Saturday, April 19, 2014

Karaoke Songs 1: Marlene On The Wall by Suzanne Vega

In the beginning there was an off-kilter
black and white photo
So what is this?

As some of you may know, I am training to be a karaoke host.  My best friend, Vinnie Bracco, is a karaoke host and has been mentoring me--and even before then, I have been a karaoke enthusiast for several years.  I enjoy singing, and I enjoy making a spectacle of myself.  So what this is is my weekly-or-so attempt to take one song I did at karaoke shows that week and talk about it.

I did this song at Friday’s karaoke show hosted by Mr. Jay, a friend of Vinnie, and someone who has been providing a lot of advice and guidance during my training; it’s Jay who allowed me to do my first full shift.  This was a slow night, so I decided to do songs originally performed by female singers.  This is not the first time I’ve done this--one of my signature tunes at this Friday show is Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic,’ sung for Locals Bar and Grill's wonderful bartender Gosha.  But Friday night was the first time I consciously did it as a theme.

As for this partcular song, it was the first single from Suzanne Vega, off her self-titled debut.  Most people would have probably forgotten it, as it was long ago eclipsed by the one-two punch off her second album, Solitude Standing, ‘Luka’ and ‘Tom’s Diner.’  But it holds a special place in my heart because it was the first time I encountered Ms. Vega’s work, and I owe it all to U68.

U68, WWHT, was an Ultra-High Frequency Television Station (and here’s were several generations of my listeners will go, “What?”) out of New Jersey.  For the longest time, U68 survived by being the home of Wometco Home Theater, a primitive broadcast based alternative to cable television where subscribers got a box that would descramble WWHT’s signal to get movies and smut.  When cable’s penetration into the New York tri-state made the station’s pay TV model unprofitable, WWHT became a music video station.  A change of name from Wometco Home Theater to U68 sealed the deal.

Of course, since many record labels had exclusive contracts with MTV, U68 was stuck with the also-rans and oddballs of the music video business--the stuff that MTV wouldn’t run.  Which is why, amongst U68’s bizarre signature station IDs (here’s a bum on the street singing opera!  Here’s Jon-Mikel Thor bending steel with his teeth!) ‘Marlene On The Wall’ found its way into my living room.

'Marlene On The Wall’ is an interesting song for how untypical it is from most Suzanne Vega songs.  It’s certainly Vega getting deeply in touch with her inner Elvis Costello; the staccato reading of the lyrics and certain imagery makes it clear who she’s channeling.  It’s the only song that has that triphammer delivery on the album, and she doesn’t return to that style of singing until 'Blood Makes Noise,’ the first--and to my knowledge, only--single off her own 'Glass Houses Moment, 99.9f.  Incidentally, that atypicalness of the song carries over in the rather awkward video that has the subdued Vega stuffed into a slinky black dress (one that she has to keep adjusting) and awkwardly trying to be all kittenish.  Not surprisingly, she fails, but in a charming way that emphasizes the awkwardness of song’s POV character herself.

Another antecedent I think the song has is ‘Bogart’ by Nik Kershaw.  Like ‘Bogart,’ this is a song about hero worship and the strength we can derive from it.  Unlike Kershaw’s track from Human Racing, however, the strength Ms. Vega gets from her heroine is more passive; this is, after all, a song supposedly written from the point of view of the poster of Dietrich that Vega had on her wall in the East Village.  It’s both more cynical and darker than 'Bogart,’ with Vega being ambivalent about her relationship and not actively seeking guidance from her hero.  Hell, she’s absolutely blase’ at spots (Even if I am in love with you/All this to say 'what’s it to you?’), her only worry is how this strange, tempestuous relationship is causing her to change who she is (But the only soldier now is me/I’m fighting things I cannot see).

Now, that staccato phrasing and the language, coupled with Vega’s tendency to write in a lower key, made it fairly easy for me to sing, and I loved singing it because it brought back fond memories of  a goofy music video TV station and an aspiring folk singer trying to retain her dignity while squeezed into a lil’ black dress.

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