Voices and Visions
By Suzanne Vega
Last time I blogged, I was about to go into the studio and see what snakes came flying out of my mouth, so to speak. No snakes this time. Just one little verse of the song “Pale Cowboy.” It’s a very restrained verse, kind of formal-feeling, which fits its subject.
If your friend is an orchid then you are a rose.
Upright and thorny against your horizon.
Still solitary with all petals closed.
In the heat when the heart’s desert sun is arising.
I wrestled with myself for a while about whether the word “heat” should be “cool.” After all, flowers open in the warmth and stay closed in the coolness. And if the sun is arising in this person’s heart, then it is morning, and morning tends to be cool, not warm, so that’s why the petals are closed. Well, it will be hotter later and that’s when the petals will be open, probably. So there is an expectation set up in the song.
When I talk about “morning,” I am talking about this person’s age and experience — if his lifetime is one day, he would be approaching the noontime of it. Well, now that I think about it he would be approaching the afternoon of it — he is a young man but still past 30. As I said, not someone I know well. So I think “heat” is O.K., and it sounds better next to “heart.” Which is important.
The guitar part is tricky and I have to practice it. I had Britt, my engineer, repeat it three times so we could see how long the finished song might be. And so that I could figure out, does it need a bridge? Maybe a section that would become a real chorus? You should know that this clip is not here just for your entertainment but to illustrate the problems I am wrestling with — that’s why I left it as it is, and didn’t just fade it out — so you can hear what I am doing in real time.
Suzanne Vega and Britt Myers in the studio recently. (Photo: Brittany Barney)
So the main image in this song is that he is a “rose.” Most songs begin for me with an image of some kind in my mind. A man is a flower in this case. If you have an image in your mind, what is another word for that? Some people might call it a vision. It is usually some kind of metaphor, which I feel reveals a deeper truth. You can say a man is just a man, but if you say he is like a rose, that gives you an idea of what kind of man he might be. Thorny and fragile. And the other man, his friend, is an orchid — open-petaled, exotic, more of a hothouse flower.
I had a cat whose name was Cow. And that gives you an idea of what kind of cat she was — fat with black spots. I had to defend myself once against a couple of Italian journalists who demanded to know, Why do you always lie in your songs? You are not a small blue thing. What is all of this about a queen and a soldier? Why don’t you say what you mean? Well, I say what I mean, but sometimes I am attempting to write something that I see in a world beyond this one, and the metaphor is the way to get there.
Many times a song will begin with a clear image in my mind, but sometimes a song can begin with a melody popping into your head. How does it come? On an instrument? With a voice? On something unearthly that is neither, maybe. It could be a clear voice that says, for example, “Men in a war, if they’ve lost a limb, still feel that limb as they did before.” I heard that line clearly in my mind and it sounded like a voice to me.
But voices and visions are scary to admit to. And also you have to make time for them, or they go on to someone else.