Suzanne Vega: how we made Tom's Diner
‘It’s a real place and I’m mentioned in their menu now. But they call me Susan Vega – and I still have to pay for coffee’
Tuesday 18 October 2016 07.00 BST
Suzanne Vega, singer-songwriter
When I was at college in Manhattan in the early 1980s, I used to go to Tom’s Restaurant on 112th and Broadway for coffee. I liked its ordinariness: it was the kind of place you’d find on any corner. 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.
The line about the actor “who had died while he was drinking” was true: William Holden’s obituary had been in that morning’s paper. The “bells of the cathedral” were those of St John the Divine up the street, though I made up the bit about the woman “fixing her stockings” and changed “restaurant” to “diner” to make it rhyme.
I imagined the song as some kind of French film background music, played on a piano, but I don’t play piano so I recorded it a capella for my Solitude Standing album and didn’t think much more about it. Three years later, I heard that two young English guys called DNA had put a beat to it – and I cringed. I’d just had a big hit with Luka, which – unfortunately, despite its dark subject matter, child abuse – lent itself to all sorts of parodies and covers, most of which I hated.
Tom's Diner -Suzanne Vega
I feared more of the same, but to my great relief I loved what DNA had done. I thought it would be played in a few dance clubs and that would be it, but it surpassed everyone’s expectations. I even got a plaque for it being one of the most played R&B songs – funny for a folk singer.
Tom’s Restaurant has since featured in Seinfield, and has more clippings on the wall relating to that than me or my song. I’m mentioned in the menu but called “Susan Vega”. They’re always pleased to see me but I still have to pay for coffee. People tend to hum the song when they recognise me. A guy at passport control said: “Ah, you’re a songwriter. Have you written anything I know?” And I sang: “De der der der, de der der der, de der der der der, de der, der, der.” His face lit up.
Nick Batt, DNA
I was 22 and working on a track with Neal Slateford, my musical partner in DNA. He brought in Suzanne’s song and said: “I reckon we can stick a beat under this.” I came up with a bassline, strings, a bit of piano. In those days, it was impossible to get a whole song into a sampler, so we spent evenings and weekends cutting Suzanne’s vocals into little bits.
We sent it to a mate who was a rep in London and he took it around the shops. I went away for the weekend and came back to a phone full of messages. Everyone was talking about the track. Radio 1 even broke its policy of not playing bootlegs, which is all it was at that point. Then the track became massive. We were only kept off No 1 by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Shortly afterwards, we went to see Suzanne play in London and she opened with Tom’s Diner. We knocked on the dressing room door and everyone inside just looked past us. I think they were expecting a couple of cool urban dudes, not two terrified young kids.
• Suzanne Vega’s album Lover, Beloved is out now on Cooking Vinyl. Nick Batt is working on the new Goldfrapp album.