This is a twofer: “Life’s a Riot with Spy vs. Spy” by Billy Bragg, and Suzanne Vega’s self-titled debut. I think the Vega album was probably more influential for me, but it’s pretty close. Both purchases were the result of seeing them live. I was able to immediately get the Vega record, but the Billy Bragg record took me ages to find. The reason was that I was looking for an album called “F**k me, I’m Famous,” which, of course didn’t exist.
I started the school year seeing Echo & the Bunnymen play at Irvine Meadows. But first onstage that night was a guy alone, who sounded like a one guitar Clash. He introduced the set saying, “This is off my new album, “F**k me, I’m Famous” and he played “New England” with the chorus, “I don’t want to change the world / I’m not looking for a new England / I’m just looking for another girl.” Myself band-less … exhausted by the politics of the day … I was hooked! But I could never find that stupid album! My other favorite lyric from that song is, “I saw two shooting stars that night / I wished on the them, but they were only satellites / It’s wrong to wish on space hardware / I wish, I wish, I wish you cared!”
At the end of the year, Suzanne Vega shows up for a noon concert at Ackerman Union. Another artist completely alone with a guitar, but quieter. It felt more portable. Her voice reminded me of Astrud Gilberto, pure, vibrato-less, intimate. In fact it was practically speak-singing, maybe Lou Reed influenced, maybe Laurie Anderson. And it was really bedroom music, songs told from and to those walls. Perfect for the disguised introvert that I am. “Cracking” opens the album with “It’s a one time thing…it just happens a lot,” and the last line of that song is “Wondering where the hell I have been.”
“New England” and “Cracking” are like two sides of the same story, the disappointment of satellites and leaping for the “one time” repeatedly, then losing all sense of direction. It fit perfectly with the annual reinvention I felt as a freshman, sophomore, junior, then senior.
And of course, the simplicity of the format, that’s what got me through college and into my career. I took one acoustic and one electric guitar to England after graduation and played on the street to extend my wandering. I had my Billy Bragg cassette with me. Not only did Billy have printed on the cover that you shouldn’t pay more than £2.99 for the record, but the opposite side of the cassette was left blank and recordable to “Bootleg the Bragg, confuse the enemy!” Of course, on that blank side, I recorded some of my own songs in tunnels by the canals in Venice.
Tying things up, the first and only time I played CBGB’s, Lenny Kaye was an invited guest of my publisher which thrilled the hell out of me not only because of Patti Smith, but also because he produced “Suzanne Vega.” He was with Seymour Stein, and couldn’t have been nicer. (Seymour and I argued about my song, “Jackson, Mississippi,” but that’s a story for another day.)
A couple years later I was in London and did some recording with Billy Bragg’s guitar tech/bestie, Wiggy who introduced me to the world of Cockney rhyming slang.
Regarding impact, the reason “Suzanne Vega” had more of an influence at that time was that I’d been invested in the lane of Dylan to Strummer from where it seemed Billy Bragg emerged. Suzanne Vega, led me deeper into Joni Mitchell, probably prepared me for Nick Drake, and when I heard Lou Reed’s “New York” a few years later, I was truly ready to dive down that glorious Velvet Underground rabbit hole.
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