|The Language Interview |
by Karien Smeding
Language was a Suzanne Vega fan magazine that was published for a number of years in Amsterdam.
"This is a song called the Boulevardiers. And there was one summer a few years ago when I was unemployed. My big hero in those days was my friend Brian, who was also...., well he was not unemployed but he was freelance, which to me seemed like the same thing. Got up in the morning and sat around for a couple of hours and drink a cup of coffee and read the paper, this seems admirable to me and something that I wanted to do, too. His word for doing this was being a boulevardier, so during that summer when I was unemployed I was a boulevardier as were my other friends. The three of us would sit around doing nothing and being very pleased with ourselves. So this song came out of that."
Suzanne Vega talking about being a boulevardier during her concert at the Iron Horse Club on 17th of May 1984. (See for the text of 'The Boulevardiers' Language no. 3 1989)
Brian Rose was the one who came up with this term boulevardier.
"I had just seen this documentary 'Solzjenitzyn is Alive and Well and Living in Paris' in one of the art houses in New York about philosophers and other French intellectuals who had been very communistic and suddenly were
It is a cold November evening when I speak to Brian Rose in his new apartment in the most famous neighborhood in Amsterdam, the Jordaan.
Well Brian, why did Suzanne call you her hero?
"Apart from Suzanne's certain kind of humor, I think she saw something that she could admire. I was a few years older, I had my tiny apartment and I was doing what I said I wanted to do. Everybody says they want to be a painter or writer or photographer but how many people actually do it?"
Brian Rose was born in Portsmouth, Virginia, and grew up in Williamsburg, the restored 18th century town. In 1977 he went to New York to attend Cooper Union, where he majored in photography. While in school he began writing songs and hanging out at various music clubs and cafes in Greenwich Village. It was there that he met other aspiring songwriters such as Suzanne Vega, Jack Hardy, David Massengill, John Gorka and Shawn Colvin.
"I cannot remember the exact time that Suzanne and I met. She was a student at Barnard College and I had finished school. I was starting to photograph the Lower East Side (of Manhattan), which was my first project. And I was trying to make a living. Later I got more opportunities but in the beginning it was hard. If you have not done work, if you don't have a portfolio you won't get hired, but you cannot build your portfolio until you get hired, so it is Catch 22. You have to figure out a way to break through that. But at that time I didn't need a lot of money, the apartment was cheap, and we were all very poor. Suzanne was even poorer than I was, and that was poor.
Maybe Suzanne and I met at an open mike (at Folk City). You had to be there at 7:30 p.m. but when you got a number between 30 or 40 you were playing your two songs around 2 a.m. So we were hanging out all night. As time went on, this process of getting to know how things worked, getting to know more people, I recognized some cards which were old, and as soon as I saw one I knew, I picked that one. Every Monday night we were in the Cornelia Street Cafe where we had songwriter evenings. I can still remember showing up there for the first time. I did a song by a friend of mine. I just wanted to see how people reacted, and after I finished it David Massengill came up to me and said, "you are not supposed to do other people's songs!" (Read also Suzanne's story of Cornelia Street Cafe's songwriter evenings in this issue)
In 1982 Brian was the co-founder (with Jack Hardy) of the Fast Folk Musical Magazine, a record/magazine promoting new songs and songwriters.
What was Suzanne doing at that time?
"Suzanne hooked up with AGF (her management), and then she eventually got her album deal. So the circle fell apart. Not that I ever lost touch with Suzanne, but we were no longer hanging out together. In many ways Suzanne was quite lucky. Besides her talent and ability, things happened at the right time for her.
"Back in 1980/1981 Suzanne came over to my apartment and she had a couple of new songs. Saturday night we were out till 4 in the morning doing Folk City. She lived way uptown near Columbia and at that hour you don't take the subway, and a cab drive would have been 10 or 15 dollars. So she crashed on my couch, and Sunday morning she sat on the floor and she played these songs, which I taped. The songs had been written in the last couple of days. One of them is 'The Marching Dream', which is a really wonderful song."
During the 80's Brian concentrated much of his attention on photography documenting the streets and landscape of the city. His photographs of the Lower East Side of Manhattan were first exhibited in 1981at the Henry Street Settlement. The Lower East Side project led to an invitation to photograph the Wall Street area of Manhattan in conjunction with several other photographers. That work was first exhibited at Federal Hall on Wall Street in 1983. During this time he began making photographs of Central Park on his own and on assignment for the newly formed Central Park Conservancy. His photographs of the park were first exhibited at the Dairy in Central Park. This work led to a project sponsored by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation in which he photographed natural park areas around the city. These areas of wetlands and forest exist in all the boroughs, and are surprisingly expansive. In 1986 he exhibited this work at the Urban Center Gallery in midtown Manhattan, and the show subsequently traveled to other galleries around the city.
In 1985, while still photographing the parks of New York, he turned his attention beyond the confines of the city and began photographing the landscape of the former European East/West border, also known as the Iron Curtain. In making the photographs he traveled the heavily fortified line between the Baltic and Adriatic Seas, as well as the Berlin wall. This project was first shown at the International Center of Photography in 1987. In late 1989 he returned to Berlin to photograph the wall just after its unexpected opening, and later he photographed the border zone after the wall was removed. Prints from the East/West project have been collected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art.
