7 Facts About 'Tom's Diner' While You're Waiting for Your Coffee

Suzanne Vega wrote her wordy a cappella tune "Tom’s Diner" in 1981 during a visit to a diner in her neighborhood, the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The place itself is actually called Tom’s Restaurant and would become even more famous as the exterior of the diner frequented by the characters on Seinfeld. The song appeared as the opening track on Vega’s second album, Solitude Standing, in 1987, but her label passed it over as a single in the States, going instead for “Luka,” a beautifully melodic downer about an abused child. ("Luka" reached No. 3 on Billboard’s chart, so it wasn’t a bad decision.) But “Tom’s Diner” ended up with a much longer, more interesting life full of revivals, remakes, and other shots at immortality, including a prominent sampling in Fall Out Boy’s hit “Centuries” last year and a recent, well-received cover sung by Britney Spears on the Giorgio Moroder album Déjà Vu. Some of the other highlights of “Tom’s” enduring life:

1. "Tom's Diner" was written from a male perspective.

Vega wrote the song when she was attending nearby Barnard Collage and stopped in for coffee. It’s written from a specifically male perspective, inspired by her photographer friend, Brian Rose, who told her that he perceived the world as if through a pane of glass. She thought of that as she sat at Tom’s and tried to imagine how her friend would see the things she saw that day. (She never mentions being a male narrator in the song, but she does imply that the character at first thinks the woman “hitching up her skirt” outside the diner is flirting with him, then he realizes “she does not really see me ‘cause she sees her own reflection.”)

2. The song references real places and events.

The “bells of the cathedral” Vega sings about are those of the nearby St. John the Divine, a majestic structure with a long history of its own, where she once had a "midnight picnic" with songwriter Jack Hardy.

3. Some intrepid fans figured out which day the narrator was at Tom's.

The official “Tom’s Diner Day”—the day Vega presumably wrote the song—is Nov. 18, 1981. An article posted on her official website traces the lyrical evidence, mainly the reference to the newspaper of that day, specifically “the story of an actor who had died while he was drinking/it was no one I had heard of.” Her friend Brian Rose, in his own article, placed the writing of the song between 1981 and 1982. Actor William Holden’s body was discovered Monday, Nov. 16, 1981, having lain in his California home for a week after he fell and fatally hit his head while drunk. The news broke Tuesday, Nov. 17, but The New York Post, one of the only two New York papers with the “funnies” the narrator is seeking, reported it on Wednesday, Nov. 18. And the horoscopes that the narrator had to turn through were, in fact, near the funnies in the Post. Alas, it didn’t rain that day, as the lyrics suggest it was doing while she wrote it. Vega, asked about the contradiction, said she actually wrote it on at least two separate mornings at Tom’s.

4. The remix wasn't Vega's creation, but she loved it anyway.

In 1990, three years after the original was released, two record producers from England working together as DNA remixed Vega’s original a cappella version with an R&B beat that sounded similar to Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life (However Do You Want Me).” They called it “Oh Susanne!” and sold it at their local record store without proper permission from Vega’s label, A&M Records. When A&M got wind of this, they considered legal action. But Vega asked to hear the version and loved it, so she convinced A&M to pay DNA a flat fee and distribute it. The track got instant radio play and became a hit, peaking at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100.

5. The song became so popular, Vega was able to release an entire album of covers. 

There have been many versions and samplings since DNA’s release, including an entire 1991 record called Tom’s Album that collected nine versions by other artists along with several Vega versions. It included a track by an act called Bingo Hand Job, which was the nom de plume R.E.M. used for a couple of secret London shows with English singer-songwriter Billy Bragg. Other “Tom’s” riffs explored accidental pregnancy (Nikki D’s “Daddy’s Little Girl”), the Gulf War (Beth Watson’s “Waiting at the Border”), and TV’s I Dream of Jeannie (Marylin E. Whitelaw and Mark Davis’ “Jeannie’s Diner”).

