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

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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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Photograph by John Robert Rowlands. © John Robert Rowlands
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Pop Culture
Take a Sneak Peek at the Brooklyn Museum's Upcoming David Bowie Exhibition
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Photograph by John Robert Rowlands. © John Robert Rowlands

David Bowie was born in London, and spent his final years in New York. Which makes it fitting that an acclaimed traveling retrospective of the rocker’s career will end at the Brooklyn Museum in 2018, five years after it first kicked off at London's Victoria and Albert Museum.

Following a whirlwind global tour, “David Bowie is” will debut at the Brooklyn Museum on March 2, 2018, and run until July 15, 2018. Curated by the V&A, it features around 400 objects from the singer’s archives, including stage costumes, handwritten lyrics, photographs, set designs, and Bowie’s very own instruments.

Together, these items trace Bowie’s evolution as a performer, and provide new insights into “the creative process of an artist whose sustained reinventions, innovative collaborations, and bold characterizations revolutionized the way we see music, inspiring people to shape their own identities while challenging social traditions,” according to the Brooklyn Museum.

“David Bowie is” has received nearly 2 million visitors since it left the V&A in 2013. Due to its overwhelming popularity, the show is a timed ticketed exhibition, with priority access reserved for Brooklyn Museum members and certain ticket holders.

Tickets are on sale now, but you can take a sneak peek at some artifacts from "David Bowie is" below.

Photograph from the David Bowie album cover shoot for "Aladdin Sane, 1973

Photograph from the album cover shoot for Aladdin Sane, 1973

Photograph by Brian Duffy. Photo Duffy © Duffy Archive & The David Bowie Archive

Striped body suit worn by David Bowie during his "Aladdin Sane" tour in 1973

Striped bodysuit for the Aladdin Sane tour, 1973. Design by Kansai Yamamoto 

Photograph by Masayoshi Sukita © Sukita/The David Bowie Archive

Cut up lyrics for "Blackout" from David Bowie's album Heroes, 1977

Cut up lyrics for "Blackout" from Heroes, 1977

Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum

Original lyrics for “Ziggy Stardust,” by David Bowie, 1972
Original lyrics for “Ziggy Stardust,” by David Bowie, 1972
Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum

A 1974 Terry O'Neill photograph of musician David Bowie with William Burroughs.
David Bowie with William Burroughs, February 1974. Photograph by Terry O'Neill with color by David Bowie.
Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum

Original photography for David Bowie's 1997 "Earthling" album cover

Original photography for the Earthling album cover, 1997

Photograph by Frank W Ockenfels 3. © Frank W Ockenfels 3

Print after a self-portrait by David Bowie, 1978
Print after a self-portrait by David Bowie, 1978
Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum

One of David Bowie's acoustic guitars from the “Space Oddity” era, 1969

Acoustic guitar from the Space Oddity era, 1969

Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum

An asymmetric knitted bodysuit designed by Kansai Yamamoto for musician David Bowie's 1973 "Aladdin Sane" tour.

Asymmetric knitted bodysuit, 1973. Designed by Kansai Yamamoto for the Aladdin Sane tour.

Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum
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entertainment
8 Musicians With Incredibly Brainy Side Gigs
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The Pink Floyd line “we don’t need no education” might hold true for some musicians, but for others that couldn’t be further from the truth. The musicians highlighted below didn’t just swing by a university to pick up an honorary diploma only after finding musical success. Nope, they put in the long hours to earn doctoral degrees and then picked up jobs with outfits such as NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense. Because as cool as having “rock star” on your Wikipedia page is, having “rocket scientist” follow it is just that much cooler.

1. BRIAN MAY

British guitarist Brian May could have easily called it a day when Queen’s recording career came to an end following the death of Freddie Mercury in 1991. While May continues to play live with his remaining bandmates, he has also embraced his interest in astrophysics.

May had abandoned his doctoral studies at the Imperial College of London in the mid-1970s to live the rock star life, but returned to complete his PhD in 2007. Since then, May has co-authored two books on the cosmos, and in 2015 collaborated with NASA as the New Horizons space probe passed by Pluto. If that weren’t impressive enough, May can lay claim to compiling the first high-quality stereo image of the dwarf planet. Not too shabby for a guy who had already made his mark with arena rock staples like “We Will Rock You” and “Stone Cold Crazy.”

2. MILO AUKERMAN

Punk rockers the Descendents weren’t joking around when they named their first album: 1982’s Milo Goes To College. Frontman Milo Aukerman put all those punk rock lyrics about binging on coffee to serious use, earning a doctorate in biology from UC San Diego and a PhD in biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

For many years, Aukerman split his time, leading the Descendents while working as an adjunct professor at the University of Delaware and plant researcher with chemical company DuPont. The two chosen fields of study, punk rock and biochemistry, might not seem to have much in common, but Aukerman found many similarities. In 2011, he told The Scientist that in both fields, he was “always looking for discoveries that challenge current thinking.” Fans shouldn’t expect Aukerman to get too geeky with his lyrics though: “I will probably never ever write a song about DNA,” he said. In a 2016 interview with Spin, Aukerman shared that he's now dedicating his full-time life to music. “[Science has] gotten less and less interesting to me,” he said. “Also, working in a corporation has become a misery of sorts. As I was discovering this and realizing maybe I should just do music full-time, lo and behold, [my job] laid me off anyway.”

