Many of us have a song that evokes a particular time, place or person: that anthem from your youth, or a slushy tune shared with a first love. Less common are the songs that bring with them a distinctive scent. Yet for me, Gypsy by Suzanne Vega will always smell of mud, cannabis and strawberry cider… Glastonbury, 1999. My first big festival. Sat on the sun-baked earth, I scrutinise the three-day line-up to plan a schedule based around the various Britpop bands that are, unhelpfully, scattered across different, distant stages. Yet there is a voice in my head that cannot be silenced. It belongs to my sort-of girlfriend who, upon inspecting my CD collection, recently remarked that there weren’t many women in it – and in a tone that made it clear she didn’t see this as a good thing. Positioning my roll-up at what I hope is a suitably cool angle, I examine the programme in search of someone to provide me with a convincing counter argument. Suzanne Vega… the name is familiar. Didn’t she do that annoying-yet-catchy-but-still-annoying one about sitting in a diner? And the odd but melodic song about an abused child? Plus she doesn’t clash with any band I simply have to see. She’ll do. Twenty-one years later, I can still recall that set vividly. The Acoustic Tent, pitched on the outskirts of the festival site, was overflowing, with just a few tiny spots available near the back. Carefully, I carried over three pints of fruit-infused scrumpy (to avoid having to fight my way back to the bar) and thought about how good the Manic Street Preachers were the night before. Somewhere across a sea of heads, through the fug of a thousand joints, a tiny woman wearing a hat walked on stage. She greeted us in a soft American drawl and began playing her guitar.
Never have I been so instantly transfixed by a performance: her clear, soothing voice; her crisp playing style; her warm connection with the crowd (which, considering she had headlined the 1989 festival under the cloud of a death threat, could easily have been excused). Along with everyone else in that tent, I was captivated and instantly committed myself to her legion of fans. Of all the tracks she played that afternoon, Gypsy struck me the hardest. It seems a simple song, yet contains a wealth of complexity within: a tricky set of chords and a melody that manages to be both uplifting and melancholic. The poetic lyric is also bittersweet: a touching ode to a romance Vega had with a Liverpudlian, the traveller whose untameable spirit was central to his attraction. In the opening verse, she captures wonderfully the sensation of meeting that stranger with whom you immediately click:
You come from far away With pictures in your eyes Of coffee shops and morning streets In the blue and silent sunrise But night is the cathedral Where we recognised the sign We strangers know each other now As part of the whole design On closer inspection, the lyric doesn’t quite hold up. There’s one line in the chorus that now brings a wry smile. ‘Hold me like a baby that will not fall asleep’; the intention was surely to capture the passionate embrace of a summer love affair. I didn’t notice it on that first hearing but, with the experience of parenthood, I can confirm that this scenario more commonly involves singing Old MacDonald at 4am while trying not to weep bitterly from exhaustion.
But here’s the thing: Vega wrote Gypsy when she was eighteen. Eighteen. At an age when most of us are drinking too much and fretting about A-levels, those touched by genius are writing songs of such majesty they can cast a spell over an entire crowd. With bewitching verses like this…
You have hands of raining water
And that earring in your ear
The wisdom on your face
Denies the number of your years
With the fingers of the potter
And the laughing tale of the fool
The arranger of disorder
With your strange and simple rules Through the years, I have developed a deep affection for many of her songs, especially Penitent, Ironbound/Fancy Poultry, In Liverpool; and Luka, not least for the brilliance of Stephen Ferrera’s drumming. But Gypsy, which features on the New Yorker’s second album, Solitude Standing, remains my favourite. It’s a track I cannot listen to enough, one that has me instantly hitting repeat on the CD player, and that is added several times to playlists to ensure it comes around more quickly. You can feel the love with which it was written pouring out each time. The fact it reached only 77 in the UK charts reflects poorly on us as a nation. In fact, she has had very little chart success in the UK, with 21 for the re-released Marlene On The Wall her highest placing as a solo artist (a remix of Tom’s Diner reached No2).
Decades later, Suzanne Vega is still writing, still performing at 60. Her most recent album, Lover, Beloved: Songs From An Evening With Carson McCullers, was released in 2016 and is based on a play written by Vega about the author’s life. Aside from the woozy opener Carson’s Blues and the track Harper Lee, which sits nearer 1920s jazz than her traditional folk style, the Vega trademarks are all still there: the forceful whisper of her singing voice, the wonderful melodies, and of course the cutely observed details in the stories she tells of people’s lives. These elements are best captured in Gypsy, a tale of her own youthful summer romance that did not last. Nor did mine; it barely struggled on for another six months. (As it turned out, the problem wasn’t just the gender imbalance of my CD collection.) It wasn’t meant to be, I can see that now. But, two decades later, my adoration of Suzanne Vega remains as strong as it was on that Glastonbury afternoon, when I first heard her sing Gypsy sat on dried-out mud, inhaling other people’s cannabis fumes and drinking strawberry cider.
Tim Woods is a Berlin-based writer. His debut novel, Love In The Time Of Britpop, an unromantic comedy about bad sex and great music, is available now in paperback and ebook. Or you can read his blog here. Twitter: @tim_woods77