6. Hip-hop artists love sampling "Tom's" beats.

Other samplings and reimaginings throughout the years have come from a surprising number of hip-hop artists: Felt’s “Suzanne Vega,” Lil’ Kim’s “Right Now,” 2 Pac’s “Dopefiend’s Diner,” Drake’s “Juice,” Aaliyah’s “Hot Like Fire.” Timbaland even sampled the song on “Nothing But a Number” for the TV show Empire earlier this year.

7. The song was used to create new music technology.

Vega is known as “the mother of the MP3” because her a cappella version was used by German engineer Karl-Heinz Brandenberg to fine-tune his compression algorithm when he was creating the format we all use now for our digital song files. Vega even visited the lab where it was done (and briefly haggled with the engineering team about the perfection of their sound quality). And there’s a haunting “version” of the song called “moDernisT," composed of the echoes from the compression process. So when you download Britney’s new version of “Tom’s Diner,” you have Vega to thank in more ways than one.

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One of Michael Jackson's 'Billie Jean' Gloves Can Be Yours (For the Right Price)
Samir Hussein, Getty Images
Samir Hussein, Getty Images

Three things usually come to mind when people recall Michael Jackson's stratospheric fame in the 1980s: His music videos were events unto themselves; he toted around a chimp named Bubbles (who once bit Quincy Jones's daughter Rashida); and Jackson was often seen wearing a single white sequined glove.

There's no official count on how many gloves Jackson owned and wore during his career, but one performance-used mitt is now up for sale via GWS Auctions and their Legends of Hollywood & Music Auction. Used by Jackson during his 1997 HIStory tour, the Swarovski crystal-covered glove is unique in that Jackson had it made for his left hand, as he wanted to keep the wedding ring—courtesy of his marriage to nurse Debbie Rowe—visible on his right. (Though wedding rings are traditionally worn on the left hand, Jackson was known to wear his on the right.)

A white glove worn by Michael Jackson during his 1997 HIStory tour
GWS Auctions

According to Jackson associate John Kehe, Jackson allegedly got the idea for the glove in 1980, when he was touring a production company and saw a film editor at a control panel wearing a white cotton glove. Jackson himself wrote in his autobiography, Moonwalk, that he had been wearing a single glove since the 1970s. Either way, it was Jackson's performance of "Billie Jean" during a television appearance for Motown's 25th anniversary in May 1983 that cemented the accessory in the eyes of the public. That particular glove sold for $350,000 in 2009.

The HIStory glove will be up for auction March 24; pre-bids currently have it in excess of $5000. The Legends of Music and Hollywood Auction is also set to feature a prescription pill bottle once owned by Frank Sinatra and a hairbrush used by Marilyn Monroe.

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The Stories Behind 10 Johnny Cash Songs
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Getty Images

Johnny Cash, who was born on this day in 1932, once wrote, “I love songs about horses, railroads, land, judgment day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love. And Mother And God."

That sums the Cash discography up pretty well. He covers at least 20 of those themes in the 10 songs below. Here are the backstories behind some of the Man in Black's most famous songs—and maybe a little insight into why he loved those topics so much.


In the song, Cash explains that he always wears black to performances and public appearances because of social injustices, “just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back.” It’s a great story, but it’s not 100 percent true. In 2002, he told Larry King that black was his signature color simply because he felt most comfortable in it, although he preferred light blue in summer. “You walk into my clothes closet. It’s dark in there,” he said.

Rolling Stone wrote that the inky wardrobe was also helpful when it came to hiding dirt and dust in the early touring days.


Cash didn’t always wear black. In the video above, he’s dressed in bright yellow, accessorized with a powder blue cape.

Sound a little off-brand? It was. In the early ‘80s, Cash felt that Columbia, his record label, was ignoring him and failing to promote his music properly. He decided to record a song so awful that it would force Columbia to cut his contract early. The plan worked, but it came at a price. “He was kind of mocking and dismantling his own legacy,” daughter Rosanne later said. Here’s a sampling of the lyrics, in case the video is too painful to watch: “I put your brain in a chicken last Monday, he’s singing your songs and making lots of money, and I’ve got him signed to a 10-year recording contract.”


