Re-evaluating Personal Artifacts: Suzanne Vega’s ‘Solitude Standing’

I think it was my next-door neighbor and childhood best friend Jenni who gave me the 45 for Suzanne Vega’s “Luka.” It was either that or a 45 of Jack Wagner’s “Weatherman Says.” Those two songs came into my life at about the same time and I know Jenni gave me a record just for the hell of it because she was shopping and she knew I loved the song.

For the purposes of this story, let’s pretend it was “Luka.” Not that it really matters, mostly I just remembered it and I put down everything that I remember regardless of relevance.

What is relevant to this story? The fact that when I was a senior in high school I took a class called Humanities taught by Mrs. Kugel. It was, probably, the best class I took in my high school career. It was a class that tried to teach us about beauty and art and philosophy and most importantly, critical thinking. It was a class with not so many right or wrong answers but a lot of explaining how you arrived at your conclusion. Mrs. Kugel made us a think. A lot.

To get us out of the whole sit in your desk, raise your hand, and recite the right answer frame of mind the previous twelve years of our education had taught us, Mrs. Kugel would hold class in various empty spaces throughout Blaine Senior High School. We discussed the Iliad and the Odyssey on the stage of the theater. One time she brought in a Holocaust survivor who talked about escaping the death camps. Damn, what an amazing teacher. Just now, twenty-two years after taking her class I am realizing what a gift it was to take that class.

Which is what is bringing me to Suzanne Vega’s “Solitude Standing.”

I procured a tape of “Solitude Standing” the summer before my senior year. I say procured because I didn’t buy it. As you know, GenX has a long history of stealing music. We started out taping it off the radio and gradually moved on to bilking Columbia House and BMG out of dozens of cassettes at a time long before we even imagined downloading songs from the Internet.

One of the twelve tapes I got for a penny was Vega’s “Solitude Standing,” chosen solely because of my great and profound love of “Luka.” It was, I think, one of the first songs where the lyrics really, really got me. I’d always been a lyrics kind of girl, sitting on the floor with a notebook in my lap pressing pause on the stereo every few seconds so I could transcribe the words I’d just heard. But “Luka,” man, “Luka” was something else altogether. It was the first song I can remember falling in love with that was bigger than love or sex or weathermen. It was about, you know, SOMETHING and I liked that. And, as you can surmise, I dug the whole album, specifically the titular song.

So when Mrs. Kugel gave us the assignment to bring a piece of music to share with the class that meant something to us. I chose “Solitude Standing.” The decision was not with great debate or angst. The choice was fraught with danger, to bring in music that meant something to us even then felt like a very personal and revealing act, and then to have to share it in front of the class. I was pretty sure this would be the death of me.

We had class, that day, in one of the empty band practice rooms. The acoustics were good and the room was soundproofed so we could turn up the music. I don’t remember what anyone brought in, except for the kid who went before me. I can’t remember his name, but he was a band kid. A trumpeter, I believe. Senior year was the first time I wasn’t a band kid. I had given up band to be editor of the high school newspaper and the yearbook. I was the writer kid, I guess.

The band kid brought in a song called either “Intergalactic Soda Pop” or “Soda Pop Galaxy.” It involved soda pop and space and was a kind of synthersizer-y song with lots of boops and beeps and such. He said he loved it because it was fun and sounded like soda pop in space.

I went next and I was so nervous I thought I would puke. Now you have to remember that I was a 6’3″ senior booknerd who’d never been kissed, a girl whose family had recently moved to Wisconsin to open a restaurant, leaving me to live in the basement of a house that was no longer mine, but my cousin’s and her family’s.

I know I didn’t cry, but my voice shook and my eyes were watery as I tried to explain why the song meant so much to me, how it was a song about the power and beauty of solitude, of how standing out from the crowd is scary but rewarding, and how it’s okay to be scared and do what you know is right even if everyone else is doing something else. I don’t know how I got through my little speech without crying, but I do remember that when I sat back down next to my friend Rob he smiled at me and said I did good.

Damn. Can you think of a single reason why I wouldn’t keep “Solitude Standing” in the canon? I can’t.

1 Comment
  • todd
    April 21, 2012

    You were very lucky to have an instructor such as Mrs. Kugel. You are even more fortunate to remember her curriculum.

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