Tom’s Diner by Suzanne Vega

We’ve recently been away on a family road trip. My six year old is tolerant of different music, only once politely remarking that Steve Reich was “a bit boring”. But my three year old is fixated on children’s music and constantly demanded for songs to be skipped. But in between clamouring for Anika Moa’s ‘Animals In My Room’ and ‘The Dingle Dangle Scarecrow’, she did connect with one grown up song, Suzanne Vega’s original a capella version of ‘Tom’s Diner’, asking to hear it three times, and referring to it as “The Coffee Song”.

It’s not surprising that a three year connected to this piece when it’s so simple – just Vega’s voice. Interestingly, the song earned Vega the title “The Mother of the MP3”. When the audio compression technology was being developed, engineer Karlheinz Brandenburg heard the song on the radio, and realised that Vega’s warm, unaccompanied voice would be a challenge to compress: “At bit rates where everything else sounded quite nice, Suzanne Vega’s voice sounded horrible.” According to Wikipedia “Brandenburg adopted the song for testing purposes, listening to it again and again each time he refined the scheme, making sure it did not adversely affect the subtlety of Vega’s voice.”

Suzanne Vega is arguably the best singer-songwriter to emerge in the 1980s, a stripped down folk artist in a decade of big pop productions. Her best known song, ‘Luka’, comes from the same album as ‘Tom’s Diner’, Vega’s 1987 sophomore effort Solitude Standing. While ‘Luka’ is a good song, an elegant take on a sensitive issue of child abuse, since discovering Vega it’s frustrated me how her recorded legacy has been reduced by the radio to one song when she has plenty of other great pieces.

‘Tom’s Diner’ is featured twice on Solitude Standing – as an a capella opener, and as an instrumental closer. The song took on a new life in 1990 when it was remixed by dance producers DNA for use in clubs. Vega liked the remix, and her record company bought it and issued as a single, resulting in a top 5 hit in the US and the UK.

Here’s the original a capella version – sorry for the bad sound quality:

I am sitting
In the morning
At the diner
On the corner
I am waiting
At the counter
For the man
To pour the coffee
And he fills it
Only halfway
And before
I even argue
He is looking
Out the window
At somebody
Coming in
“It is always
Nice to see you”
Says the man
Behind the counter
To the woman
Who has come in
She is shaking
Her umbrella
And I look
The other way
As they are kissing
Their hellos
I’m pretending
Not to see them
And Instead
I pour the milk
I open
Up the paper
There’s a story
Of an actor
Who had died
While he was drinking
He was no one
I had heard of
And I’m turning
To the horoscope
And looking
For the funnies
When I’m feeling
Someone watching me
And so
I raise my head
There’s a woman
On the outside
Looking inside
Does she see me?
No she does not
Really see me
Cause she sees
Her own reflection
And I’m trying
Not to notice
That she’s hitching
Up her skirt
And while she’s
Straightening her stockings
Her hair
Is getting wet
Oh, this rain
It will continue
Through the morning
As I’m listening
To the bells
Of the cathedral
I am thinking
Of your voice
And of the midnight picnic
Once upon a time
Before the rain began
I finish up my coffee
It’s time to catch the train


  1. There’s something calming and lullaby-esque about Vega’s vocal in Tom’s Diner, especially the ending tatatatatararatatatatarara section I could imagine appealing to a young child!

    • I think it’s the simplicity that works for her. There’s only one thing to listen to – the voice. Most of the things she likes are simple – her brain is still developing.

  2. I really dug the “Solitude Standing” album. If I recall it correctly, Suzanne Vega helped spark a folk wave at the time. Tracy Chapman’s excellent eponymous debut came out a year later. There were other folk-oriented artists who popped up at around the same time, whose names I sadly cannot remember.

    Tom’s Diner tells such a typical New York morning rush story. You can literally picture it like a mini-movie. Personally, I felt the song’s constant radio play (at least in Germany) led to overexposure. I’m not fond of the remix.

    After her first two albums, I lost complete track of Suzanne Vega. Prompted by your post, I just visited her website, and I’m amazed how many additional albums are listed there, though some appear to be compilations – still…

    • Indigo Girls probably fit in that 1980s folk continuum too.

      I like a lot of Vega’s stuff. I think she’s made a few albums recently that rework her earlier songs and include outtakes etc, she maybe has 8-9 albums otherwise.

  3. I really liked “Tom’s Diner” until DNA went and did that horrible repetitive dance remix of the song, which topped the singles chart and was a radio favourite forever. Everytime I hear the song now it still carries that same level if boring repetition. The rest of the album is awesome however.

    • There’s so much to discuss about this song – I reckon you could write a book about it. There’s also a debate about who the actor mentioned in the song is, as that dates when it was written.

    • We have an MP3 player with hundreds of songs in alphabetical order. It’s pretty interesting – three year old often falls asleep in the afternoon on long car trips and it’s a relief from being asked to adjust the volume depending on whether she likes the song or not.

      • Oh man I’ve been there, although my daughter never napped. Even now she’s laaaate going to bed. It’s like she just has too much to do and sleep gets in the way. Craziness. My son, on the other hand, goes fult tilt until he falls over asleep, like a puppy. BUt yeah, music in the car is now a much more fascinating thing, finding out what they like/don’t like. Love it!

  4. A couple of things here. One is that I was familiar with the remix before I heard the a capella version and so came to like that. I do like the simplicity of this version though. And I have a personal interest because the bass player on this album is a school friend of mine named Michael Visceglia. I haven’t seen him in quite a while but the last I heard he was playing bass in the orchestra of “Kinky Boots” on Broadway. Good pay plus no life on the road.

          • No, Mike is a pretty normal dude and he says Vega is pretty chill. I never got a chance to meet her. And even though he is not consistently her regular bassist, I still see him billed with her on tour. One of these days I’m gonna surprise him at a Boston show and just show up, give him the finger from crowd, etc.

  5. I’m a big fan of this one. Lyrically it’s just incredible… as simple as the song itself… short lines and the melody. Beautiful.

    I actually haven’t listened to the album in a while… it was actually one of the first albums I bought when I got the record player back in early 2013.

  6. yes, it’s really sad and frustrating that her complete work is reduced to Luka and Tom’s diner at least here in Germany. She has made such of lot of great and beautiful songs that are even better than those two but they aren’t played by the radiostations. Luka ist surely a great song but not her best and it has been played so often that I’m a little bit tired of this song.

  7. my favorite song of her has been in Liverpool and it is ironically about the same person as gypsy. Another favorite of mine is horizon (there is a road). It’s not her most ambitious one and I had to hear it more often before I started to really love it. She wrote it for Vaclav Havel and the lyrics are just beautiful. There is a trumpet solo in the middle and then she sings in a higher pitch. It gives me goose bumps.

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