“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” 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.