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Friday, February 15, 2013

Fingerprints, On Me From You: the lyrics of Suzanne Vega

I like a good lyric. There, I've said it. Yes, primarily for me music is about the chemical reaction of voice to ear, but it's also important that what that voice is saying has power too. Maybe that's why I've never really gotten into scat jazz signing: I need words. At its best, a song lyric is a piece of poetry. It can work its magic read on a piece of paper, as much as being transformed with the addition of notes and instruments. Any writer knows the challenge of finding that perfect word, that ultimate sentence to convey the precise meaning they intend. It's easy to tell when a lyric has been painstakingly crafted, when a writer has pored over every word, poking it and prodding to make sure it fits exactly into the void it replaces. One of the best lyricists in music has to be Suzanne Vega, which is why I was not surprised to find her performing as part of the Whittier College Writers Festival here in LA last Sunday.

"Observe the blood, The rose tattoo, Of the fingerprints, On me from you..."
(from Marlene On The Wall, 1985)

I've seen Suzanne live a few times and have collected her works since I was first captured by Marlene On The Wall, a song so alien to the pop charts it invaded you had to stop and listen. I remember studying the lyrics to try and work out why it moved me so much, working out the metaphors and marvelling at her choice of phrase. Over the years Suzanne has written many more songs that have similarly caused me to pause and reflect on a lyric and there is often a particular line or phrase that is so resonant with me that it takes permanent root in my mind. I know music is a highly individual sport, but I wanted to share a few of those lyrics and try and explain what it was about those words that moves me. In the process I hope it makes you listen to Suzanne's songs and give yourself the time and space, so rare in our busy lives, to really hear what she is saying.

"If you lie on the ground in somebody's arms, You'll probably swallow some of their history..."
(from In Liverpool, 1992)

You know that feeling when you are in a strange city? There are buildings and people and nature and light and shade, but they are not your buildings, people, nature, light, shade? Everything is knowable, yet unknown, strange and unsettling. In this song Suzanne finds herself in Liverpool in that state of mind, except there are things that seem oddly familiar, landmarks described by a Liverpudlian boy she once had a romance with, that cause her to reflect on the power of memory and longing. How she knows these things is because of the kind of osmosis that happens when you are physically close to another person, how you accidentally and incidentally "swallow some of their history".

Apart from being my favourite Suzanne song, this lyric is for me the perfect explanation of the invisible transaction that happens between lovers and is a possible explanation of why, years after an affair has ended, that person still has a connection with you. Quite often we wish this wasn't so, that we could leave those ghosts to the past, but it is that act of bonding that lingers, that tangential exchange of histories that creates an indelible link between two people that echoes down the years.

"And they'll never know the gold, Or the copper in your hair, How could they weigh the worth, Of you so rare..."
(from World Before Columbus, 1996)

For Suzanne this is a love song to her daughter, a brave attempt to imagine a world where that love was taken away; how flat, colourless and dark it would be. She describes the treasure of her daughter as riches beyond the understanding of those piratical men that plundered the New World for its precious metals. I've always thought it challenging for a parent to write about their love for their children, it is so easy to gush and slide into sentimentality (as so many have). Suzanne's beautiful poem, set to a lush and lilting arrangement, shows it can be done with finesse and quiet power.

Like any great love song it is easy for the listener to fit their own autobiography into the lyrics. I remember lying with my husband one afternoon, he had a rare length of beard, so it must have been on holiday. I noticed his beard had little flecks of blond and ginger, unlike the hair on his head, like precious secrets revealing themselves to me only. This line came into my head and I understood. Love.

"She's happy that you're here but when you disappear, She won't know that you're gone to say goodbye..."
(from New York Is A Woman, 2007)

Although born in California, Suzanne grew up in New York and like many artists before her the city has had a profound impact on her work. Like any great city there is an unspoken tension between those that call it home and the many millions who pass through, for business or pleasure (or both). As an immigrant Londoner for many years I understand the frustrations of battling straggling tourists on your way to work, but I also appreciate the wonder and majesty of these world cities and why outsiders are drawn there. In this song Suzanne imagines New York in the form of a femme fatale and describes how a visitor from suburban America is drawn in to "her beauty and her crime".

I love Manhattan, I visit whenever I can, but I've always had a peculiar feeling when I'm there. New York City is amazing, it is simply the most electric place on the planet. Yet I always feel strangely uneasy there, insignificant almost within the hive of humanity. I'd always struggled to explain this feeling until I heard this song, then I realised the truth: 

"New York is a woman, She'll make you cry, And to her you're just another guy".

These are just a few examples of the many times a Suzanne Vega song has enriched my understanding of life. She is a true poet, as adept with words and she is with crafting subtle melodies to set them in, and possessing a soulful, singular voice to communicate them. Happily Suzanne debuted new material at her show, with the promise of a new album later this year. I'm excited to see what new insights and adventures await.

There is a volume of the collected writing of Suzanne Vega, "The Passionate Eye". Suzanne has also re-recorded her back catalogue and released as a four volume collection called "Close Up", available from 

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider sharing it or linking to it from your Facebook, Google+ or Twitter account. You can post feedback below or to my Twitter account, @divasblogger. Sign up for alerts above or follow me on Twitter. Also you can hear the tracks mentioned in this week's blog on my Spotify account at the following link: Fingerprints

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