When:Thursday, Oct. 4, 8 p.m.
Where: Shriver Hall, the Johns Hopkins University
When Suzanne Vega wrote "Tom's Diner," almost four years ago, what she had in mind was something low-key and atmospheric, "a sort of Truffaut, 'Don't Shoot the Piano Player' feel," she says. "Like a 1962 black-and-white French film score, with an out-of-tune piano tinkling away in a corner.
"That's what I was thinking. But I don't play piano, so that's why there's no piano in the actual recording of it." Instead, she did the next best thing, and recorded the song a cappella, so that its offhand observations of a New York City morning maintained their sense of scale and intimacy.
When an English duo called DNA heard the song, however, they didn't think Truffaut. They thought, 'This needs a beat.' So they gave it one, a swaggeringly insistent groove straight out of the Soul II Soul songbook. The result was an utterly new "Tom's Diner," one which roared up the English charts, took over the dance clubs and absolutely delighted Vega and her band.
"We all cracked up," she says, speaking over the phone from a tour stop in Albuquerque (she and her band will play Shriver Hall Thursday). "I had a similar reaction when I heard the Lemonheads' version of 'Luka.' I just fell on the floor howling with laughter.
"But it works," she adds. "If it didn't work, I'd say, 'Oh, this is horrible.' I think it's a legitimate interpretation. That's what I thought when I heard it. It's like, yeah, OK. They didn't take anything away from the song. I mean, they left out the last line, I think that was a mistake. But they didn't change the rhythm of it. They took the rhythm that was inherent in the song."
Given Vega's folk-scene roots, her enthusiasm for this club-style remix might seem a bit odd. Folkies, after all, are supposed to believe in human voices and acoustic guitars, not drum machines and samplers. But as Vega sees it, the mere fact that "Tom's Diner" could be so radically reinterpreted proves that it's a folk song.
"That's one of the first things that occurred to me," she says. "It really must be folk music if you can take it and do this with it. That's the whole thing about folk, that it's always redone and reinterpreted. People take it and they change it and they sing it in their own way. There's always that thing of, if it's out there and being sung, it's alive."
She mentions that the success of the DNA version of "Tom's Diner" hasn't affected her own performance of the song, "although the band did suggest that I could come out and have my own hand-held drum machine," she laughs.
Still, the issue of instrumentation isn't exactly new to her. "In 1985, when I was first touring, and I could sense a lot of people were pointing at me and saying, 'Oh, she's starting a folk revival,' or whatever," she says. "But it seems to me that they were really pointing to my instrument, to the acoustic guitar."
Which, frankly, misses the point. "Maybe the thing that's more interesting than the fact that I play acoustic guitar is the way I think about things, the perspective. The acoustic guitar is a tool for the stuff behind the acoustic guitar."
Of course, even that approach can present problems. Take "Men In a War," a song from Vega's current album, "Days of Open Hand." Although the listener response suggests that people are paying more attention to her lyrics than to her guitar-playing in that song, Vega isn't exactly ecstatic with the results.
As she puts it, "I know I'm going to have to explain myself from now until I drop dead as to what I meant in the song."
Undoubtedly, some of the confusion stems from the song's unusually vivid images, which at times seem to have been ripped from the pages of "Johnny Got His Gun." Taken at face value, the metaphor is fairly simple; as Vega explains, "It is, basically, a song about loss and how your body handles it. And really, it's not about anything more than that."
Don't tell that to the fans, though. For instance, she has read recently that the song is about abortion. "People say very confidently that they know that this is my stand on abortion," she says wonderingly. "I don't know how they know this because they haven't mentioned it to me. . . ."
Then there are those who try to link the tune to current events, particularly the troop build-up in Saudi Arabia. "Some people have drawn that conclusion," she admits, "even though I wrote the song like a year and a half ago, when no one was thinking about the Persian Gulf."
But such misunderstandings don't really bother her because, in a way, they underscore the way folk songs -- Vega's or anybody's -- will always have resonance. "See, I think the state of war is always happening somewhere in the world," she says. "It may seem more timely now, but it's always timely, just like child abuse is always there, unfortunately. It's just one of those things in life that is always there."