Suzanne Vega on Coming of Age in the New York Music Scene

UNSPECIFIED - circa 1970 Photo of Suzanne VEGA (Photo by Hayley Madden/Redferns)
Photo: Hayley Madden/Redferns

As told to Kera Bolonik.

I went to LaGuardia High School—then the High School of Performing Arts—in the 1970s, and in those days David Bowie, Patti Smith, and Lou Reed, were the biggest things ever. My best friend Susannah asked me if I wanted to go see Patti Smith, and I just didn’t really get rock-and-roll music at that time—I couldn’t relate to it. I liked the acoustic guitar. I grew up on the Upper West Side in an apartment, the oldest of four kids, with rebellious parents who made a lot of noise, so I didn’t want to stand around making a lot of noise. I preferred to take my guitar and go into my room and write quiet songs in A minor. That seemed more like me. So that’s partly why I didn’t go down to the CBGB scene. I was curious about Max’s Kansas City, but by the time I tried to see what it was all about, in ’79 or ’80, it had pretty much closed up. But when I had come down to Cornelia Street Cafe, there was a kind of interesting crossover. My friend Brian Rose loved punk and New Wave, and we’d listen to the Velvet Underground. But there was no way that I was going to sing loudly over a rock band, which I couldn’t afford—I had no place to rehearse, so a lot of it came down to economics and style. It was more like, I grew up in New York City, I have a small room, I barely have that to myself, I’m going to play the acoustic guitar, and that ended up being the thing that shaped my style more than anything.

I tried to take music lessons many times and not been very good at it. I taught myself guitar by using pop-music books from the ’60s that my parents had lying around the house. They had pictures of where to put your fingers and I would put my fingers there and figure out: Do I like this chord? Do I not like this chord? I tended to stay away from the major chords. I felt they were corny. I listened to a lot of Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and Laura Nyro—I still listen to her, with my whole heart. I loved the world that she wrote about. I felt that she really understood the world of a teenage New York girl. And then I went to see Lou Reed in 1979 on a rare date that I went on—a guy from the theater department had an extra ticket and took me to see him, and that just changed everything. Suddenly, I was like, Oh my God, I can’t believe this man is actually saying this stuff on a stage. I really got into Berlin—I’d come from this world of writing that was very metaphoric. Bob Dylan can write about reality but his thrust is very metaphoric. And then there’s Lou, who was just so frontal and so confrontational with his writing and simple and I liked his voice. I thought, I get this. And that influenced a lot of everything that came after that.

When I was 20, and a student at Barnard, I came down to Cornelia Street Café—people kept telling me about the scene going on down in the Village with Jack Hardy and Steve Forbert and David Massengill and the Roches—and I’d read about them in the New York Times. I went to check it out on a Monday night. I remember my first time there vividly, and thinking, This is my tribe. I was still underage. I’d already written “Cracking,” which everyone thought was really interesting. And I’d written “Gypsy,” which was more of a traditional singer-songwriter song, and “Calypso.” I’d written a lot by that time, probably about a hundred songs. I was winnowing it down to a core of stuff that I considered the real stuff. I saved some of the songs for my second album, Solitude Standing, and the more radical stuff for the first album—I felt that made a better introduction.

Getting that first record deal was exciting. I was happy—and anxious. I wanted to fulfill this promise that I had been given. I was worried that I wouldn’t do a good job and that it wouldn’t come out the way I wanted it to. And I love being on tour—I still love it. But being the boss of all these guys, that was something I had to get used to. From being the one who made the coffee in the office that I worked at and answering the phones and all that to suddenly being in charge of 17 people— that took a minute to get used to, but I loved it.

But there was some jealousy when I got my record deal. Jack Hardy and I had a falling out. Dave Van Ronk yelled something at me which I felt was unfair. I was working on the album and he told me that I didn’t give a fuck about folk music, which I thought was not really fair because I did. And do. One of my first gigs was performing with Pete Seeger at Carnegie Hall. He was doing a benefit for my school—a hippie-ish progressive school called Children’s Community Workshop School—and he came and picked a handful of kids to sit at his feet. I was 12. I sang “Guantanamera” really loudly right next to him. I was like, I could get used to this.

I knew Pete’s work—I knew a lot of folk music: Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston. It’s the stuff I used to sing to the kids that I babysat for. I loved it, but I wasn’t going to stay there forever. I had my own calling as an artist, so I thought that was unfair of Dave to say that, but I understood why he said it. That happened around the time I got the record deal. I know a few people were looking at me like, “Why her? Why not me?” Fair enough.

I never resolved things with Dave. We weren’t close to begin with. He was someone I saw around on the scene. If he was at Folk City, I’d go over to him and say hi. And he was particularly kind in the beginning when I was 20, 21. By the time I was 25, I’d been around five years. I didn’t get a chance to make up with him. We weren’t close, but we were friendly. I could understand why Dave Von Ronk said what he did. I didn’t hold it against him. It was at a birthday party for him, and I didn’t stay.

*This is an expanded version of an article that appeared in the March 24, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

Suzanne Vega on Coming of Age in the NYC Scene