This special evening will include Suzanne solo and will also feature Poez the Poet, an extraordinary spoken word artist.
Widely regarded as one of the most brilliant songwriters of her generation, Suzanne Vega emerged as a leading figure of the folk-music revival of the early 1980s when, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, she sang what has been labeled contemporary folk or neo-folk songs of her own creation in Greenwich Village clubs. Since the release of her self-titled, critically acclaimed 1985 debut album, she has given sold-out concerts in many of the world’s best-known halls. In performances devoid of outward drama that nevertheless convey deep emotion, Vega sings in a distinctive, clear vibrato-less voice that has been described as “a cool, dry sandpaper- brushed near-whisper” and as “plaintive but disarmingly powerful.”
Bearing the stamp of a masterful storyteller who “observed the world with a clinically poetic eye,” Suzanne’s songs have always tended to focus on city life, ordinary people and real world subjects. Notably succinct and understated, often cerebral but also streetwise, her lyrics invite multiple interpretations. In short, Suzanne Vega’s work is immediately recognizable, as utterly distinct and thoughtful, and as creative and musical now, as it was when her voice was first heard on the radio over 20 years ago.
Suzanne was born in Santa Monica, CA, but grew up in Spanish Harlem and the Upper West Side of New York City. She was influenced by her mother, a computer systems analyst and her stepfather, the Puerto Rican writer Egardo Vega Yunque. There was a heady mix of multicultural music playing at home: Motown, bossa nova, jazz and folk. At age 11 she picked up a guitar and as a teenager she started to write songs.
Suzanne studied dance at the High School for the Performing Arts and later attended Barnard College where she majored in English Literature. It was in 1979 when Suzanne attended a concert by Lou Reed and began to find her true artistic voice and distinctive vision for contemporary folk. Receptionist by day, Suzanne was hanging out at the Greenwich Village Songwriter’s Exchange by night. Soon she was playing iconic venues like The Bottom Line and Folk City. The word was out and audiences were catching on.
At first, record companies saw little prospect of commercial success. Suzanne’s demo tape was rejected by every major record company — and twice by the very label that eventually signed her: A&M Records. Her self-titled debut album was finally released in 1985, co-produced by Steve Addabbo and Lenny Kaye, the former guitarist for Patti Smith. The skeptical executives at A&M were expecting to sell 30,000 LPs. 1,000,000 records later, it was clear that Suzanne’s voice was resonating around the world. “Marlene on the Wall” was a surprise hit in the U.K and Rolling Stone eventually included the record in their “100 Greatest Recordings of the 1980s.” 1987’s follow up, Solitude Standing, again co-produced by Addabbo and Kaye, elevated her to star status. The album hit #2 in the UK and #11 in the States, was nominated for three Grammys including Record of the Year, and went platinum. “Luka” is a song that has entered the cultural vernacular; certainly the only hit song ever written from the perspective of an abused boy.
The opening song on Solitude Standing was a strange little a cappella piece, “Tom’s Diner” about a non-descript restaurant near Columbia University uptown. Without Suzanne’s permission, it was remixed by U.K. electronic dance duo DNA and bootlegged as “Oh Susanne.” Suddenly her voice on this obscure tune was showing up in the most unlikely setting of all: the club. Suzanne permitted an official release of the remix of “Tom’s Diner” under its original title, which reached #5 on the Billboard pop chart and went gold. In 1991 a compilation, Tom’s Album, brought together the remix and other unsolicited versions of the song. Meanwhile, Karlheinz Brandenburg, the German computer programmer, was busy developing the technology that would come to be known as the MP3. He found that Vega’s voice was the perfect template with which to test the purity of the audio compression that he was aiming to perfect. Thus Suzanne earned the nickname “The Mother of the MP3.”
Suzanne co-produced the follow-up album with Anton Sanko, 1990’s Days Of Open Hand, which won a Grammy for Best Album Package. The album also featured a string arrangement by minimalist composer Philip Glass. Years earlier she had penned lyrics for his song cycle “Songs From Liquid Days.” Continuing to battle preconceptions, she teamed with producer Mitchell Froom for 1992’s 99.9F. The album’s sound instigated descriptions such as “industrial folk” and “techno-folk.” Certified gold, 99.9F won a New York Music Award as Best Rock Album. Suzanne’s neo-folk style has ushered in a new female, acoustic, folk-pop singer-songwriter movement that would include the likes of Tracy Chapman, Shawn Colvin, and Indigo Girls. In 1997, Suzanne joined Sarah McLachlan on her Lilith Fair tour, which celebrated the female voice in rock and pop. She was one of the few artists invited back every year. Suzanne was also the host of the public radio series “American Mavericks,” thirteen hour-long programs featuring the histories and the music of the iconoclastic, contemporary classical composers who revolutionized the possibilities of new music. The show won the Peabody Award for Excellence in Broadcasting.
