I've loved Suzanne Vega since I first heard her self-titled 1985 album—"Marlene on the Wall" immediately grabbed my attention and became one of my favorite songs. Her second album, Solitude Standing (1987) really pushed her into stardom with the hit "Luka." Solitude Standing also included "Tom's Diner," which Life of a Song states is "now probably Vega's best-known song." Life of a Song describes the origins of this classic song:
The song itself is a piece of disassociated reportage. The narrator sits — as did Vega in 1981 and 1982, when she was a student at nearby Barnard College — in Tom's Diner in Manhattan, reading the obituary of an actor (William Holden) who was "no one I had heard of". Her coffee is underfilled. A woman outside stares at her own reflection in the window.
"I had just been in Tom's," Vega told me in 2010, "and I thought, wouldn't it be cool to have a song called 'Tom's Diner' about alienation, where you're not connected to anything you see, you're kind of seeing everything through a pane of glass. Lately on the internet I've been reading people saying this song is really random and it's about nothing. It's not about nothing! It's about something! Every single scene has been set up to show that this person is alienated from life in general."
Life of a Song goes on to explain that the song has been covered numerous times since it was released:
"Oh my God, it's never-ending", said Vega 10 years ago, discussing the enduring appeal of the song. "It feels like it's never going to die off. The melody is very simple and for whatever reason it's stuck in everybody's head."
But she reveled in the reinterpretations. "You have all different kinds of diners. You have Tupac's 'Dopefiend's Diner.' There's a million different ways you can do that. The last one I've heard about is this hip-hop artist called Drake." We shrugged at each other with no-me-neither expressions. "Danger Mouse did one. Ludacris. Destiny's Child. I did one with a band called The Roots. It's always coming at me from some weird angle." She achieved tech celebrity when the original song was used to test the encoding algorithm for mp3s, as the a cappella vocals were particularly unforgiving of compression.
In the decade since this conversation, the song has lost none of its popularity. Fall Out Boy kicked off "Centuries" with the four-note refrain. Giorgio Moroder recorded a cover with full-on Midnight Express synth overload and glassy vocals from Britney Spears (and a video that relocates the action to a neon-graphic California). The British electronic jazz outfit Portico Quartet snuck the riff, its swing damped down, into Art in the Age of Automation.
I recently heard yet another cover of "Tom's Diner," by AnnenMayKantereit, featuring Giant Rooks. This one is terrific! The Music Man explains that AnnenMayKantereit—the name is a combination of the surnames of the three founding members—are a four piece band from Cologne, Germany that was formed in 2011. The band got its start performing on the streets of Cologne and released their first album in 2013. I love the vocals on this cover—the second singer's voice is reminiscent of Tom Waites, which just works so perfectly on this song. Enjoy!