The Unique History of Suzanne Vega’s ‘Tom’s Diner’
On the surface, Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner" is a simple song. Written from the perspective of the songwriter's photographer friend Brian Rose, the tune is a stream-of-consciousness snapshot of a rainy morning scene at a diner. The main character observes the people around her—regular customers, a stranger outside—and reminisces about a lost love, before finishing her coffee and starting her day.
"I picked these different moments out and I made a little storyline," Vega told a crowd in 1996. "That's one thing, I think, that people miss sometimes. It's not just a song about breakfast—it's a song about being disconnected or feeling alienated and then think this sort of wistful moment back to when you really felt connected to someone when you were in love with them. So that's really what the song is about."
Going by context clues such as newspapers and weather reports, sleuths deduced that Vega wrote at least some of the song on November 18, 1981. The titular eatery where she penned the song was called Tom's Restaurant, located at 112th and Broadway. "I used to eat breakfast there when I was going to school and before I would go to work," Vega told that same audience. "Back when I wrote the song, it was a very ordinary place, a very sort of New York place, nothing fancy, not picture perfect, not even terribly atmospheric, just like a regular joint. And that's why I really liked it."
All these years later, "Tom's Diner" remains a staple of Vega's concerts. "I still celebrate it every night on stage," she recently told Diffuser, while adding, "It's crazy the life that it seems to have had. It was such a little funny moment in time. I wrote it to amuse myself and to make my friend Brian laugh, which I think it did. It just seems to have grown this pop root that won't give up."
Indeed, chronicling all the places where it's been sampled or covered is a nearly impossible task. Although the version remixed by DNA remains the most well-known take, in the last few years, Chicago rock band Fall Out Boy has borrowed parts of it, and electro icon Giorgio Moroder collaborated with Britney Spears on a cover. "I just celebrate it when it comes out, all the variations, the Fall Out Boy version and the Britney Spears version," Vega says. "I'm like, 'Yeah, okay. Super.'"
As to why the song has had such a long lifespan, and been repurposed and reimagined in so many ways? "You would have to probably ask DNA," Vega continued. "And I have asked them—I said, 'What made you think of remixing it?' Neal Slateford, who was sort of the marketing guy, said, 'Oh, it was obvious. If we hadn't done it, someone else would have, because the rhythm was already there in the song.' It's sort of true that if you take any hip-hop rhythm and you sing "da-da-da-da" over it, it works. It really does. It works every time. You can sing 'Tom's Diner' to almost any hip-hop song if you try it, if you try inserting those lyrics.
"Somehow, unconsciously, I had expressed where I came from," she continues. "I came from East Harlem and the Upper West Side in the '70s and the '80s, and that's when that whole culture was being hatched. I played all those rhyming games that we all played back then. Somehow, it just kind of came out. It came through me. I proudly own it."
Here are a few highlights from the long, rich history of "Tom's Diner."
Fast Folk Musical Magazine, January 1984 (Vol. 1, Issue 1)
In the early '80s, Vega was a regular performer in Greenwich Village and had some of her early work released by CooP - Fast Folk Musical Magazine, a print publication that included a record highlighting the work of promising folk and Americana artists. When the magazine rechristened itself Fast Folk Musical Magazine, the first issue featured a wholly a cappella take on "Tom's Diner." This sparse version "was considered pretty daring because it was a cappella," Vega told Diffuser. "I had imagined it as a piano song, an old-fashioned Truffaut movie soundtrack. But I didn't play piano, and I couldn't afford a pianist, and I didn't feel like arranging it." Smithsonian Folkways Recordings now owns the Fast Folk archives, and has this version of the song available for sale.
Solitude Standing, 1987
On Vega's second album, there are two versions of "Tom's Diner": an a cappella version and an instrumental reprise with prominent bass and sizzling percussion. "When we did the album, I decided not to have it arranged, except for that little bit at the end," Vega says, "where I kind of heard it as a Brechtian song in the reprise."
DNA featuring Suzanne Vega, "Tom's Diner," 1990
Two U.K. producers heard something intriguing in "Tom's Diner," and decided to pair Vega's vocals with a Soul II Soul beat to create a composition they dubbed "Oh Susanne!" Writing in the New York Times, Vega says, "Their story was: they had tried to ask permission from the record company but no one returned their phone call — which I believe. They didn’t want to wait. They decided to sell them at their local corner record shop. It sold a lot right away. That’s when the record company found out about it."
But instead of filing a lawsuit, A&M Records decided to officially release the remix, which became a hit: The song landed at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100, and reached the Top 10 of the Modern Rock, R&B/Hip-Hop and Dance Music/Maxi Singles Sales charts.
"The Mother of the MP3," early '90s
Vega was dubbed "The Mother of the MP3" because as scientists were developing the technology behind the MP3 audio format, one of the songs they used for MPEG "high-quality" listening tests in 1990 was the a cappella "Tom's Diner," according to the book MP3: The Meaning of a Format (Sign, Storage, Transmission). In a separate video interview about the history of the MP3, scientist Jürgen Herre said "Tom's Diner" became "one of the most easy to code pieces of music" as audio tests evolved in sophistication.
Bingo Hand Job, "Tom's Diner," 1991
Tom's Album, 1991
In the wake of DNA's remix, other people sent Vega their own spin on the song. "What was I going to do with all these 'Tom’s Diner' songs?" Vega wrote in the New York Times. "They were going to waste filling up boxes in my apartment. So, along with an engineer, Denny McNerney, I gathered all the songs together into a collection called Tom’s Album, using some cartoons that an artist called Tom Hart had given me when he heard the song originally. I wrote some liner notes and approached A&M about releasing it."
Tom's Album was released in 1991, and featured the DNA remix, the Bingo Hand Job re-do and a new DNA remix of Vega's "Rusted Pipe." In an odd twist, "it was a logistical nightmare to administrate," Vega wrote. "I had to go back to all the people who had taken the song without permission, and ask their permission . . . to use their version of my song! This is the main reason we have not put out Tom’s Albums 2 and 3, which we certainly could, as now we are up to almost 30 remixes including (really good) ones from Danger Mouse and Tupac."
"Weird Al" Yankovic, "Polka Your Eyes Out," 1992
The polka medley from 1992's Off the Deep End features a brief snippet of Yankovic briskly singing the song's "doo-doo-doo-doo" vocals.
Fall Out Boy, "Centuries," 2014
Fall Out Boy's 2014 single "Centuries" features a prominent sample of Vega's syncopated "doo-doo-doo-doo" vocals. In a nice touch, she joined the band for a performance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and added her parts in person. "They were so nice, and it was so nice meeting Patrick Stump and Pete Wentz," Vega says. "They were just great guys to hang out with."
Giorgio Moroder featuring Britney Spears, "Tom's Diner," 2015
Giorgio Moroder's 2015 album, Déjà Vu, features a dancefloor-ready electro cover of the song with pop queen Britney Spears singing Vega's lyrics.
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