In 1996, Vega returned with the similarly audacious Nine Objects Of Desire, also produced by Mitchell Froom, who by then was her husband. “Woman On The Tier (I’ll See You Through)” was released on the “Dead Man Walking” soundtrack. Over the years, she has also been heard on the soundtracks to “Pretty In Pink” (“Left Of Center” with Joe Jackson) and “The Truth About Cats & Dogs,” and contributed to such diverse projects as the Disney compilation Stay Awake, Grateful Dead tribute Deadicated, Leonard Cohen tribute Tower Of Song, and Pavarotti & Friends. In 1999, “The Passionate Eye: The Collected Writings Of Suzanne Vega,” a volume of poems, lyrics, essays and journalistic pieces, was published by Spike/Avon Books. In 2001, she returned to her acoustic roots for her first new album in five years, the critics’ favorite Songs In Red And Gray.
In 2007, Suzanne released Beauty & Crime on Blue Note Records, a deeply personal reflection of her native New York City in the wake of the loss of her brother Tim and the tragedy of 9/11. But the record is not a sad one, per se, as her love for the city shines through as both its subject and its setting. In it, Suzanne mixes the past and present, the public with the private, and familiar sounds with the utterly new, just like the city itself. “Anniversary,” which concludes Beauty & Crime, is an understated evocation of that time in the fall of 2002, when New Yorkers first commemorated the Twin Towers tragedy and when Suzanne recalls her brother’s passing. It’s more inspiration than elegy, though: “Make time for all your possibilities,” Vega sings at the end in that beautiful, hushed voice. “They live on every street.” Produced by the Scotsman, Jimmy Hogarth and featuring songs such as “New York is a Woman” and “Ludlow Street,” Beauty & Crime is that rare album by an artist in her third decade; an album that is as original and startling as her first. Beauty & Crime won a Grammy for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical.
In 2006, she became the first major recording artist to perform live in avatar form within the virtual world Second Life. She has dedicated much of her time and energy to charitable causes, notably Amnesty International, Casa Alianza, and the Save Darfur Coalition. Suzanne has a daughter, Ruby, by first husband Mitchell Froom. Ruby, like Suzanne before her, attends the High School for the Performing Arts. Suzanne is married to lawyer/poet Paul Mills, who proposed to her originally in 1983. Suzanne accepted his proposal on Christmas Day 2005, twenty-two years later.
Suzanne Vega is an artist that continues to surprise. In 2011 in New York City she premiered “Carson McCullers Talks About Love,” an original play written and performed by Ms. Vega with songs she wrote with Tony Award-winner Duncan Sheik (“Spring Awakening”). A pioneer among singer-songwriters. Suzanne has also embarked on a project to re-imagine her own songbook in a stripped down and intimate manner, creating four new thematic albums that will be released over the course of 2010-2012 called the Close-Up series.
Ms. Vega continues to tour constantly, having just played dates with artists as diverse as Moby and Bob Dylan.
POEZ THE POET
Years before there was slam poetry, spoken word poetry, performance poetry, slam poetry, there was Poez, making a name for himself, and originating this branch of the dramatic arts. A voice musician a young man with a flow of words like a river like a jazz instrument. In July 1979, this is how the New York Daily News (Ernest Leogrande) described Poez (Paul Mills) early in his career as the worlds first spoken-word poet-performer, which began in 1976. There was no one else like him because from 1976-1982, the notion of a poet who placed the emphasis, when writing and presenting his poetry, on live performance, rather than the printed page, was revolutionary and the rest of the poetry world was slow to catch on. As the NEW YORK TIMES put it simply, he was a spoken-word pioneer, his performance a sonic fantasia. A consistently interesting performer with an unclassifiable act, agreed THE STAGE of London. Plays his voice as a violinist moves the bow across the strings beyond the writing, beyond the performing, to a personal portrayal that is a virtual song THE AQUARIAN WEEKLY (Diane Umansky, July 29, 1981). Une presence vocale etonnant et imprevu, were the words used in July, 1982 by LE FIGARO of Paris, Incroyable et extraordinaire les mots deviennent soudaine rythme et musique gushed LE QUOTIDIENNE, also of Paris, about his concert engagement at Le Theatre du Rond-Point on the Champs-Elysees in Paris, when Patrice Regniers RUSH Dance Company joined him in the live performance of his original work, Spontaneous Combustion. And back in New York: the obvious relish that only a creator can bring to his own poetry punching, pulsating lines BACKSTAGE (Jennie Schulman, August 13, 1982).
