Suzanne Vega and Jack Hardy - November 18, 2000

The Bottom Line, New York City

This report was originally posted to the Suzanne Vega undertow mailing list. Thanks to Bruce for allowing it to be included on the Jack Hardy web site.

From: "Bruce Miyashita"
Subject: Suzanne Vega and Jack Hardy at The Bottom Line (long)
Date: Mon, 20 Nov 2000 17:18:41 -0500

Hi everyone: Here are my impressions of the show at the Bottom Line:

Suzanne Vega and Jack Hardy at the Bottom Line - 18 Nov 2000

It was one of those wonderful, cold, dry November days in New York. The temperature, around 32 F, was perfect for long, "NYC walks". Armed with long coat and toque, I walked for miles. It was in this frame of mind that I sat down to listen to the early and late evening sets of Suzanne and Jack at The Bottom Line.

For those who have not seen it, the club is nothing much to speak of -- the sound is rough and the facilities are primitive. But it is a famous venue and it has a kind of ragged charm. This concert, was organized, we were told, to help fight to maintain Hardy's "rent-stabilized apartment" which has been the home, for the last 16 years, of the songwriter's exchange, of which Suzanne is a charter member.

The idea of the exchange, and indeed the ghosts of "Fast Folk/Co-op," were front and center last night. For example, in both sets Hardy brought out as special guests various songwriters in order to give them exposure and to showcase the variety of song writing the exchange nurtures. There was also the nice touch of Suzanne and Jack harmonizing on Brian Rose's song (and I may get the title wrong here -- sorry if I do) "Open All Night," which is a beautiful song on which they did a marvelous job. It's the kind of contemplative, world-weary ballad that I can't get enough of, and I loved hearing it, especially the way the they harmonized on the words "Open all night," which kept coming back into my head on Sunday.

My re-acquaintance with Jack Hardy's music comes after a gap of almost 20 years. In high school, after a bitter falling out with rock music (I became disillusioned with rock music, especially after the pathetic death of Elvis). I reversed course and dove back into the music and songwriters in the folk tradition.

My friends, Tim and Ian, and I collected and traded albums and tried to copy on our guitars what we heard. We were partial to local hero, Bruce Cockburn, but we also listened to Ian and Sylvia, Gordon Lightfot, Murray McLaughlin, Steve Fobert, and, naturally, Leonard Cohen. I also had some Jack Hardy albums (I think "The Nameless One" and "Mirror of My Madness"). But it wasn't until this year, when I bought his new CD "Omens," that things came full circle (a theme of the whole evening, in many ways).

Hardy's sets highlighted the characteristics that I have always felt most strongly in his music -- a kind of cynicism, mixed with sadness, that only an intelligent, true believer, could feel. This trait comes out in a song like "20th Century" which puts that machine-shiny, often shabby age into some historical perspective.

It is history, and his ability to capture the universal truths about people across time, that is Hardy's strong suit. As a lover of history, I have always admired Hardy's ability to set characters in the past and to have them speak in ways that seem authentic and without self-consciousness, not as though speaking from a history book, but rather, quite naturalistic, like the songwriting equivalent of the film, "Barry Lyndon." His characters sing out to us from the past, foreshadowing the fate that awaits all of us: we are all fated to end up, at best, as mere footnotes in history. Often, Hardy's characters are trapped in the limitations that chance and fate deals most of us: poverty, gender, race, and place of birth.

In the first set, he sang a song whose name I do not know, but that takes place in Ireland, I believe, in the Napoleonic era. There is a cinematic quality to how he sets the scene: the workman who works "14 hours a day" in the textile mill, chances to see a woman who briefly smiles his way, thus inspiring him to "scrimp and save" so he might marry her, only to have these modest dreams ended when the mill shuts down in order to move north where the coal is. You know, as the song ends, that he left his homeland never to return, and that he never saw her again. I fear he died alone, away from her, and away from his homeland.

In the second set, he sang my favorite of his songs, "síar ón nDaingean" or "West of Dingle," which is the western most point in Ireland. He described how he was inspired to write the song when he saw a musician remove all her rings before playing, and it seemed to him a metaphor for the sacrifices of the artist. Here are some of my favorite lines:

"síar ón nDaingean she took off her rings
to play on the fiddle, to hear the night sing
her song was of leaving and leaving no more
of leaving tomorrow all at the church door

one ring was from the lover she never would know
one from the grandmother whose fiddle she holds
one ring was from a faery rath in filigreed gold
one ring just for wishing her future her own"

and then later:
"you'll be back" he told her "you've come back before"
but this time she would not though the words they still tore
through the strings of her heart and the sound of the sea
"you love your damn fiddle more than you love me"
I always think of Suzanne in this song. I hear the same feeling, the same theme of sacrifice in "The Queen and the Soldier" and also because I see Suzanne as that woman in this song. I keep hearing the words and seeing the images of "Soap and Water" and "Widows Walk" in Hardy's song -- the theme of sacrifice and of the water. Sacrifice to a calling, sacrifice that will bring, the protagonist knows, abundance in some things and loss of others. Ultimately there is no choice open to the woman. She is compelled to follow her star, just as the Queen has no choice. But there is also affirmation in the belief that things have unfolded as they must. The woman of "síar ón nDaingean" remains true to herself, as does the Queen in "The Queen and the Soldier," as has Suzanne, in her own way.

