Suzanne Vega wrote her wordy a cappella tune "Tom’s Diner" in 1981 during a visit to a diner in her neighborhood, the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The place itself is actually called Tom’s Restaurant and would become even more famous as the exterior of the diner frequented by the characters on Seinfeld. The song appeared as the opening track on Vega’s second album, Solitude Standing, in 1987, but her label passed it over as a single in the States, going instead for “Luka,” a beautifully melodic downer about an abused child. ("Luka" reached No. 3 on Billboard’s chart, so it wasn’t a bad decision.) But “Tom’s Diner” ended up with a much longer, more interesting life full of revivals, remakes, and other shots at immortality, including a prominent sampling in Fall Out Boy’s hit “Centuries” last year and a recent, well-received cover sung by Britney Spears on the Giorgio Moroder album Déjà Vu. Some of the other highlights of “Tom’s” enduring life:
1. "Tom's Diner" was written from a male perspective.
Vega wrote the song when she was attending nearby Barnard Collage and stopped in for coffee. It’s written from a specifically male perspective, inspired by her photographer friend, Brian Rose, who told her that he perceived the world as if through a pane of glass. She thought of that as she sat at Tom’s and tried to imagine how her friend would see the things she saw that day. (She never mentions being a male narrator in the song, but she does imply that the character at first thinks the woman “hitching up her skirt” outside the diner is flirting with him, then he realizes “she does not really see me ‘cause she sees her own reflection.”)
2. The song references real places and events.
The “bells of the cathedral” Vega sings about are those of the nearby St. John the Divine, a majestic structure with a long history of its own, where she once had a "midnight picnic" with songwriter Jack Hardy.
3. Some intrepid fans figured out which day the narrator was at Tom's.
The official “Tom’s Diner Day”—the day Vega presumably wrote the song—is Nov. 18, 1981. An article posted on her official website traces the lyrical evidence, mainly the reference to the newspaper of that day, specifically “the story of an actor who had died while he was drinking/it was no one I had heard of.” Her friend Brian Rose, in his own article, placed the writing of the song between 1981 and 1982. Actor William Holden’s body was discovered Monday, Nov. 16, 1981, having lain in his California home for a week after he fell and fatally hit his head while drunk. The news broke Tuesday, Nov. 17, but The New York Post, one of the only two New York papers with the “funnies” the narrator is seeking, reported it on Wednesday, Nov. 18. And the horoscopes that the narrator had to turn through were, in fact, near the funnies in the Post. Alas, it didn’t rain that day, as the lyrics suggest it was doing while she wrote it. Vega, asked about the contradiction, said she actually wrote it on at least two separate mornings at Tom’s.
4. The remix wasn't Vega's creation, but she loved it anyway.
In 1990, three years after the original was released, two record producers from England working together as DNA remixed Vega’s original a cappella version with an R&B beat that sounded similar to Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life (However Do You Want Me).” They called it “Oh Susanne!” and sold it at their local record store without proper permission from Vega’s label, A&M Records. When A&M got wind of this, they considered legal action. But Vega asked to hear the version and loved it, so she convinced A&M to pay DNA a flat fee and distribute it. The track got instant radio play and became a hit, peaking at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100.
5. The song became so popular, Vega was able to release an entire album of covers.
There have been many versions and samplings since DNA’s release, including an entire 1991 record called Tom’s Album that collected nine versions by other artists along with several Vega versions. It included a track by an act called Bingo Hand Job, which was the nom de plume R.E.M. used for a couple of secret London shows with English singer-songwriter Billy Bragg. Other “Tom’s” riffs explored accidental pregnancy (Nikki D’s “Daddy’s Little Girl”), the Gulf War (Beth Watson’s “Waiting at the Border”), and TV’s I Dream of Jeannie (Marylin E. Whitelaw and Mark Davis’ “Jeannie’s Diner”).
6. Hip-hop artists love sampling "Tom's" beats.
Other samplings and reimaginings throughout the years have come from a surprising number of hip-hop artists: Felt’s “Suzanne Vega,” Lil’ Kim’s “Right Now,” 2 Pac’s “Dopefiend’s Diner,” Drake’s “Juice,” Aaliyah’s “Hot Like Fire.” Timbaland even sampled the song on “Nothing But a Number” for the TV show Empire earlier this year.
7. The song was used to create new music technology.
Vega is known as “the mother of the MP3” because her a cappella version was used by German engineer Karl-Heinz Brandenberg to fine-tune his compression algorithm when he was creating the format we all use now for our digital song files. Vega even visited the lab where it was done (and briefly haggled with the engineering team about the perfection of their sound quality). And there’s a haunting “version” of the song called “moDernisT," composed of the echoes from the compression process. So when you download Britney’s new version of “Tom’s Diner,” you have Vega to thank in more ways than one.