In 1987 he started writing songs again. In 1991 he recorded a collection of his songs. (review in Language of December 1994)
Is your album a kind of Solitude Standing because the songs have been written during two different periods?
"Some songs were written in the late 80s, early 90s, and some were written in the late 70s,early 80s. So I didn't write for a number of years. But when I was on my feet again with photography I started writing again and I wrote a lot of songs. I always think of it as two different periods of writing, although I'm not sure if people will hear it. But the writing process for Suzanne's Solitude Standing was rather normal. Like a lot of people, you start with a lot of songs you have already written. But with the second album you actually have to write new songs under the pressure of a record deal, and that is a real test. And of course Suzanne was able to do that. For the first bunch of songs you had years to work on them and then suddenly you have six months."
"We had finished these first four songs for my demo tape, and then we decided to do more songs and put together a whole album. Suzanne was doing the demos for 99.9 F. So we decided to put me on at the end of her week in the same studio, the Magic Shop. That is where she is working right now. Suzanne was the producer of four songs. We brought in a lot of different musicians. With the other songs she was just there. She was involved, doing some background vocals and some advising, but I was in charge of those productions. Suzanne makes a pretty good backup singer. I know a nice story about that. At the end of the recording session, she had been there for the whole week, and then I came in for the last two days. She was exhausted. She didn't really have to be there, but she was. She wanted to make sure everything came out the way it should. It was late, we were all exhausted, we were running out of time. We were finished except that there was no harmony vocal on one special song (The Danger), and I thought that that song should have one. When I was playing it live I always asked somebody else to sing along. There were always friends and musicians around. So I really missed it. But Suzanne was asleep. So I went into the recording studio and I was attempting to sing the harmony. And it was just horrible. I was not hitting the notes. It was so bad it woke up Suzanne. She couldn't take it anymore. She came into the room, took the headphones off my head, put them on hers, and she sang the vocal. So my little strategy worked."
Do you think of recording another tape?
"Well, I have something on tape already. It is just me on the guitar. What I really would like to do is take the songs and really finish them. I think the tape has some of my best songs. But it is not danceable and the music world is a tough world. I'm not the new kid on the block. So I do not expect to get a record deal at some major label. I used to believe years ago that anything that was good enough would make it. But now I've seen an awful lot of people who are really good not make it. Record companies are not really listening for quality first, but are looking for the right styles and images. They have no idea what they are doing. 90% of what they sign is dead in a year. It is really hard to sell yourself to people if you do not have that record company behind you. So you won't find many people who will buy a tape that is not promoted."
What is your favorite album of Suzanne's?
"The first two records, I see them as nicely produced. Great songs nicely produced. Of the first two albums I have the songs in my head, but I don't hear the arrangements. I just hear the songs. On the last two albums I also hear the arrangements. These two are more challenging in terms of the production. But whether you like it or not, it's not that neutral anymore. 'Days Of Open Hand' is an album that sometimes is not given as much credit as it should be. I think I've listened to it more than to the first two. I love 'Tired of Sleeping'. I remember when she wrote it, and I was really knocked off my feet by it the first time. She was having a hard time writing the songs for that album. I remember I spent a week with her, Anton (Sanko) and some family members at this small house on Cape Cod. It was family chaos and Anton was working on the arrangements like a mad scientist. I was looking at all this chaos, and I thought 'there is no way she's going to get this done'. But after I left along with her family, Suzanne stayed for another two weeks. And when she came back to New York she had 'Tired of Sleeping', 50-50 Chance and some other songs. But I won't say what my favorite album is."
Have you seen many of her concerts over the years?
"No, I haven't followed her around myself so much in concerts, but I might have some nice backstage stories. Once I was backstage in Carnegie Hall. I came back with a couple of people after the show. Suzanne was talking to somebody who I didn't recognize at first, so I just ran up to say hello. And she said to me 'oh, hello, this is John Cale' and she introduced me to him as 'the person who first got me to listen to the Velvet Underground,' and I think I must have turned completely red in the face. The other story is from a time that Suzanne appeared with the Grateful Dead. I guess Jerry Garcia liked her music. Suzanne was very pleased though she had not been particularly a Grateful Dead fan. I was there with Shawn Colvin and a couple of other people from AGF. We get there and Suzanne was in her dressing room. And another musician, Bruce Hornsby, was playing with the Dead as the keyboardist. I knew Bruce from my hometown in Virginia. He and I played basketball. So we knew each other reasonably well. So I told Suzanne 'can you send a word to him that I am backstage.' But Suzanne came back and said 'he doesn't remember your name'. And I said 'I am sure he knows me'. So we walked into his dressing room, everybody was there, and Bruce takes one look at me, and he remembered my nickname which was Chip. So he immediately calls out my nickname and everybody in the room is looking at me like 'you guys are like buddies from whenever?'."
What is the latest news about Suzanne?
"We had dinner a few weeks ago, the night before she started in the studio. She has half a dozen songs, but she still has to put together the rest of it. I have the feeling that much of the new album is not necessarily going to sound like the recording of 'Woman on the Tier', the so-called industrial sound. 'Woman on the Tier' has a dark kind of arrangement and a rough instrumentation. It is a very Mitchell Froom sound. I have not talked to her about what she would like to do in terms of a tour. But I know that she does not want to do these big ones. She has a child now and there is a limit to the kind of travelling she can do. If she tours Europe she might tour most
With Brian Rose as her support act?