Happy Tom's Diner Day!
November 18, 2019 8:32 AM   Subscribe

Thirty-eight years ago this morning, a recent graduate of Barnard College in New York City named Suzanne Vega sat down to write a song at Tom’s Restaurant at Broadway and 112th (Tom’s would become sufficiently famous in other ways to inspire a documentary). A photographer friend of Vega’s had shared that he "felt as though he saw the world through a pane of glass," and inspired by that thought Vega set out to write a song where she was simply an observer. She constructed the lyrics around sitting at a restaurant and watching life happen around her - the man behind the counter greets a regular, a woman outside uses the restaurant's window as a mirror to adjust her wardrobe, bells go off at a nearby church, etc. The song is simple and beautiful. Its story and multifaceted legacy are remarkable.

The song was finished in the early 1980s - Tom's Restaurant became Tom's Diner because it sounded better - but Vega did not commercially release the song until she made her second record Solitude Standing in 1986. Recording the track, Vega initially thought that she would back it with piano. But she "didn't play piano and didn't know anybody who did, so [she] kept it a capella" on the record. The a capella version of "Tom's Diner" opened Solitude Standing, and an instrumental "reprise" version closed it. Vega would often open concerts a capella with the song, but it was not otherwise notable on first release and Vega's career went on.

As told in Ms. Vega’s NYT piece linked above and in an installment of That Was a Hit?!? On WNYC's show Soundcheck, the huge, ubiquitous second life of “Tom’s Diner” came about in an odd way.

In March, 1990, Vega released her follow-up to Solitude Standing, titled Days of Open Hand. The album was generally well-received by critics, but it lacked a "Luka"-esque single and was for those days a commercial disappointment, never rising above #50 on the album charts. Vega toured to promote the album, and was having a difficult time replicating her success of just a few years before.

In the meantime, a group that called themselves "DNA" - really just two anonymous electronic music producers from England - made a remix of “Tom’s Diner” without ever consulting Vega or her record label. The duo (a) took the a capella version of the song, (b) brought the "du du DUH DUH" stuff front and center (it was originally just sung at the outro of the song), (c) mashed it up with the beat from Soul II Soul's 1989 hit "Back to Life," and (d) added some embellishments along the way. DNA then pressed some copies, using a plain white label and calling the track "Oh Suzanne!", and they started to sell them in dance clubs. The record became an underground hit in the UK, and in the summer of 1990 it found its way back to Vega and her record label.

Vega liked the remix, so rather than directing the label’s lawyers to kill it she worked with her label to buy it. Working out a deal that paid DNA for their work and credited them on the song (but gave the rights to Vega), A&M Records released the remix as a single. By all accounts, both Vega and the label had modest hope that it would find some small success on the dance charts. The rest is history: the remix version of “Tom’s Diner,” by DNA feat. Suzanne Vega, reached #5 in the US, #2 in the UK, and #1 in three countries.

The success of “Tom’s Diner” inspired an entire record of adaptations called Tom's Album. As Vega describes in her NYT essay, shortly after she and DNA released the "Tom's Diner" remix, "[o]ther versions came flooding in from all over the world. People made them up and mailed me cassettes." With a box full of adaptations - some sincere, others silly - and with the fresh memory of finding success by celebrating creativity rather than suing it into oblivion, Vega decided to work with an audio engineer and put some of her favorites together onto an album. A&M Records agreed to release it, and the result is an album with one new DNA/Vega remix song ("Rusted Pipe," from her then-current album Days of Open Hand) and 12 versions/adaptations of "Tom's Diner." As Vega describes it on the liner notes, "A small song about eating breakfast became a song about accidental pregnancy (Daddy's Little Girl – Nikki D.) and the recent war in the Gulf (Waiting at the Border - Beth Watson). One version incorporates forgotten bits of pop culture (Jeannie's Diner - which became a great Nick at Nite promo). All of them surprised me; a couple made me wince. I include them anyway."

One of the tracks on Tom's Album is called "Tom's ?" by a band called "Bingo Hand Job." You have probably not heard of "Bingo Hand Job," but it turns out you know them. The band was a two-shows-in-England-only pseudonymous version of R.E.M. in March 1991, along with friends that included Robyn Hitchcock and Billy Bragg. Here's the video of Bingo Hand Job performing a very (very) loose version of "Tom's Diner".

