And I look the other way
As they are kissing their hellos
I'm pretending not to see them
And instead I pour the milk
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Just about everybody who's heard of this song knows the 1990 cover version by British pop group DNA, but the original Tom's Diner
is a cappella by Suzanna Vega. You can tell a cappella because it's all vocal, with no instrumental backing at all. It's just a step above spoken poetry, and other familiar forms of cappellas include barbershop quartets. Bobby McFerrin (of "Don't Worry Be Happy
" fame) is another famous example.
You'd think for a song originally written to be sung "bare," they'd have at least made a verse or two rhyme! But these lyrics don't; instead they scan so that the rhythm and repeating notes can stay neatly in place. Yet another unique oddity. It's a very catchy, almost haunting song.
DNA added instruments and a cool little video (the one that starts out with the hypnotic rotating eyeball) and got a hit. Hitchcock fans watching the DNA video might also have thought of the movie Vertigo
. There's some similarity in the spiral theme, the way the tune goes around in a circle and the cool, unruffled tone of the female vocalist. The theme of a Hitchcock movie fits, because there's intriguing little mysteries to be solved from the clues in the lyrics.
First, to state the obvious: "Tom's Diner" is actually Tom's Restaurant, at 2880 Broadway on the corner of Broadway and 112th Street, in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan New York City, New York. The exterior is better known as the setting of the fictional Monk's Cafe from the TV series Seinfeld
. However, when the cast of Seinfeld is seen inside Monk's Cafe, that's actually happening on a sound stage in California. For reasons of trademark issues, the "Tom's" is cropped out whenever the establishing exterior shot is used on the show.
Suzanna Vega at Cadogan Hall
Suzanne Vega says that she was sitting in this specific restaurant when she came up with the song, on a day circa 1981-1982. But when? That's where the clues come in! We'll use what any good movie detective would use: the reference to the newspaper. There's "a story of an actor who had died while he was drinking," and then she turns to the horoscope and funnies. That pegs it down to two newspapers in Manhattan which carry comics and horoscopes, and only one of them carried the story of the death of an actor while drinking within this time frame: William Holden, whose death the New York Post
reported November 18, 1981. Elementary, dear Watson!
There's only one problem with this: it wasn't raining there on that day. Remember, there's the woman shaking her umbrella and the woman whose hair has gotten wet when she stands outside checking her reflection. This discrepancy is accounted for by Vega who says that the day was only overcast, but was raining on another day when she was going over the song, and so the two days blend together.
One more piece of trivia interesting to digital music fans: This is the song that German audio engineer Karlheinz Brandenburg used to test his algorithm for MP3 compression! He reports that he was looking for a song that would make a good test when he heard this one playing on the radio in a colleague's office. He decided that the best way to test audio compression was to see if he could preserve Vega's warm, throaty voice while reducing the file size.
~ "Penguin" Pete Trbovich
Tom's Diner Songfacts
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