in London, she would shout things from the balcony. She didn’t like it if I talked too long and would yell, “Mama, sing!” She liked it as long as she felt it was for her. But now she hates when I pick up the guitar. The other day I was playing my “Greatest Hits” thing [released in Europe only], and she threw a screaming fit, “Stop playing that music! Take it off!” She has a very strong personality. She’s not going to grow up in my shadow. She’s already someone to be reckoned with.

I always felt that you were the Grace Kelly of pop singers.

Oh, so I dressed appropriately today. [Slides her chair from under the table to display her stylish black sweater and skirt]


Your image has always seemed … A kinder word than “reserved.” Maybe “regal.” Just sort of above it all.

That’s nice to hear. Although I’ve been made fun of a lot of times, I can’t tell you. When I was on the swim team I used to get yelled at all the time, “You swim like a lady, and it’s women who win the races, blah blah blah.”


Swimming is a recurring theme for you.

Really?


There’s this episode in your book when you’re drowning and you’re too polite to call for help.

Well, I love the water. I love swimming. I’ve always been drawn to the water as long as I can remember. I love the ocean. Lap swimming is OK, but if I were not to live in New York I would live on the beach. And dress in black, and stride around in my boots by the water.

Tell me who your heroes are besides Leonard Cohen?

[In a thick Jewish accent] Besides Len-ahrd … [regular voice] Lou Reed was a really big hero for a long time and still is. When I want to challenge myself I go back and listen to his early stuff. Like the Velvet Underground album with the banana on the cover. I love the “Berlin” album because I thought it was very confrontational, although I don’t always understand his stream of consciousness. One of my favorite songs is “Stephanie Says, Part 2.” There’s this great verse, “Stephanie says as she gets up off the floor/You can hit me if you want to but I don’t love you anymore.” To me it’s just a perfect opening for a song. It catches the whole mentality as though you could make someone love you by beating the shit out of them. But then he goes off on this weird tangent about snow and Alaska.


Have you ever met Reed?

Several times over the course of 10 or 12 years. And he’s always been
very nice. He’s an odd person. You catch him on the wrong day, he can be
monstrous. But to me he’s always been nice. And as the years have gone on, sometimes he’s even flirtatious in his strange way. Which I always laugh at: “Please. What are you talking about?” But the next time he sees you, it will be a whole different vibe.

There are days where I wish I could be Lou Reed. He seems so cruel. It really seems like he just didn’t give a damn. And I admire that, because I find myself caring a lot about what people think.


If you were to rewrite “Marlene on the Wall” today, who would be on the wall?

Hmmm. I don’t know. I loved Marlene Dietrich for her image. Just her image. And that cruel streak which I find attractive. Then I read biographies and feel sad. Along with her cruel streak there’s all this other stuff that I wish I didn’t know.


So do you have a cruel streak?

I wish I could just say, “Oh yeah.” I wish I had more of one. It’s something you need in this world.


Not to get too personal, but I’m as interested in rage as you are in cruelty. Something I’ve been thinking about is that in America male rage is sexy but female rage is not.

I don’t think male rage is sexy.


Culturally, I mean. Like Jack Nicholson’s freak-out in the restaurant in “Five Easy Pieces.”

You see, I don’t find that sexy. I find that real stupid. When I see some of those scenes, I go, “Oh God. Jesus.” It just doesn’t do it for me. And when we talk about Lou Reed and Marlene Dietrich having a cruel streak, that’s not rage, that’s not out of control. I don’t find male rage sexy. I don’t find violence sexy. I don’t find a guy beating the shit out of another guy sexy. I’m not turned on by violence.


Did your stepfather scream a lot when you were a kid?

Oh, he yelled.


And did your mother yell?

Oh yeah. She yelled back and at him.

I grew up with just the mother screaming.

No, no the two yelled. It wasn’t screaming. Screaming is powerlessness. You scream because you can’t figure out how to be heard any other way. That Jack Nicholson thing, “You can hold the chicken between your knees,” that’s a tantrum. I don’t think tantrums are sexy in anybody, male or female.

But kindness to me is only powerful if it has the cruel streak behind it. If someone is kind all the time under all circumstances, they’re just simple-minded. Kindness is only worth something if you have the cruel streak to back it up.

[Vega's publicist enters to end interview]

I’m glad we went through that thing about rage because a lot of people find violence very sexy. [Thinks a moment] Although you have someone like Michelle Yeoh in the last James Bond film defending herself pretty well. It’s beautiful to see. I saw that and thought, “Oh man. I wish I could be like that. That would be so cool.”

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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