Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Tom's Diner, Will Travel

If you’ve ever wondered where a song can go, this story might amaze you.

I will soon be in Tom's Diner in New York City.

I want to go there, sit by a window pane, and re-write this song. Mirror it, for November, today, 28 years later. Write what I see. Write what I hear. Wonder what I will read in the New York Post.

This well-traveled place was first memorialized in a song that made music history.

Suzanna Vega's Tom's Diner was written on Broadway at 112th Street, in Tom's Restaurant, a Columbia University hangout in New York City.

Faraway, in my small Ontario town, north of Toronto, there's a place of the same name. This song never leaves me.

Somehow unlike any other song, Tom's Diner was reincarnated many times, in many forms, and later started a digital music revolution.

Vega sat by a window in Tom's to write this song. She was inspired by a photographer who said he could see his entire life through a window pane, in the third person.

Vega actually forgot what year she wrote it (she thought 1982)...but words she sung of "a story of an actor who had died while he was drinking," gave a clue, and so did "turning to the horoscope / and looking for the funnies."

In 1981-82, only the New York Post had a horoscopes, comics and prominently covered a story of an actor who had died.

William Holden won an Oscar in 1954 for his best actor performance in Sunset Boulevard

He was drunk, slipped on a carpet, banged his head on a night table, and bled to death on November 12, 1981. He was discovered November 16. His story was in Tom's Diner on November 18.

The "bells of the cathedral," Vega heard from Tom's Diner, refer to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine.

Gothic architecture, 1892
(redesigned many times)

Amsterdam @ 112th

Tom's Diner was first released in a magazine of all places: A January 1984 analog insert inside Fast Folk Musical Magazine. What format i don't know.

Vega wrote Tom's Diner for piano but sung it a cappella because she couldn't play piano yet. The song was then re-released in 1987 on her platinum album Solitude Standing.

I bought this in cassette tape - in days when female vocalists were coming to the forefront

Before this, she performed Tom's Diner at the Prince's Trust concert, without instruments in 1986, to confront her stage fright. She vowed if this song was poorly received, she would walk off stage and never sing it again live. She took a chance against her fear, and it worked.

If there's good karma to extend a song's life, Tom's Diner is the poster child.

Tom's Diner would later become the "Mother of the MP3"...Karlheinz Brandenburg used it to develop the MP3:

"I was ready to fine-tune my compression algorithm...somewhere down the corridor, a radio was playing `Tom's Diner.' I was electrified. I knew it would be nearly impossible to compress this warm a cappella voice."

The digital music inventor tested Tom's Diner repeatedly to refine the scheme, "making sure it did not adversely affect the subtlety of Vega's voice."

Then in 1990, this song fell into the secretive hands of two underground DJs in England known as DNA. They put the beats of Soul II Soul behind it, to remix it, for underground performances.This was done without permission.


Instead of being sued, DNA was offered compensation to release this underground remix which became a major hit, selling 3 million copies. Money was exchanged clandestine by suitcase via intermediaries. The identity of DNA was not initially publicly known. Two music men from Bath thought they would face legal consequences if identified.

Later REM and Billy Bragg covered it in their one-off band Bingo Hand Job.

Sometimes i think the inspiration of this song will transfer eternally from one creative force to another.

Vega, a Spanish Harlem and later Upper West Side resident, was once a regular at the Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village, where Lady Gaga says she used to work as a teenager. Lady Gaga was born five years after Tom's Diner.


Tom's Restaurant is in a building owned by Columbia University, and also houses NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

Tom's has been operated by the Greek-American Minasizoulis family since the 1950s. Most of the world knows Tom's via Seinfeld's fictional Monk's Cafe (exterior). "Tom" was deleted from Seinfeld to avoid paying royalties.

Early Seinfeld episodes showed the word "Tom's."

Tom's Diner, Will Travel, was written in a web cafe in Toronto on College Street, @$10/day, east of Ossington. Next to me, a man says he is about to take a bus to New York. On a computer, he finds a room, for $22 on the Upper West Side. A "dormitory bunk."

Today Al Gore was signing books at Barnes and Noble

A man surnamed Noble jumped from the 10th floor of an NYU library.


X said...

11.11 2009...Tom's Diner

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