30 Years Ago: ‘Solitude Standing’ Propels Suzanne Vega to Stardom
In 1985, folk singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega released her self-titled debut album on A&M Records. Containing such standout tracks as “Marlene on the Wall,” “Small Blue Thing” and “The Queen and the Soldier,” Suzanne Vega received critical acclaim and sold 250,000 copies, proving that there was still an audience for personal introspective music in a decade marked by blockbuster pop albums and MTV. But when it came time for her to record the second album, Solitude Standing, Vega experienced a case of writer’s block.
“At the beginning of last year,” she told Rolling Stone in 1987, “I kept hearing 'Oh, we're gonna go into the studio in April,’ and I thought, ‘Okay, but I don't have any songs. You can go in there if you want, but I don't know what you're going to do.'”
Thus, some songs that were written as far back as 1978 ended up on what would become the album Solitude Standing, first released on April 1, 1987. In the same year that saw the release of such big albums as U2’s The Joshua Tree, Whitney Houston’s Whitney, and George Michael’s Faith, Solitude Standing was a huge commercial success and catapulted Vega to mainstream popularity, thanks to two surprising hit songs: the Grammy-nominated “Luka,” a Top 10 smash on the subject of child abuse; and “Tom’s Diner,” an a capella track that was released three years later with an electronic dance remix.
“I look over most of it favorably,” Vega said in 2012 to Female First about Solitude Standing. “There are one or two songs that if I were writing an album now I wouldn’t have included them, but for the most part I think it’s a really solid group of songs and ones that I’ve been singing since they came out.”
For the recording of Solitude Standing, Vega teamed up with Steve Addabbo and Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye, both of whom co-produced the singer’s brilliant debut. While Suzanne Vega was a relatively low keyed-sounding record, Solitude Standing took it up a notch further with a fuller band sound and some sterling production work while still retaining a sense of warmth and intimacy; the main performers on the album aside from Vega included keyboardist Anton Sanko, bassist Michael Visceglia, guitarist Marc Shulman, and drummer Stephen Ferrera. “The band was there from the inception, so the music and arrangements were more integral,” Vega told The Mouth Magazine in 2012.
The combination of both the older compositions and the newer material added up to a very cohesive collection in keeping with the album's theme of being alone. Two tracks were even inspired by mythology and history--the jazzy and cinematic “Calypso,” which is the name of the nymph who kept Odysseus on an island, preventing him from being with his wife; and the somber “Wooden Horse,” inspired by the bizarre story of Kaspar Hauser, a young German man from the 19th century who claimed he was held alone in a dungeon since childhood.
Of the album’s urgent and dynamic title song whose lyrics portrayed solitude as a living thing, Vega explained to Rolling Stone in 1987: “I was living with someone for two years, in one room. And I'd moved from living with someone to living alone, and I was sitting alone in this room that I'd gotten for myself. There was nothing in there, and suddenly the whole song took shape.” The record is further enhanced by the eloquent and delicate “Language,” the romantic and tender “Gypsy,” and the vivid neighborhood sketch of “Ironbound/Fancy Poultry.”
But inevitably, any discussion of Solitude Standing will naturally bring up her two signature songs. The first is “Luka,” a poignantly moving song about child abuse from the perspective of a young person. As Vega told Billboard in 2017, writing the song was a mixture of things. “There was a boy named Luka,” she said. “He lived in my building. He was not an abused child. I've known other people who were. So I put it together to make this thing.” Given its subject matter--while sounding accessible and highlighted by Jon Gordon’s stirring guitar solo--the song peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard singles chart, and received Grammy nominations for Record of the Year and Song of the Year. It has become so much part of pop culture that even Homer Simpson sang the song’s opening lines in an episode of The Simpsons. The song also prompted a famous fan named Prince to write a note to Vega at the time.
”Luka” deeply resonated with people who themselves experienced difficult personal situations. “It was hard to celebrate that," Vega told Billboard in reference to "Luka" being the breakthrough for her. "On the one hand, we were celebrating the success, but on the other hand, I felt a lot of responsibility towards the people who wrote to me. It was as though I had a magic power. Sometimes they would expect me to be able to fix the problem for them. And I took it very seriously. I wrote to every person who wrote to me that year. If I had to give advice, I sometimes would give advice, like ‘get professional help’ or ‘don't stay in that situation.’ It was a lot to deal with, and I still get letters...”
