Suzanne Vega – Tom’s Diner
How would you feel if one day scientists, working at music digital formats, told you that they used you as a reference for the human voice? I mean, there are more than seven billion people on the planet, not to mention the voices of people who are no longer there, there are thousands of different languages and tones, people of all ages who know how to make very different sounds in the world’s languages, there are tenors, sopranos, opera singers, and they come to you?
We could ask Suzanne Vega this question, because the scientists who were developing the mp3 format trying to compress the human voice into an algorithm without having significant quality losses, used Suzanne’s voice as their reference for their own tests! Yes, because on her album Solitude Standing, which she released in early April 1987, Suzanne Vega had inserted an “a cappella” song, that is, a voice-only song. This, combined of course with the crystal clear tone of her voice, made her the perfect candidate for this project.
The song was Tom’s Diner, and it wasn’t really supposed to be an “a cappella” song; there had to be a piano base to accompany Suzanne. But Suzanne didn’t feel good enough to play the piano, and she didn’t know anyone who could play it at the time, and so she decided to record this song with her voice only. As Suzanne told BBC, the song is, we would say in the present day, almost an Instagram story. The portrait of a few minutes of normality, with Suzanne at the bar for breakfast before taking the train to work, and she sees the people, a woman enters and kisses the waiter, and Suzanne pours milk to pretend not to see them, then she browses the pages of the horoscope and comics in the paper, until she feels observed from the outside, but it’s just a woman looking inside the window while she fixes her stockings.
And then, however, a sound of bells kidnaps Suzanne and brings her back to the memory and voice of her loved one. Just this moment, however, and now it’s already time to get back in the way and take the train, start running again at the pace of the rhythm: tu ttu ttu ru…
The version we hear, however, has a musical base. Yes, because three years later, in 1990, two British DJs and producers named DNA added a base to the song, all without even informing or asking Suzanne for permission. When she found out and heard the song, she said she didn’t quite know whether to sue or congratulate them, because in fact that base was just what was missing (the album still featured a “reprise” of the song as the last track, with a musical base, but this was better).
In the end Suzanne decided not only not to sue the two, but even pushed her own record company to produce the two’s record as a featuring, as we say today.
Last detail: Tom’s Diner really does exist, and as Suzanne herself tells us in the famous BBC interview, it’s in New York between 112th Street and Broadway. It’s actually called Tom’s Restaurant, but it was just the place where she went for breakfast before taking the train when she lived there. The bar was clearly destined to be famous, because in the 90s many scenes from the sit-com Seinfeld took place in the same diner.
Suzanne Vega on Wikipedia