The song has a cool digital legacy, too: as a result of the song, Suzanne Vega is sometimes called the "mother of the mp3." She earned that title because the song - with its quiet-but-warm vocal - was used to perfect the mp3 encoding algorithm and "prove" the format. Karlheinz Brandenburg, the principal developer of mp3, explained: "Suzanne Vega was a catastrophe. Terrible distortion...The a cappella version of 'Tom's Diner' was more difficult to compress without compromising on audio quality than anything else." So when they got the song to sound true, they knew they had succeeded. (For his part, Brandenburg is still a fan: "I've listened to this 20 seconds [of Tom's Diner] a thousand times," he said. "I still like the music.")

As for how today is the songwriting date, Ms. Vega has described writing her song sometime in the 1981-82 timeframe, and it is rife with specific details of what she encountered at the diner. So, like other internet detectives did to discover the precise date of Ice Cube's "good day", music sleuths used clues in "Tom's Diner" to determine the exact date it was written.

In fact, only 2 clues were needed: (1) in the newspaper, there was "the story of an actor who had died while he was drinking," and (2) the narrator was "looking for the funnies" in the newspaper. On Wednesday, November 18, 1981, the New York Post - one of only two newspapers in New York City that ran comics every day - ran a front page headline “Drunken Fall Kills Holden.” The story reported that the actor William Holden, who won an Oscar for Stalag 17 and starred in Network and Sunset Boulevard (spoilers, if there can be for a 70 year old movie), had hit his head on a table while drinking and bled to death at his home in California.

And so November 18 became "Tom's Diner Day." On November 18, 2011, Ms. Vega played "Tom's Diner" at a show in Pennsylvania and noted that it was the 30th anniversary of the song's composition. She confirmed that, true to the song's lyrics, although Mr. Holden had been nominated for three Oscars he was indeed "no one [she] had heard of" at the time of his death.

Suzanne Vega previously (and previously and previously). And here’s the video for "Luka," and a nice reflection on the song from Vega in the New York Times, and Vega playing both “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner” in a great NPR Tiny Desk Concert.
posted by AgentRocket (41 comments total) 108 users marked this as a favorite
I just love all of Vega's work. She seems to keep the core of her songs very similar, but each album has a totally different style that I appreciate.
posted by xingcat at 8:49 AM on November 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

Came here for the Bingo Handjob, did not leave disappointed.
posted by Kyol at 8:58 AM on November 18, 2019 [3 favorites]

Left of Center is a terrific song.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:58 AM on November 18, 2019 [9 favorites]

Top-notch job putting this all together. Posts like this is why I come to MetaFilter in the first place.
posted by Old'n'Busted at 9:20 AM on November 18, 2019 [8 favorites]

Forever known to my friends and I as the "And then I poured the milk" song.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 9:38 AM on November 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

Both of my daughters sing this song daily except some TikTok person has rewritten the lyrics to be about murder for kiwis (the fruit).
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:45 AM on November 18, 2019

Please have my favourite of hers, Marlene on the Wall (refers to a portrait of Dietrich, apparently)

She's quite a wonderful live performer, too. Very warm with the audience, voice clear as a bell.
posted by wellred at 9:48 AM on November 18, 2019 [9 favorites]

No she does not really hear me
'Cause of MP3 compression
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:53 AM on November 18, 2019 [19 favorites]

Oh, is this the general "I <3 Suzanne Vega" thread?

99.9F° is a perfect album, and one of the few albums I can listen to, start to finish, over and over.

There is something entrancing about the rhythm of the title track, 99.9 F, which echoes throughout a lot of the rest of the album. In contrast, the upbeat, almost poppiness of "When Heroes Go Down" is a surprise, almost coming across as Vega paying tribute to Elvis Costello.
posted by hanov3r at 10:10 AM on November 18, 2019 [13 favorites]

Vega performed Tom's Diner on TechTV's "The Screensavers"

I am vaguely amused to hear audio compression artifacts in this video.
posted by hanov3r at 10:12 AM on November 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

(Oh hey! Today is the 15th MeFiversary for 960 of us, too! It was the biggest signup day ever.)
posted by AgentRocket at 10:21 AM on November 18, 2019 [4 favorites]

I've always liked the song, but I had no idea about the remix afterlife. Very cool.
posted by tavella at 10:28 AM on November 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

Was neither a huge fan of Vega or this song, and frankly had forgotten about it entirely until my 15 y/o dance troupe performed a modern piece set to it? It was...very odd.
posted by hearthpig at 10:30 AM on November 18, 2019

I bought Tom's Album on cassette at the Tower Records on Broadway and E. 4th. I still get pieces of the songs stuck in my head, especially the a capella song about a Desert Storm sniper.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 11:24 AM on November 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

I adore Suzanne Vega more than words can express, so I won't even try. I'll just offer a hearty second to everything along those lines above.

