Listening to Suzanne Vega: A Personal Timeline Of Abuse And Recovery

This is a story about when music is survival.
Publish date:
April 11, 2013
music, recovery, issues, abuse

1987: “Solitude Standing”

I buy Suzanne Vega’s second album, “Solitude Standing,” because of a song I have heard on the radio a lot, called “Luka.” It’s about an abused child, which seems like a subject I am hearing about often recently, but then I am only ten years old, so child abuse, like many things, is a relatively new concept to me. “My name is Luka, I live on the second floor.” People are making fun of it a lot.

I buy the cassette version, which comes in a clear case with a blurry image of Vega holding her small, almost elfin face in dark-gloved hands on the cover. She looks pretty and fragile and impossibly unlike me.

For a year I never listen past “Luka,” which is the second track. I don’t really understand the first track, the minimalist a capella “Tom’s Diner,” so I usually fast-forward past it.

Sometime later, I let the whole tape play, and I also don’t understand most of the rest of what I hear. But once “Gypsy” comes on I am curled up on the floor with my ear pressed to the speaker of my huge silver 80s-era portable stereo (we called them “boomboxes” -- we also, troublingly, called them "ghetto blasters" but I didn't know better) with every cell fixed on Vega’s voice.

By this time my mother is living with a man who is mercilessly cruel to me (as well as to her), with only brief breaks to be kind, who tells me I am soft and weak and stupid and who relishes any opportunity to physically hurt me in the name of harmless "teasing" or helpful efforts to make me "tough." Although I only visit the both of them on the weekends I have developed a chronic base level of abandonment anxiety and self-loathing.

“Gypsy,” for some reason, becomes a coping mechanism. I listen to it several times a day, for months and months, usually with the added intimacy of headphones.

1990: “Days of Open Hand”

I read a review of “Days of Open Hand” in Sassy magazine. I don’t remember if it was positive or not. I mean to buy it, but forget to do so until some time later when I am visiting my preferred Spec’s Music location and digging through the cut-out bins.

The cut-out bins are filled with bargain-price tapes that didn’t sell on their original release -- so named for the cuts in their cases marking them as store returns -- and they are a cheap method of discovering new music in a pre-internet world. I am thirteen and I get an allowance of ten dollars a week. A brand new tape costs seven to ten dollars. A cut-out bargain costs three or four.

I run across "Days of Open Hand." Suzanne Vega is again staring out at me from the cover, posed like an alchemical illustration. She looks different. Her face is in sharp focus. She strikes me as wiser, surer, sterner. Her hair is smooth. Her expression is serious but otherwise unreadable to me. I don't know if I like her anymore.

Nevertheless I buy the tape and take it home and load it into my new boombox (this one is bright yellow and has a fabric shoulder strap with MAGNAVOX embroidered into it in large block letters) and press play, and Vega sighs, "Oh, mom," from my speakers as "Tired of Sleeping" begins.

I listen to "Days of Open Hand" until I have explored every corner of every song and memorized it all. I play "Those Whole Girls (Run in Grace)" for my mom, and she says it sounds like rain.

She is no longer with the man who was cruel. She has left him.

The man's son, who is not quite two years older than I and the only person who ever defended me, stood up for me against his father -- he will commit suicide around this time. He puts a shotgun in his mouth while standing in the bathtub of his father's house. He chooses the bathtub to keep the mess he's about to make all in one easily-cleaned place.

At the funeral, his father repeatedly insists that his son killed himself because he was upset over a girl. The note his son left says otherwise. The man who was cruel also tells me, as though giving me an order: "Don't you dare ever do this." I feel insulted and angry but don't know what to say. I want to throw him to the ground and beat him to death with my fists.

1992: 99.9F

I read a review of "99.9F," also, I believe, in Sassy magazine, and in my memory it is a middling report that suggests Vega's lyrics are better than her songs, and that she may be better suited to simply writing poetry and not making music. I am irritated on Vega's behalf and buy the album immediately.

It is a very strange experience. The music is unexpectedly percussive, electronic, Vega singing about blood and bodies in ways that make me distinctly uncomfortable. I don't know if I like it, but I listen to it constantly, with "In Liverpool" on particular repeat. "The boy in the belfry / he's crazy / he's throwing himself / down from the top of the tower / like a hunchback in heaven / he's ringing the bells / in the church for the last half an hour / and he sounds like he's missing / something or someone that he can't have now / and if he isn't / I certainly am."

From the album cover Suzanne Vega stares at me, slightly disheveled, with one visible eye, her face obscured by hair and her bandaged hand over her mouth like the girl in one of her songs, a crackling speckled filter of red-orange surrounding her with the suggestion of fire. She looks dangerous, almost feral. I am fifteen years old. Often, I think about the son who killed himself when he was my age, rubbing the idea that someone else could feel such despair over my mind like a balm.

Being a teenager is hard.

1996: Nine Objects of Desire

I listen to "Nine Objects of Desire" every night to fall asleep. My college roommate/best friend does not like it. We agree to trade off nights choosing music to fall asleep to. She is very partial to The Cure.

The Suzanne Vega on the CD cover looks like a stranger, all polished and makeupped and model-pretty. You can still only see one of her eyes. It is my favorite of her albums so far. There isn't a single track I don’t love.

The man who was cruel talks to my mom on my birthday, and asks her to tell me he's sorry for treating me so badly, that he feels terrible about it now. They speak very rarely now, but every once in awhile.

She communicates his message to me, over the phone, from 1500 miles away, as I sit on my heavy dorm bed staring out at the narrow sliver of grey Boston sky I can see between my building and the building next door and it's as if the years of unconsidered pain come tearing across her words on the line like a cold skeletal hand from a grave. It makes me blindingly angry. I hope he is sorry. I hope he puts head to pillow every night for the rest of his life hating himself for being a monster. A monster.

I am also angry at my mother for telling me he had spoken my name to her at all. I don't want to know what he thinks. I don't want to know what a disaster of sadness and self-hatred he has become. I want to forget he lives.

Part of me wants to forgive him. Part of me wants to find him and open his chest and pull his empty heart from his body with my bare hands. I want to believe that he may have changed, that he may feel real remorse. But believing that would mean giving him the benefit of my doubt. I will give him nothing. I will never see him again.

That's not a literal truth yet, but it is a prediction: I will never see him again. Someday in the future, he will die never knowing if I had let him go.

2010-2012: Close-Up

Suzanne Vega re-records songs from her catalog in spare acoustic arrangements, and releases them in a series entitled "Close-Up," organized by theme: love songs, people and places, states of being, family. I am struck for the first time by how brilliant her work is, and how much it has meant to me over my life.

I buy the albums in succession as soon as they are released and listen to them and feel as though I am seeing my adolescence through a fresh, clear lens. What has happened, how it has affected me, how I have gone on and thrived in spite of -- because of -- it. Good things and bad things. I can see it all now.

I am an adult. I am not far from the age the man was when he first met me. I think about him sometimes, but not often. I occasionally wish he wasn't so broken and so filled with despair and shame and self-loathing that he needed to break everyone who ever tried to love him.

2013: Today

I hear "Luka" while spending the morning working in my favorite Boston cafe. Suzanne Vega's voice rings to me with the familiarity of a beloved but distant family member, telling me she always knew I would be okay, that I would survive and become the person I am today. I want to tell her thank you. So I start writing.