Earlier much earlier at least one poet historically engaged in the dramatic performance of memorized poetry. Scholars dispute his actual existence, but he remains a predominant figure in the etiology of Western myth and literature. Homer, reputed offspring of a river and a nymph, comes to us in the form of a troubadour poet, regaling audiences at religious festivals in ancient Greece, with rhyming narratives compiled today as The Iliad and The Odyssey circa 7th Century B.C. The blind Homers poetry would have to have been recorded by others, and in this fashion come down to us. After Homer, it seems that publication so dominated poetry that even a poet intent on dramatic performance of his works, Vachel Lindsay, in the early 1900s, was foremost an artist of publication. This remains the convention in the 1920s with the poets of the Harlem Renaissance; and the Beats in the 1950s, as well as the later Nuyorican Poets, in the 1970s, who, while they collaborated with musicians in readings, and even improvised poetry, continued to regard the printed, published poem as the poetic product of greatest importance. Criticism of the published poem or poetry book was the only measure of a poets value. Review of a poem’s unaccompanied theatrical performance, by the poet, who has learned the poem and prepared it for dramatic presentation, if it ever took place, was still of no moment.
The concept of a poet-performer who writes poetry for dramatic, theatrical performance from memory, by the poet him- or herself, began for writer-actor Paul Mills in 1973, following a trip to India where he came in contact with the work of classical vocalists, the Dagar Brothers, in New Delhi. Earlier, Brilliant in both his roles a fine sense of poetry had been the judgment of Boston After Dark critic Peter Filichia, when, in 1969, Mills appeared in the T.S. Eliot poetic drama, Murder in the Cathedral at Boston University. Later, as Poez, he applied his skills and experience as writer, actor and musician to invent the poet-performer he believed would bring a new kind of poetry and performance to the world stage, beginning in 1975, in the Boston-Cambridge area. Taking his cue from that renowned singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan (whose stage name was adopted from Dylan Thomas), he began by learning standards and performing them. That is, he memorized and developed dramatic performances for the poems he had grown up with, and believed would work best in live performance, by Poe, Coleridge, Frost, Yeats, Eliot, Dickinson, Blake, Keats, Thomas, Whitman, and others, and offered them to the public in the form of a Poetry Menu. Learning classic poetry, and living by its performance, he believed, would teach him how best to write original poetry for performance.
By 1976, Bostons NIGHTFALL magazine was telling its readers to Tear up your Playbill and leave it in the aisle someone finally taken Bostons usually dull theater scene by storm and turned it upside down. He’s Poez, and practically overnight he’s established himself as the Hubs most innovative, alive performer.
Ultimately, he found and created audiences for dramatic poetry, performed from memory, in the streets, parks, cafes, clubs, and theatres of Boston, New York, San Francisco, London, and Paris, sharing the bill in live, radio, and television programs with such performers as William Burroughs, Mose Allison, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, The Roche Sisters, Suzanne Vega, Richard Hell, Steve Forbert, and Shawn Colvin in New York at CBGBs, The Bottom Line, The Bitter End, Kenny’s Castaways, Folk City, Trude Hellers, The Ginger Man, The Pyramid Club, and Charles Ludlams Ridiculous Theater, on television and FM radio broadcasts. Two of New Yorks nationally-known poets, veterans of the spoken word scene, more recently offered the following impressions on Whatever Happened to Poez?, an About.com web page dedicated to the groundbreaking artist: The first performance poet I had ever seen, decades before anyone coined a phrase like spoken word. He didn’t so much stalk the stage as swoop at it. More than twenty years have passed, and this poet holds his own clear space in the amazement of my memory. Jackie Sheeler, author of The Memory Factory, curator of the Pink Pony West readings at the Greenwich Village Cornelia Street Cafe, and director of one of the premier online guides to spoken word poetry. A rogue poet, lone wolf, his own mission. He really got to me. Brilliant iconoclastic savvy bitter. Bob Holman, producer of the PBS series United States of Poetry, author of A Couple of Ways of Doing Something, and founder of the Lower East Sides Bowery Poetry Club.
In 1995 he left New York to practice law as a civil rights and criminal defense trial lawyer in Los Angeles, concentrating on police misconduct homicide and street artist and activist First Amendment cases, while directing L.A. Police Watch. In 2006, he married singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega and returned to New York City.
Since then he has collaborated with Gene Pritskers Composers Concordance of New York City; jazz composer and fine artist Mark Kostabi; musicians Paul Nowinski (bass), William Galison (harmonica), Rick Shields (violin), and Jenavieve Varga (violin), accompanying himself on keyboards and developing yet another poetry performance format, the spoken-word singer-songwriter, performing in New York at such venues as the Cornelia Street Cafe, the Bitter End, Le Poisson Rouge, The Cutting Room, St. Annes Warehouse, St. Marks Poetry Project, and the Bowery Poetry Club; in New York, Prague, and London. He has also collaborated on award-winning films with Joeann Calabrese screened at festivals in New York, London, and Berlin and available on Amazon Prime Video. He has released one book of collected writings, The Poetry Dollars, published by Bowery Books, and three CD albums, The Monotone, Sleep With A Genius and Stay Loose And Fake It!, available on iTunes and Spotify.
Paul L. Mills is a graduate of Columbia University, graduating Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa, with a double major in Literature-Writing from the legendary Columbia Writing Program, and in French Literature, winning the Lily Palmer French Prize.