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Snapsongs: “Song of Sand” by Suzanne Vega

Friday 7 March 2014 - Filed under Snapsongs

Early spring in Texas, out in the parking lot of the apartment complex I called home. Cool day, cloudy mostly with some patches of sun glinting through the branches of the trees above me. As sunset deepened, the clearing sky lit up the neighborhood with a diffuse orange glow. 99.9 F° was playing on my car’s tapedeck so I could assure myself that things were still working.

I’d been working all day to repair the elderly black BMW I had managed to score through a convoluted series of events involving a woman without her insurance card, two kids not in car seats, insurance estimates, replacement values and the largess of the owner of a local repair shop. My beloved little green BMW 2002 had been a casualty of those events, but this was a decent consolation prize. I called it Humbert, because it was large and responsive and smoothly accelerated to 80 mph with the understated grace of a loyal butler, but had enough undertone of subtle menace that I could imagine it seducing a young Honda Del Sol just for thrills. It was also wildly at odds with my demographic at the time, and I was constantly getting annoyed at people assuming that my father had given it to me. And by annoyed I mean livid with frustration. But such is the life of a young punk with a yuppie ride.

As it was, indeed, a machine with many miles of service under its hood, it was in those stages of elegant decline you find in higher-end automobiles. It would be a couple years before the paint started to peel in the Texas sun, three before the air conditioning would literally blow out at a stoplight, and five before an incident involving loose gravel, a malfunctioning traffic light and a red Beretta made it necessary for me to secure the hood with a thick chain and padlock, so it was not quite yet a “Beater-W”. However, the electronics behind the dashboard were beginning to fail, the speedometer was occasionally blipping out on me, the sunroof motor had locked up and the actuators for the rear door locks had burned themselves out. The door locks was the straw that had sent me to the salvage yard for replacements.

So I got actuators, a sunroof motor, and speedometer without too much problem. Salvage yards are actually fun and interesting places — I’d used their services for my Diesel VW Rabbit and my 2002. For this car, I had already replaced the passenger side window after some neighborhood kids decided to remove my stereo without my permission late one night. You clomp along through the rows of dead cars, admiring the various ways they’d met their demise, looking for some sign that the part you need was available and removable, and then attempt to remove it. Most importantly, you could get it for much much less than a BMW repair shop would charge you. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.

The weird part, of course, is actually operating on the patient. As an uninitiated civilian, you think of an automobile — and especially a high-end automobile like a Beemer — as an inviolate whole, something of a large black box that does its thing through some magical alignment of forces. Not so! You can take your trusty ratchet set and remove the dashboard from a BMW just as easily as any other car, see how the designers intended for it to go together and how they managed the look-n-feel on the surface, and uncover the same wires, chips, clips and screws that might be inside a toaster oven or alarm clock. You also see up-close-and-personal how automatic door locks are basically solenoids connected to a pushrod, and how between one model year and another they might switch their polarity so that the electricity that unlocks the door one year might lock the door another year. (Fortunately, a quick wire splice fixed that particular annoyance.) And you can see firsthand how accidentally touching a screwdriver to ground at the wrong time can blow the fuses that control the stereo, speedometer and dome light.

So, it had been a full day of twisting, swearing, splicing and contorting oneself into various odd angles to obtain a clear view of the mess under the steering column. The abrupt lack of music had been a real pisser. So after I’d replaced the fuses and rewired the harness and checked the speaker response and finally closed up all the open paneling, it was nice to sit in the driver’s seat, doors closed for proper stereo visualization, and just chill. The soft sunset light and the cool air let the music seep through the space with clarity and grace. It was lovely.

I’d been a sometimes fan of Suzanne Vega ever since I’d heard the DJ announce her new single “Luka” while I was starting up the lawnmower one hot summer’s day when I was in high school. She was folky, singer-songwritery with a shade of social commentary — not quite the expected spin for a young punk to enjoy, but it worked. I liked the construction of the song, I liked the not-too-folky feel of the arrangement, and I especially liked her voice. That was the clincher, actually — most of the female singer-songwriters in that 80s flowering of the style had been strident, emotional, mannerist, and melismatic, at least in my estimation. Suzanne Vega was not. There was emotion behind the voice, but it was unadorned, simple and unassuming. She allowed her timbre to be the main channel for expression, rather than sheer volume and high-flying vocal theatrics. There was also a hint of deadpan humor, a hint of layers beneath the surface that, for whatever reason, were not being completely expressed. It was a refreshing change from the overheated therapist sessions the other musicians were committing to wax. And instead of a preachy, self-righteous, finger-wagging sermon about child abuse (a la Natalie Merchant some years later), Vega let Luka speak for himself. That’s the kind of songwriting I could get behind.

However, it wasn’t until the 1992 album 99.9 F° that I realized I needed to pay more attention. The album was (is) amazing, throwing some industrial, some beats, some oddities into the folk picture that completely turned all my previous assumptions on their heads. There was still that same sense of melody, songwriting and literary reference as the earlier work, but the 80s synths were gone and the pseudo-jazz veneer had been worn off. It was more brittle, more raw, more interesting. And the basswork! Good God, I must’ve worn out the pits and lands on my CD playing along with various tracks. Indeed, I could just put the album on and play to the entire run without skipping a song. It was a touchstone, it was a primer, it was a lesson plan. Back when people compiled lists of such things, it was one of my Desert Island Discs.

But even with all the fun and gingerbread and noise going on, one of my favorite pieces was the stripped-down, no-nonsense final track, “Song of Sand”. Okay, it had a string quartet as backup, but that was immaterial. The song was written for pure acoustic guitar and female voice. And it had the same unadorned phrasing, the same gentle touch on the dynamics that had won me over the very first time I’d heard Vega sing, but this later performance had more assurance and more strength. It was political, but it was not a screed. You had to parse the words to figure out the message; it did not insult one’s intelligence by shouting obvious tropes at you. It was bemused, wondering about the silliness and idiocy of our little escapade in the Middle East that was Desert Storm, again with a deadpan tone that hinted at deeper feelings lying underneath the even presentation. And I loved the central metaphor for the composition. I, too, wished to know what the amplitudes of Iraqi sand dunes would sound like, if turned into the crests and troughs of sonic vibrations.

One does not choose one’s epiphanies; they are simply given to you. The song reverberated through my car with as perfect a fidelity I was able to muster on a budget. My repairs were complete, crisis averted, normalcy restored. The evening was drawing close, and the light of the sunset was barely brighter than the security light mounted on a pole under the trees. And almost in time with the last fading, an acoustic bass added its voice to the final verse. I couldn’t have asked for a better denouement. The instruments recapitulated the main chord progression, and faded gently into the night. Finis.

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2014-03-07  »  Edward Semblance