3. DEXTER HOLLAND


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Orange County, California punk rockers The Offspring have been regularly touring and putting out albums since the mid-1980s. What fans might be surprised to learn though is that in between writing songs like “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy),” the band's lyricist and frontman Dexter Holland was working on HIV research.

In May 2017, Holland earned his PhD in molecular biology from the University of Southern California, completing a 175-page dissertation titled Discovery of Mature MicroRNA Sequences within the Protein-Coding Regions of Global HIV-1 Genomes: Predictions of Novel Mechanisms for Viral Infection and Pathogenicity. Lengthy scientific jargon thesis titles aside, Holland told Rolling Stone his focus was on the molecular dynamics of the HIV virus. "I am interested in virology and wanted to contribute in some small way to the knowledge which has been learned about HIV and AIDS,” Holland said.

4. JEFF “SKUNK” BAXTER

People fall into side gigs like dog-walking or crafting all the time. Finding yourself unexpectedly taking on a second job as a consultant in missile defense systems, on the other hand, is a little more out of the norm. Jeff “Skunk” Baxter spent much of the 1970s and '80s playing guitar with acts like the Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, and Elton John. Since the mid-1990s though, Baxter has had a second job working with the Congressional Advisory Board on Missile Defense and consulting for General Atomics. And he landed those gigs almost entirely out of sheer luck.

Baxter credits his natural curiosity to look at technologies and how they can be improved upon as his springboard into the field of missile defense. The guitarist would regularly pick the brain of his next door neighbor, a retired engineer who had worked on the Pentagon's Sidewinder missile program. Baxter spent the next several years doing his own research and learning everything he could about the hardware developed for missile use. He would eventually submit his own proposal on how to improve the ship-based Aegis missile system to California Republican congressman Dana Rohrabacher and the rest is history.

5. GREG GRAFFIN


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For more than three decades, Bad Religion has held a spot as one of the most respected punk bands in the genre, with vocalist Greg Graffin commanding the stage. Graffin’s politically-charged lyrics have helped the band maintain a healthy following, but music isn’t Graffin’s only passion.

Since 2008, Graffin has split his time between playing with Bad Religion and teaching evolutionary biology at several universities. Graffin earned a PhD in zoology from Cornell University and has returned to his alma mater to teach courses on the subject. The punk rocker has co-authored three books on the subject of evolution and religion and taught life science courses at the University of California Los Angeles. Like other musicians who dabble in the sciences, Graffin has found parallels in the two. “If I’m behind a lectern or onstage, I’m just trying to provoke people to use and expand their minds a little,” Graffin told the San Diego Tribune.

6. PHILIP TAYLOR KRAMER

The life of Philip Taylor Kramer was one filled with both exceptional success and horrific tragedy. Kramer first made a name for himself in the 1970s playing bass with psychedelic rock band Iron Butterfly. He went on to play with other groups into the early 1980s, but would later leave music and find success in the field of computer engineering.

The musician’s father was a professor of electrical engineering and after a career in music, Kramer co-founded a company that produced significant work in missile guidance systems as well as computerized facial reconstruction models. Tragically, Kramer’s life was mysteriously cut short in 1995 when he disappeared after making a frantic call to his wife from the Los Angeles International Airport and telling her to meet him at a hotel.

The musician/computer engineer then called the police and said he was going to kill himself before abruptly hanging up. He wasn’t heard from again until his burned-out van was discovered in the bottom of a ravine four years later. The death was ruled a probable suicide, though some of Kramer’s closest family and friends suspected foul play.

7. JOHN PERRY BARLOW


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Deadheads will probably best know the name John Perry Barlow from the liner notes of Grateful Dead albums as a co-writer on a number of classics like “Mexicali Blues” and “Cassidy.” Further exploration would reveal that there are many sides to John Perry Barlow besides Grateful Dead lyricist. Barlow can be credited as a pioneer in the digital revolution, leading the way to preserve and protect internet freedoms as a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 1990.

These days Barlow has shifted his focus to a new calling—pond scum. More specifically: algae. He is the vice president of Algae Systems, a company working to grow microalgae as a biofuel and convert sewage into a fertilizer.

8. TOM SCHOLZ

Rock band Boston had one of the best-selling debut albums in music history with their 1976 self-titled debut selling 17 million copies. Almost all of that success can be attributed to guitarist Tom Scholz’s background as a mechanical engineer.

Scholz had received both his bachelor's (1969) and master's degrees (1970) in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but he had dreams of rock n’ roll stardom. To pay the bills, Scholz took a job as a senior product design engineer at Polaroid. The young guitarist and engineer spent his paychecks and nights building his own basement recording studio and creating nearly every sound, except for the vocals and drums, of what would be Boston’s debut album. The DIY process was unheard of at the time and Epic, the band's record company, demanded that the demos be redone in a proper studio. Scholz refused to budge with nearly all of his original recordings eventually making it onto the highly-successful album.

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