One of my most prized recordings has always been a soundboard tape* from the Iron Horse in Northampton in May 1984. Just Suzanne and her guitar and the hissy warmth of a nth-generation bootleg cassette that takes me back to my early tape-trading days on Usenet. It also has some of my favorite versions of her early songs, including "Calypso" and "Gypsy" and "Straight Lines," among others. Pure magic (and the banter is hilarious).

(*This is a really awful transfer - it plays back at the wrong speed and sounds at least three or four generations down from my copy - but it's the most readily-available copy I could find.)
posted by mykescipark at 11:43 AM on November 18, 2019 [3 favorites]

99.9F° is a perfect album, and one of the few albums I can listen to, start to finish, over and over.

Nine Objects of Desire has always been that album for me, though 99 is perfectly good too.  Nine Objects has an atmosphere of coolness—as in temperature—that runs through that really appeals to me, despite how warm the production sounds.   It's an album best enjoyed on a cool, gray, drizzly Pacific Northwest winter day, much like Blonde Redhead's 23.
posted by los pantalones del muerte at 11:46 AM on November 18, 2019 [3 favorites]

William Holden, yeah. That story influenced me to stop drinking, because there is basically no reason I didn't die like that some night. I rewatched Network (so should Vega!) around that time, and I looked up Holden and learned of his sad end, and it really was one thing that pushed me to realize that it was time to face the facts and make a change.
posted by thelonius at 11:56 AM on November 18, 2019 [5 favorites]

This is just epic. Thank you. The closing stanza of that song is still one of the most beautiful lyrics I've ever heard.

And - listen up kids - here's a small reminder that if you enjoyed this post AgentRocket has a whole mess o' fun stuff just like this on his True Music Facts Wednesday blog/archive.

(and here's the accompanying MeFi Projects post)
posted by JoeZydeco at 12:10 PM on November 18, 2019 [3 favorites]

Speaking of epic, there's Suzanne Vega's latest: Lover, Beloved: Songs from an Evening with Carson McCullers.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 12:59 PM on November 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

Before DNA, my improv friends and I would get together after class and would stand in a circle and would improvise lyrics to Tom's Diner for like an hour at a time. You can just flow along with it's rhythm and melody. Truly, it is one of the finest compositions of the 80's and deserves a place among the top folks songs of all time even if you only consider song structure (her lyrics are really pretty awesome also though - especially the verse about the woman looking at her reflection).
posted by Joey Michaels at 2:28 PM on November 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

There is a diner/coffee shop named Tom's in the Bronx (not far from me, but I've not been), Brooklyn (my fave for the food), and Manhattan (Queens has a Tom's pizza joint, while Staten Island has a Tom's Tavern).

I used to live a few blocks south from the Tom's in Manhattan. When I moved into the apartment, I called my friend in Madison and she asked me, "Where are you living now?" and all I had to do was say, "Over by 'Do do do do DOOT do do do...'" and she got it. She'd been to NYC and Tom's before. The bells of St. John's are very nice. I haven't heard them in years.

The neighborhood on the day of the last NBC broadcast episode of Seinfeld was a madhouse. There were TV production trucks from seemingly every station from every country on Earth parked all over the place. On my way to work, I saw entertainment reporters lined up as if it were Oscar night on the red carpet along the sidewalks on Broadway right outside my building, up to the train I took, and all the way to the diner. Each one tried to waylay me, but I was in such a foul mood as it was (for personal reasons) that I shrieked, "NO INTERVIEWS!" at anyone who approached me. I'd only seen 3 or 4 episodes of it anyway, so they'd've gotten nothing useful out of me.
posted by droplet at 3:08 PM on November 18, 2019 [4 favorites]

Truly, it is one of the finest compositions of the 80's and deserves a place among the top folks songs of all time

It's our Acres of Clams Rosin the Beau.
posted by scruss at 3:24 PM on November 18, 2019

hanov3r, up until I read your comment, I'd completely forgotten that not only did I have 99.9 degrees, I used to listen to it all the time. Somehow, I haven't thought of it in years, and now I have to do track it down and listen to it again.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:29 PM on November 18, 2019 [4 favorites]

The airy vocal combined with the fine tone and low noise recording made Tom's Diner a tool used by many audio enthusiasts - myself included - to compare speakers/soundsystems.
posted by Zedcaster at 7:47 PM on November 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

Hey, neat: some kind soul put my favorite mashup (with Dire Straits' Private Investigations) up on the Internet Archive.

