“Tom’s Diner” by Suzanne Vega

This song is a rather-simple narrative the singer relays from a first-person perspective while sitting in the titular “Tom’s Diner”. And she is taking on the role of a male patron while doing so.

He finds himself visiting “the diner” for some morning coffee. While he is being served, a woman walks in whom the workers at the shop are familiar with, and they exchange heartfelt “hellos” with. When she enters “she is shaking her umbrella” since it is raining outside. Indeed later in the narrative the singer beholds a woman whose hair is wet and straightening herself out using her reflection in the window of Tom’s Diner directly in front of him. However, she does not see him on the other side, and he does his best not to stare at her while she is “straightening her stockings”. This may be the only time in the song’s lyrics where it is implied that the narrator is a male.

While enjoying his morning joe, the singer flips through a newspaper and comes across a headline about “an actor who had died while he was drinking”, as well as going through “the horoscope” and “funnies” sections. Also he hears “the bells of the cathedral” in the background.  And finally he ‘finishes up his coffee’ and noticing “it’s time to catch the train”, likely alluding to the New York City subway, apparently heads off to do so.

And that’s the gist of this song.  There does not appear to be any artistic metaphors of veiled meanings behind its lyrics. Rather it simply features the singer chronicling a morning s/he spent in “Tom’s Diner”, which is based on an actual location in New York City.

Story behind “Tom’s Diner”

This classic was written by Suzanne Vega. She was inspired by a photographer friend of hers named Brian Rose. According to Vega, Brian once made a comment about perceiving “his whole life through a pane of glass” and being the “witness to a lot of things” yet “never really [being] involved in them”.

Historians analyzed the lyrics of the song and dug through newspaper archives to conclude that the actual date the events of the song took place was on 18 November 1981. According to them, the deceased actor Suzanne Vega refers to is William Holden (1918-1981). However, it was not raining on the particular day of Holden’s death. FYI, Holden died in his home in November 1981 after getting drunk and fatally injuring himself from a nasty fall.

“Tom’s Diner” is real

In actuality is called Tom’s Restaurant, and as aforementioned it is situated in New York City. Suzanne Vega, a New Yorker for life, is said to have frequented this establishment during the early 1980s, when this song was dropped.  In fact she states that to this day when TV crews come from other parts of the country to interview her, they insist that they do so at Tom’s Restaurant.

According to Vega, Tom’s Restaurant has even added her name, albeit misspelled, onto their menu. This is obviously the restaurant’s way of saying thank you to Vega for making their business famous the world over.

The Cathedral

“The cathedral” referenced in the lyrics would actually be the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. This cathedral is only a block away from Tom’s Restaurant.

Quick Facts about “Tom’s Diner”

The selfsame Tom’s Restaurant is used as the exterior of “Monk’s Café” from the classic 1990s sitcom Seinfeld.

“Tom’s Diner” was a modest success in its day, charting in Denmark, Ireland and Sweden as well as peaking at number 58 on the UK Singles Chart.

However it has maintained a presence in pop culture throughout the decades. This is partially due to a remix of the song by the British production duo DNA in 1990, where they added a dance beat to Suzanne Vega’s a cappella vocals.

Originally DNA used Vega’s vocals without her consent. Vega considered litigation but ultimately ruled against it. Instead her record label, A&M, purchased and re-released the remix (along with a bunch of other remixes, collectively entitled “Tom’s Album”) and capitalized directly from its success.

This particular version of the song reached number 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number 2 on the UK Singles Chart. Furthermore, it charted all over the world, including scoring a number 1 in quite a few countries.

Moreover a number of prominent artists have sampled “Tom’s Diner” throughout the years, including Tupac, Aaliyah and Drake. Additionally a 2015 cover of the song by Giorgio Moroder featured Britney Spears.

“Tom’s Diner” holds a very-special place in the history of audio technology, as Karlheinz Brandenburg, one of the inventors of MP3, used this song in particular to “fine tune” the format. He chose “Tom’s Diner” after randomly hearing it one day and concluding it would be perfect to experiment with, considering it was a cappella, and he and his peers were finding the compression voices to be particularly challenging. As such this song has been dubbed in technology circles as the “Mother of MP3”.  Suzanne Vega even paid a visit to the lab where MP3 was created herself.

 “Tom’s Diner” was produced by record producer Steve Addabbo in conjunction with Lenny Kaye.

A&M Records alongside PolyGram Records released “Tom’s Diner” on 1 April 1987 as part of Suzanne Vega’s second album, Solitude Standing. Later in 1991 the song was also featured on the aforementioned Tom’s Album compilation.

6 Responses

  1. Rich says:

    It turns out that the creator of the MP3 format did not choose Tom’s Diner randomly but rather because he read articles discussing how the song was already being used to test “loudspeaker” equipment by other groups.

    Source Interview: https://youtube.com/watch?v=OeE5t7aJVsI

  2. Jed Marlin says:

    Thank you for explaining all this. Fascinating

  3. Chris says:

    I don’t see why we assume the narrator is male. I imagine a woman, maybe Vega herself, having coffee in the morning at her diner going through a stream of consciousness that we can relate to in a way and slowly realize her thoughts are hung up on a lover.

    She’s annoyed about not getting a good coffee pour, but failing to argue it. Then she finds herself looking away from a flirty moment and busying herself with the newspaper, noticing a person outside having their own personal moment (just because they notice her hiking up her stockings doesn’t mean the narrator is male. They could have also observed a man zipping up his fly), hearing the rain and the bells and then her mind goes to a former lover, reminiscing about a happy moment from better days (before the rain began).

    • Charles says:

      For all of the years I have heard this song, I’ve never pictured the narrator as a male.

    • Anonymous says:

      As for me, I actually thought is a male character, because of “her” saying I notice there was someone watching and she found is a woman…unfortunately, I didn’t think the character may be a woman.

  4. Ted says:

    Male/female point of view means nothing to me. Its observance of people one morning.

    I have liked it since I first heard it.

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