Listen to "Tom's Diner"
Solitude Standing’s other memorable song is the a capella “Tom’s Diner,” which opens the record. In a manner that is blend of spoken word and stream-of-consciousness, the words present the narrator’s observations during one morning inside the now-famous Upper West Side eatery as he or she is drinking a cup of coffee. Vega told The Guardian in 2016: “One day, I was in there mulling over a conversation I’d had with a photographer friend, Brian Rose, about romantic alienation. He told me he saw his life as if through a pane of glass. I came out of Tom’s with the idea of writing a song about an alienated character who just sees things happening around him. I was walking down Broadway and the melody popped into my head.”
At that time, the a capella version of “Tom’s Diner” seemed like an afterthought; by 1990, Vega had already moved on to her next album Days of Open Hand. That same year, Nick Batt and Neal Slateford of the British act DNA remixed "Tom's Diner" as a dance track, which became a local hit of sorts across the pond. Recalling when she heard the remix for the first time, Vega said, “The song is the same, my voice is still my voice, the story still the story, even though they left out the very end...the raw energy of the idea jumped out right away. When the DNA remix of “Tom’s Diner” broke, Vega’s label A&M Records considered taking legal action against the duo, according to Vega in an essay for The New York Times in 2008; instead a settlement was reached between both parties. In the end, the remixed version of “Tom’s Diner” reached No. 5 on the Billboard pop charts.
Since the DNA remix, the amazing of story of "Tom's Diner" continues; it has gone on to be regularly covered or sampled by many artists, including Destiny’s Child, Drake, Aaliyah and Britney Spears. Aside from being a belated hit, “Tom’s Diner” holds the distinction of being one of the first songs used in the creation of a then-new musical format called the MP3, earning Vega the nickname, the “Mother of MP3.” “I love the remixes, I embrace them, I am proud of many of them,” she wrote in the Times. “They make me feel connected to the world beyond New York City in a way I never could have imagined when I wrote the original song about a single person feeling isolated.”
Reviews at the time for Solitude Standing were positive. Rolling Stone critic David Browne wrote of the record: “...the production is beefier, with an in-your-face-drum mix and more emphasis on synths and electric guitars. But surface gloss notwithstanding, Vega hasn't changed that much. On initial listen, 'Luka,' the first single, seems an upbeat folk-rock number with a killer hook of a chorus. Then you notice the lyrics...Only a writer as skillful and subtle as Vega could write a potent song about child abuse that gets your feet tapping while putting across its point.”
In its Dec. 26, 1987 issue, Billboard said of Solitude Standing as part of a year-end wrap-up: “True, it doesn’t happen often, but intelligent lyrics can sell an album.” And People magazine chimed in: “Her elegantly crafted, alarmingly accessible second album may cause Vega’s loyal following to squirm in their faded Levis a bit at having to share her with the population at large.” The record peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard album chart and has since gone platinum.
On the surface, some may shallowly perceive Vega a "two-hit wonder" thanks to "Luka" and "Tom's Diner," which is unfair given that she has continued to record and tour. “The way I prefer to see it is that I have had a 20-plus-year career,” Vega wrote in the Times in 2008, “with a big back catalog of songs that a lot of people know, and want to hear, and yes, two of those songs were big Top 40 hits. What’s to complain about? They are like the cherries on top of the sundae….So I refuse to be embarrassed by those hits. It doesn’t take away from the rest of the songs.”
The artist herself revisited some of Solitude Standing's songs, including “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner” for her Close-Up album series. In 2012, Vega released Solitude Standing: Live at the Barbican, in which she performed all the songs off of the original record to mark its album’s 25th anniversary.
“I'm happy about it,” Vega told Billboard in reference the 30th anniversary of Solitude Standing. “For me, time does not mean anything. I feel very much the same way as I did back then. I don't sit around going, ‘Oh, the time is passing.’ I think of it as a reason to celebrate. We'll probably do some shows later this year celebrating the 30th anniversary of Solitude Standing and the 25th anniversary of 99.9F°."
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