Which brings us to Suzanne's sets. There is something of the river in her writing, a broad connection between the songs that seem to carry most of them over the years towards the same themes and concerns, like "a dog with little sense" who keeps returning to the same questions and mysteries. It seemed to me a wonderful synchronicity that Jack played "síar ón nDaingean" at the same show where Suzanne played "Widow's Walk," "Penitant," "Harbor Song," and "The Queen and the Soldier" because the theme of sea and loss and sacrifice and guilt kept re-appearing in different guises. In "Widow's Walk" there is the central, powerful image of drowning, and in "síar ón nDaingean" we also have the ever-present ocean:

"síar ón nDaingean is as west as you can go
to the west only ameriky and the silkies below
and your fiddle will not carry you over the deep
but síar ón nDaingean is where she shall be"

Still later, Hardy writes:

"Saint Brandon preserve us" as she looked to the sea
and "please don't desert us" as she passed through Trá Lí
through the Sliabh Mis onto Abhainn an Scáil through An Daingean by dawn
on the cliffs of Dún Chaoin paused to play one last song
St. Brandon (or Brendan), whose feast is May 16th, was an Irish abbot and in a popular medieval story he traveled westward to wonderful islands. He is the patron saint of sailors, I believe, and this is a nice juxtoposition with "Widows Walk" and its ship wreck:
"If I tell the truth then I would have to tell you this;
though I grieve (and I believe I feel it truly),
I knew that ship was empty by the time it hit the rocks,
cause we could not hold on when fate became unruly."
In these songs there are ghosts everywhere. The sea itself bears untold numbers of ghosts and mysteries. In "Harbor Song:"
"So whenever I do travel
if to England, Portugal or Spain,
as I do walk by the shipyards and the harbors,
I know the salt and the bay rum, and your ghost again,
I smell the salt and the bay rum, and you beside me again."
And in "Penitant:"
"I look for you in heathered moor,
the desert, and the ocean floor
how low does one heart go.

looking for your fingerprints
i find them in coincidence,
make my faith to grow."

Is she looking for another or perhaps her self? I say this because in so many songs the narrator appears on a search or a quest to connect with self, as though struggling to unite with some unseen ghost or twin, or to reconcile "public and private," the many faces of identity.

Ghosts hang over "Harbor Song" and "Widow's Walk," just as the long dead people inhabiting Hardy's songs seem to patiently wait for the songwriter to call them back again.The ghost of the Queen from "The Queen and the Soldier" inhabits the song "Penitant" in which the narrator struggles with a kind of stubborn, angry pride:

"forgive me all my blindnesses
weakness and unkindnesses
as yet unbending still.

struggling so hard to see
my fist against eternity
will you break my will?"

I hear this same hubris in the Queen, who one feels is torn between guilt (she cannot look at the consequences of her order) and ruthlessness (she does kill the soldier), between penitence and pride.
"Out in the distance her order was heard
And the soldier was killed, still waiting for her word
And while the queen went on strangeling in the solitude she preferred
The battle continued on"
It may be that it is this "pride" that brings about the tempest in "Widow's Walk" that symbolizes the price to be paid for pride, just as one senses there is a price to be paid by the Queen for her actions.

In these songs the narrator is raised up high and brought down low:

"once I stood alone so proud
held myself above the crowd
now i am low on the ground."
"The young queen, she fixed him with an arrogant eye
She said, "You won't understand, and you may as well not try"
But her face was a child's, and he thought she would cry
But she closed herself up like a fan."
There is pride and power in how the Queen closes herself up like a fan, a pride not to reveal herself, her weakness, and power that comes from keeping an inscrutable face -- keeping things within. Guilt and pride, sin and redemption, these are themes that seem to circle each other in these songs, neither side winning, neither able to fully extinguish the other, and so each song ends on an ambigious note with the "battle continuing on" and in "Penitant" with this question:
"i wait to see your sign would i obey?"
I think the answer to this question is a wonderfully ambiguous "maybe." Maybe if the stars are right, maybe if whatever unquiet within is ever stilled.

* * *

That's a whole lot of speculation, not much of it making alot of sense, as I read it over. But it was how the shows struck me. I kept feeling there was something linking many of these songs together, a kind of subterranean level of symbols and meaning. Beyond the analysis (for whose length I apologize), I thought Suzanne delivered two wonderful sets despite her sore throat. I would even say that she had this (unintentional but strangely effective) throaty sound that was great on the jazzy-blues "Penitant," that hinted at some sort of mysterious saloon singer-seductress!

(As an aside, she and Mike joked about adding "Blood Makes Noise" to the setlist. I think it would make for a great piece for vocal, guitar, and bass, as would "Headshots," which is another wonderful bass-driven song. End of soliciting :-).)

All in all, a wonderful evening. As you guys all know, it is hard to describe to someone else this feeling that your heart is almost going to explode with the pleasure of listening to this music. But that's the way it was again last night, and so "thanks" Suzanne. A la prochaine...until next time.

Regards, Bruce