"Tom's Diner" is an a cappella pop song written in 1981 by American singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega. It was first released as a track on the January 1984 issue of Fast Folk Musical Magazine. The first time it was featured on any of her own studio albums was as the first track of her own Solitude Standing album in 1987. It was not until the a cappella track was used as the basis for a popular remix by the British group The DNA Disciples, in 1990 that the song became a popular hit. The 1991 release Tom's Album includes the DNA version as well as cover versions by such artists as After One, (Chicago-based band) Canasta, and "Bingo Hand Job" (a/k/a R.E.M. and Billy Bragg).
The song is written as a simple first person vignette of a person stopping at an unnamed diner for a cup of coffee. The song notes the newspaper, and the women who come and go in the diner, outside in the rain. The ringing of bells at a nearby cathedral cause the singer to reminisce on an unnamed companion and a picnic previously. Coffee finished, it is time to leave the diner to catch a train.
Vega wrote the song based on a comment by her friend Brian Rose, a photographer, who mentioned that in his work, he sometimes felt as if "he saw his whole life through a pane of glass, and [...] like he was the witness to a lot of things, but was never really involved in them." She attempted to think and write in this fashion (including a male perspective ) while sitting at Tom's Restaurant, a diner on the corner of Broadway and 112th Street in New York City, which would later become famous as a location for some exterior scenes in the popular television sitcom Seinfeld. (The building belongs to Columbia University and houses some of its programs, as well as NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies.) The "bells of the cathedral" that she remarks hearing in the song are those of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, located opposite the end of the street.
An article on Suzanne Vega's official website uses clues in the song to determine the exact date that Vega wrote it.
Vega herself said that she wrote the song sometime in 1982; Brian Rose has said that it was written sometime between mid-1981 and mid-1982. The lyrics of the song refer to a rainy morning, when she was at the diner on the corner, reading in her newspaper of "a story of an actor / who had died while he was drinking", and afterwards "turning to the horoscope / and looking for the funnies". Only two newspapers in New York City carried comic strips, or "funnies", in 1981 and 1982, and only one, the New York Post, featured a front-page story of the death of William Holden (star of Sunset Boulevard), whose body was discovered on November 16, 1981. He had died from a fall at his apartment, suffered after drinking excessively. The story in the Post concerning Holden's death was not carried until two days later on November 18, which is taken to be the exact date of the composition.
On that day in New York, however, the weather was not rainy, but overcast. Vega has acknowledged this by admitting that "Tom's Diner" featured a "composite of events", and that the rain was from a morning she remembered being in the diner during the spring of 1982, after the initial events of the song.
Vega originally conceived "Tom's Diner" as a piece for voice and solo piano, but since she couldn't play piano, she decided to record it a cappella. Her recording of the song is extremely sparse — no vocal effects are used except her singing voice — and clocks in at slightly over two minutes long. It was not released as a single; the song "Luka", which follows it on the album, was released as a successful single.
Somewhat surprisingly, in order to confront stage fright, Suzanne Vega opened her appearance at the Prince's Trust Concert on June 20, 1986, with "Tom's Diner", intending to walk off stage afterwards if it wasn't well-received. It was, and she performed a full and equally well-received set.
An article in the now defunct magazine Business 2.0 revealed that "Tom's Diner" was also used by Karlheinz Brandenburg to develop the audio compression scheme known as MP3 at what is now the Fraunhofer Society. He recalled:
Brandenburg adopted the song for testing purposes, listening to it again and again each time he refined the scheme, making sure it did not adversely affect the subtlety of Vega's voice. While it is an exaggeration to say that the MP3 compression format is specifically tuned to play the song "Tom's Diner" (dozens of critically listening material was involved in the design of the codec over many years), among some audio engineers this anecdote has earned Vega the informal title "The Mother of the MP3".
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In 1990, two secretive British record producers remixed "Tom's Diner" without Suzanne Vega's permission, grafting her vocals onto an infectious dance beat from Soul II Soul, and turning her simple ad-libbed outro — "Doo doo doo doo, doo da-doo doo" — into the song's driving hook. They took the name "DNA", later calling themselves The DNA Disciples to distinguish themselves from no wave band DNA, and released their work on a limited basis for distribution to clubs as "Oh Suzanne", by "DNA featuring Suzanne Vega". Vega's record company of the time, A&M, decided to buy the single and release it themselves rather than taking DNA to court for copyright infringement after consultation with Vega, who liked the interpretation, and DNA, who conducted the whole deal through intermediaries in order to hide their true identities. The remix became a much larger hit than Vega had with the song originally, peaking at #2 on the UK singles chart and #5 on the US Billboard Hot 100, and became one of a handful of tracks to chart in the top 10 of both the Modern Rock Tracks (#7) and Billboard R&B Tracks (#10). It spawned a number of rap, dance, and rock remixes and remakes from artists such as Peter Behrens (drummer from Trio) and "Bingo Hand Job", a whimsical one-time collaboration between Billy Bragg and R.E.M. It was also sampled in songs by Public Enemy, Nikki D, Twin Hype and Lil Kim, among other rap acts.
In 1991, Vega, noting the huge number of remakes of the song, released Tom's Album, a compilation of different versions of the song, spanning a variety of musical genres, including a parody that worked in references to I Dream of Jeannie, called "Jeannie's Diner." The album also featured another DNA remix of one of her songs, "Rusted Pipe." In 2000 a new remix was made with its original vocals and lyrics by disk jockey Kenny Blake.
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