Tom's Investigations
posted by qbject at 9:15 PM on November 18, 2019

Oh my god I loved that song

Ninety nine point nine
posted by infinitewindow at 7:27 AM on November 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

Fantastic post!
posted by kirkaracha at 8:54 AM on November 19, 2019

I always preferred the a cappella version to the remixes.
posted by kirkaracha at 8:55 AM on November 19, 2019

almost coming across as Vega paying tribute to Elvis Costello.

Wikipedia says Bruce Thomas played bass on the 99.9F album
posted by thelonius at 9:30 AM on November 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

Wikipedia says Bruce Thomas played bass on the 99.9F album

Bruce Thomas is/was part of 99.9 producer Mitchell Froom’s regular house session band (as is Attractions drummer Pete Thomas, albeit less frequently). Ironically, Bruce barely played on Costello’s Froom-produced Brutal Youth album ... for reasons entirely clear to anyone familiar with the sordid history of Bruce/Elvis relations.
posted by mykescipark at 1:51 PM on November 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

Ironically, Bruce barely played on Costello’s Froom-produced Brutal Youth album ... for reasons entirely clear to anyone familiar with the sordid history of Bruce/Elvis relations.

No I think he played on all of it, or almost all.....he definitely did the tour, because I saw it. You can't tell me it's not him on "Sulky Girl".....
posted by thelonius at 1:58 PM on November 19, 2019


"About half the album features a band consisting of Costello (guitar), Steve Nieve (keyboards) and Pete Thomas (drums) with Nick Lowe (not a member of the Attractions) on bass. Costello himself plays bass on two tracks (2 and 8), and the complete Attractions line-up (Nieve, Pete Thomas and Bruce Thomas on bass) appears with Costello on tracks 3, 4, 6, 9 and 10."

the sordid history of Bruce/Elvis relations.

I think he has been touring with the bass player from Cracker for a long time now.

I never read Thomas' book where he slagged on EC....not a man I personally would pick any verbal fights with. I do own his biography of Bruce Lee, which I found in the used bookstore and bought as a curiosity.
posted by thelonius at 2:02 PM on November 19, 2019

99.9 producer Mitchell Froom

Soul Coughing's Ruby Vroom is named after Vega and Froom's daughter, if you're trying to figure out how to loop yet another band into this thread.
posted by fedward at 2:26 PM on November 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

Thanks for such a thorough post. Solitude Standing on cassette invokes my first couple of years with a driver’s license, listening to it on the way to high school in an old hand-me-down nissan stanza.
posted by umbú at 6:26 AM on November 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

I remember liking a girl and giving her the lyrics to "The Soldier and the Queen" in order to, I don't know, express my dismay at her rejection of my affection or something. I may have changed the ending so it was happy. So thanks to Suzanne Vega for having provided me with the opportunity to create a memorable moment during my wasted youth that still embarrasses me 22 years later.
posted by mecran01 at 2:04 PM on November 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

Great post!

And also: And - listen up kids - here's a small reminder that if you enjoyed this post AgentRocket has a whole mess o' fun stuff just like this on his True Music Facts Wednesday blog/archive.

TMFW is a wonderful site - thank you AgentRocket! I've just discovered it and now have my plans firmed up for this rainy Sunday afternoon!
posted by sundrop at 8:25 AM on November 24, 2019

There is a Songwriter's Circle concert that has Richard Thompson, Suzanne Vega & Loudon Wainwright just showing off how good they are.
posted by Bee'sWing at 1:47 PM on November 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

Excellent post. I absolutely love Suzanne Vega. I have all her albums, but Solitude Standing is the one I come back to again and again. Lovely trip down memory lane; thank you!
posted by widdershins at 7:00 AM on November 25, 2019

We had the pleasure of seeing her perform live at Word of South last year. I've always loved Luka ever since I saw the music video on VH1's "Pop-Up Video" back in the late 90's.

Anyway, the beau had never heard of her, but went to go see the show at my insistence. Afterward, he downloaded 99.9 F, and that was on heavy rotation at the house for a while. I love her songwriting. So evocative.
posted by PearlRose at 8:59 AM on November 27, 2019

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