Written in just 20 minutes, Cash’s (arguably) greatest hit  was intended as a reminder to himself to stay faithful to his first wife, Vivian, while he was on the road opening for Elvis in the mid-1950s. "It was kind of a prodding to myself to 'Play it straight, Johnny,'" he once said. According to other interviews, that wasn’t the song’s only meaning: He also meant it as an oath to God. Although Sam Phillips from Sun Records said that he wasn’t interested in gospel songs, Johnny was able to sneak “I Walk the Line” past him with the story about being true to his wife.


In 1969, Johnny and June threw a party at their house in Hendersonville. As you might imagine, it was a veritable who’s-who of music: Bob Dylan, Graham Nash, Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson, and Shel Silverstein. Everyone debuted a new song at the party—Dylan sang “Lay Lady Lay,” Nash did “Marrakkesh Express,” Kristofferson played “Me and Bobby McGee,” and Mitchell sang “Both Sides Now.” Silverstein, who was a songwriter in addition to an author of children’s books, debuted “A Boy Named Sue.”

When the party was over, June encouraged Johnny to take the lyrics to “Sue” on the plane the next day. They were headed to California to record the famous live At San Quentin album. Johnny wasn’t sure he could learn the lyrics fast enough, but he did—and the inmates went crazy for it. They weren’t the only ones: "A Boy Named Sue" quickly shot to the top of the charts. And not just the country charts—it held the #2 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks.

The song was originally inspired by a male friend of Silverstein’s with a somewhat feminine name—Jean Shepherd, the author of A Christmas Story.


The story behind this one depends on who you believe. The Carter-Cash family has always maintained that June and guitar player Merle Kilgore co-wrote the song about June falling in love with Johnny despite being worried about his drug and alcohol problem.

But according to Johnny’s first wife, Vivian, June had nothing to do with “Ring of Fire.” “The truth is, Johnny wrote that song, while pilled up and drunk, about a certain private female body part,” Vivian wrote in her autobiography. She claims he gave June credit for writing the song because he thought she needed the money.

Either way, June’s sister Anita originally recorded the song. After Johnny had a dream that he was singing it with mariachi horns, he recorded it that way. 


“Ring of Fire” isn’t the only time Johnny had a dream that inspired a song. In his later years, Cash had a dream that he walked into Buckingham Palace and encountered Queen Elizabeth just sitting on the floor. When she saw him, the Queen said, “Johnny Cash, you’re like a thorn tree in a whirlwind!” Two or three years later, Cash remembered the dream, decided that the reference must be a biblical one, and wrote what he called “my song of the apocalypse”—“The Man Comes Around.”


This one is another early song inspired by Vivian. From the summer of 1951 through the summer of 1954, Cash was deployed in Germany with the Air Force. At the end of three years, he turned down the option to re-enlist, feeling homesick for his girl and his home. On the journey back from Germany, he penned “Hey Porter” about the excitement and relief he felt to finally be coming home.


After seeing Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, Cash was inspired to write a song about it. Too bad that song already existed as “Crescent City Blues,” written by Gordon Jenkins.

Jenkins sued for copyright infringement in 1969 and received $75,000. Cash later admitted that he heard the song when he was in the Air Force, but borrowing the tune and some of the lyrics was subconscious; he never meant to rip Jenkins off. Oh, but the famous “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” line—that was all Johnny.

9. "CRY! CRY! CRY!"

After Cash returned home from the Air Force and signed with Sun Records, he gave Sam Phillips “Hey Porter.” Phillips asked for a ballad for the B-side, so Cash went home and quickly wrote “Cry! Cry! Cry!” literally overnight. It became his first big hit—not bad for an afterthought.


Though “Get Rhythm” eventually became the B-side for “I Walk the Line,” Cash originally wrote it for Elvis. It might have been recorded by Presley, but when he went to RCA, Sam Phillips refused to let him take “Get Rhythm” with him.


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