Tom’s Restaurant on the corner of Broadway and West 112th Street in Manhattan is super famous for two reasons. It’s the fictional site of the diner where the “Seinfeld” characters would gather, with the exterior shown in almost every episode. And it is the home of a 1987 Suzanne Vega song “Tom’s Diner” that became a massive pop and dance hit in 1990 when British group DNA remixed it.
Every so often, the 64-year-old New York singer songwriter goes back to the diner, which she used to visit as a college student and inspired her to write the song about a woman alienated by all those around her. “It’s usually because the BBC asks me to go there,” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to promote her two-night appearance at the City Winery at Ponce City Market Oct. 10 and 11. (Tickets available at citywinery.com)
“They had one item on the menu but it spelled my name wrong. It was Susan Vega. And I still have to pay for my own coffee,” she said. (A Tom’s Restaurant menu a customer photographed in 2022 and posted on Yelp features an introduction that does spell her name properly and no menu item with her name on it.)
And yes, Vega is still a fan of diners in general, though she now prefers going to Metro Diner or City Diner over Tom’s Restaurant. (She changed the name for the song, by the way, because it sounded better.)
Vega said she actually liked the resurrected “Tom’s Diner” in 1990, which overshadowed her follow-up album “Days of Open Hand” that followed her 1987 breakout “Solitude Standing.” “We had the best of intentions, a huge budget and we worked our butts off, but if isn’t the right idea, it’s not going to connect,” she said.
Instead, she noted, two young men in Bath, England, added a dance beat to what was originally an a cappella song from “Solitude Standing” and “it took off like a rocket. And it even did well on R&B stations. I was very proud.”
More recently in 2019, she said a German duo did a “Tom’s Diner’ cover that trended on TikTok. “I got a rash of teenage girls showing up to my concerts after that,” she said.
And she said there have been some good covers of “Luka” as well over the years, especially the 1989 thrash metal version by the Lemonheads. “I don’t count the parodies,” she said. “So many parodies of ‘Luka’ made me cringe. Why would you do that to that song?”
More recently, Vega, as did many New Yorkers, struggled with feeling inspired during the pandemic.
“Some people were like ‘I got so much done’!” Vega said. “Are you kidding me?”
Only in the past year or two, Vega said she has gotten to songwriting again. “I had this backlog of ideas,” she said. “It’s now all coming out in a nice, steady stream.”
Among tunes she created was one after the Ukraine war began called “Last Train From Mariupol,” which will be part of her next studio album. “We’ve been playing that one for a year and it pairs well with ‘Rock With This Pocket’” from her 1992 album “99.9F°.” She is also messing around with two songs that are directly related to COVID-19, one focused on a person taking care of another and a second about rats because New York City had a massive infestation during COVID-19.
“They’re still a presence,” she said. “They really came out fighting in the streets. Punk rock rats!”
Vega’s ties to Georgia include her longtime fascination with 20th century Southern gothic writer Carson McCullers, who hailed from Columbus. Vega wrote and performed a play about McCullers more than a decade ago, which led to an album of music inspired by her in 2016 and a 2022 movie “Lover, Beloved.”
“I loved her work,” Vega said. “I felt that her vision of childhood was clear-eyed and unsentimental. I was taking an acting class in college called musical ensemble theater. We had to choose a character and dress like them. I chose her. I felt we had a passing resemblance. I was 19 and taken by her personality. She was bisexual in her declaration, drank straight glasses of gin and chain smoked all at age 23.”
She said McCullers had a “profound understanding of human nature. She could also be mean and self-centered, which is also fun to play. She was so sure of her own powers.”
Vega has re-written the play multiple times and it remains a work in progress. “I do have a dream that the next time we do the play, we might have someone trans playing McCullers, especially when she’s young. It’s a lifelong work when I’m not working on my songwriting.”
IF YOU GO
8 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 10 and Wednesday, Oct. 11. $50-$65. City Winery Atlanta, 650 North Ave. NE, Ponce City Market, Atlanta, citywinery.com.
Rodney Ho writes about entertainment for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution including TV, radio, film, comedy and all things in between. A native New Yorker, he has covered education at The Virginian-Pilot, small business for The Wall Street Journal and a host of beats at the AJC over 20-plus years. He loves tennis, pop culture & seeing live events.