Songs of Leonard Cohen
After 1967, when this came out, if a stranger asked: “What’s your name, little girl?” and I said: “Suzanne,” they’d go: “Oh, like the song?” And I’d stare at them thinking: “What song?” Then I heard this beautiful version of Cohen’s song Suzanne by Judy Collins. I was so relieved that the song was beautiful and … weird! In 1974, when I was 14, I saw the album in the record store, took the risk and fell in love with it. All the songs were so beautiful, interesting and intimate, and he used a nylon string acoustic guitar which I’d just started playing. I didn’t realise how funny Leonard was until I got to know him. In 1988, I went to see him at Carnegie Hall and met his sister, a big woman in a brightly coloured dress. When she said: “He’s been dying to meet you,” my inner teenager was thrilled. The next time we met was for a very well-known photoshoot when he had my head in his hands, mashed up against his chest, which was … [laughs] very exciting. That was the photographer’s idea, but Leonard didn’t complain, let’s put it that way. I still listen to the album, and consider it a good friend.
I saw this as a 16-year-old with my boyfriend. It came out when New York was dirty and ugly, and a very violent city to live in; 1976 was the summer of the Son of Sam [David Berkowitz], who mounted eight shooting attacks between July 1976 and July 1977. I saw the film, and thought: “That is exactly what New York City is like now.” It didn’t occur to me until much later that I was only four years older than the Jodie Foster character. I’d seen girls like that and guys like the Harvey Keitel character [Sport] in the street. Then we started to see Travis Bickle, the mohawked Robert De Niro character, everywhere. There’s a bit when he tells Iris that Sport calls her “chicken”, and you can see that she’s genuinely surprised. To me, that looks like her reaction was improvised, unscripted. And of course the famous scene when he goes: “You talking to me? You must be talking to me because I’m the only one here,” is so iconic. Martin Scorsese captured something really awful, but made it beautiful in a very violent and terrible way. This was a deep one.
Saturday Night Fever soundtrack
This was massive in 1977. I was studying to be a dancer and when I taught dancing to teenage girls at a sleepaway camp, this was the music I used. In the photo I remember from that summer – I was away from home so could wear what I wanted – I am wearing hot pants. I also remember being astonished by the transformation of the Bee Gees from singing drippy songs in the 1960s to these strutting streetwise guys singing Stayin’ Alive. After I saw the film, I incorporated the moves into the line dance. So I’d get them to point down across their bodies and point up, like John Travolta. I hear the songs once in a while on oldies stations and they’re a guilty pleasure, but I remember when How Deep Is Your Love was really deep and meaningful to me, and I wore platform shoes. You could dance your heart out to these songs. Nowadays I’ve moved on to Dua Lipa, and I’ve started dancing a bit more at my shows, although I’ve yet to go full disco.
This is a very controversial choice, a psychological thriller by Roman Polanski that came out in 1965, but I saw it at film class much, much later when I was 18 or 19. The way the film used music was very influential to me in terms of creating an atmosphere, and influenced songs of mine, such as Cracking. The woman in the film is mentally unstable and you see everything from her point of view, but you can’t tell what is real. Catherine Deneuve plays her very deadpan, but at the same time she’s very violent. She’s a manicurist taking care of these old and decrepit people, and I loved the juxtaposition with her beauty and 60s wardrobe. It was my favourite film for a long time. I’d just moved out of my parents’ apartment and rented a room in an apartment in Greenwich Village with long dark hallways and a frightened cat called Useless. The woman I rented from was going through a very difficult time. It was a very gothic situation, and after a few months I thought: “I’m getting out of here.” I’d always thought Deneuve’s character was the victim, but, watching the film recently, I thought: “No, she’s really nuts.”
Monty Python’s Flying Circus
My friends and I just loved Monty Python. It was shown on Sunday nights and we’d come to school on Monday morning and talk about all the skits and different accents. Then I saw the Pythons live at the Beacon theatre. They were a passing, but deep, obsession. My parents went: “What the heck is this?” but once we realised it was British humour of the wackiest kind we’d get together to watch it in the living room. We were a volatile family so it became a nice peaceful moment when we could all sit down and laugh. I loved “bring out your dead”, the dead parrot sketch and Monty Python’s Life of Brian. When I went to the High School of Performing Arts, we’d act out the parts. I never did the John Cleese silly walk, but my friends did.
The first concert I was taken to was Lou Reed in 1979. He was smoking, throwing lit cigarettes at the audience and miming shooting up onstage. It felt like that moment in Taxi Driver where he takes a woman to a porn film. I asked my date: “Why did you take me to see this?” He said: “Because the music’s fantastic,” and it was. I bought Berlin and the other albums and became obsessed. I got to know Lou, and he was a guy of many moods. He could be absolutely charming and embrace you or just freeze you out and pretend he’d never seen you before. He could be confiding or flirtatious, but he had this great love affair with Laurie Anderson, and so I always knew it wasn’t serious. ’Cos he’d send me texts: “Get in a car and come out here.” It was always easy to say no, although, as our 25-year friendship became deeper in his final years, it became a source of wonder. The most unlikely moment? We were leaving a dinner party. He was having problems with his eyesight and asked for help getting down some stairs in the dark. He put his hand on my arm and I showed him with my phone flashlight where to put his feet. It was very moving.
• Suzanne Vega’s new album, An Evening of New York Songs and Stories is released on Cooking Vinyl on 11 September. She tours the UK in February 2021.