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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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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between an Opera and a Musical?
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They both have narrative arcs set to song, so how are musicals different from operas?

For non-theater types, the word “musical” conjures up images of stylized Broadway performances—replete with high-kicks and punchy songs interspersed with dialogue—while operas are viewed as a musical's more melodramatic, highbrow cousin. That said, The New York Times chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini argues that these loose categorizations don't get to the heart of the matter. For example, for every Kinky Boots, there’s a work like Les Misérables—a somber, sung-through show that elicits more audience tears than laughs. Meanwhile, operas can contain dancing and/or conversation, too, and they range in quality from lowbrow to highbrow to straight-up middlebrow.

According to Tommasini, the real distinguishing detail between a musical and an opera is that “in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first.” While listening to an opera, it typically doesn’t matter what language it’s sung in, so long as you know the basic plot—but in musical theater, the nuance comes from the lyrics.

When it comes down to it, Tommasini’s explanation clarifies why opera stars often sing in a different style than Broadway performers do, why operas and musicals tend to have their trademark subject matters, and why musical composition and orchestration differ between the two disciplines.

That said, we live in a hybrid-crazy world in which we can order Chinese-Indian food, purchase combination jeans/leggings, and, yes, watch a Broadway musical—like 2010's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark—that’s billed as “rock opera.” At the end of the day, the lack of hard, fast lines between opera and musical theater can lead composers from both camps to borrow from the other, thus blurring the line even further.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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History
Lost Gustav Holst Music Found in a New Zealand Symphony Archive
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English composer Gustav Holst became famous for his epic seven-piece suite "The Planets," but not all of his works were larger-than-life. Take "Folk Songs from Somerset," a collection of folk tunes composed by Holst in 1906 and largely forgotten in the decades since. Now, more than a century later, the music is finally attracting attention. As Atlas Obscura reports, manuscripts of the songs were rediscovered among a lost collection of sheet music handwritten by the musician.

The Holst originals were uncovered from the archives of a New Zealand symphony during a routine cleaning a few years ago. While throwing away old photocopies and other junk, the music director and the librarian of the Bay of Plenty (BOP) Symphonia came across two pieces of music by Holst. The scores were penned in the composer’s handwriting and labeled with his former address. Realizing the potential importance of their discovery, they stored the documents in a safe place, but it wasn't until recently that they were able to verify that the manuscripts were authentic.

For more than a century, the Holst works were thought to be lost for good. "These manuscripts are a remarkable find, particularly the ‘Folk Songs from Somerset’ which don’t exist elsewhere in this form," Colin Matthews of London's Holst Foundation said in a statement from the symphony.

How, exactly, the documents ended up in New Zealand remains a mystery. The BOP Symphonia suspects that the sheets were brought there by Stanley Farnsworth, a flutist who performed with an early version of the symphony in the 1960s. “We have clues that suggest the scores were used by Farnsworth,” orchestra member Bronya Dean said, “but we have no idea how Farnsworth came to have them, or what his connection was with Holst.”

The symphony plans to mark the discovery with a live show, including what will likely be the first performance of "Folk Songs from Somerset" in 100 years. Beyond that, BOP is considering finding a place for the artifacts in Holst’s home in England.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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