suzanne vega/back of an envelope


Personal realities are malleable. Many of us believe to this day that Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope. Why should we not? We had it on the good authority of our schoolteachers. If you are reading this, and you believed that, I’m not going to change your life by telling you it’s not so, but you may have to make a minor adjustment in your reality if and when you find I’m telling the truth.

I’m glad I didn’t know the truth before just a few minutes ago. If I had, the above portrait would likely have not come to be. Here is the sequence: I was listening to an acoustic performance by Jackson Browne of “These Days” and then “Running on Empty.” This was after his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2004) but probably not by much. I thought of Suzanne Vega and “Luka,” probably because she and her song entered the public consciousness about the same time as JB’s “Lives in the Balance.” Watched a vid of “Luka” with lyrics and then “The story behind Luka.” (True: a nine-year-old boy named Luka lived upstairs from her; curiously, his last name was also Vega. False: he was not abused, to Suzanne Vega’s knowledge.) While watching “The story behind Luka” I realized that “Luka” was the only song of Suzanne Vega’s that I knew! That wasn’t right. So I found a vid of her doing “Solitude Standing,” then thrilled to her born-to-sing-folk voice, and then the impulse came to freeze the vid and do a quick portrait. Seeing an empty and torn envelope, I remembered Lincoln’s memorable scribbling on the back of such and thought, “Ms. Vega deserves that same quirky immortality–it’s perfect, isn’t it?–let’s see what happens.” (That is a paraphrase; I can’t remember what I was thinking, but that was the spirit of it.) The sketch went well. They so often don’t. I decided to post it on my blog, but I wanted details of Lincoln’s envelope. Then and only then did I discover that the envelope story was a myth.

So, weirdly, like an episode of Seinfeld, it all ties in. The real Luka wasn’t abused. The real Gettysburg Address was twofold: pencil on blue paper, and ink on White House stationery. (It also took two weeks to write, and not the handful of minutes the legend gave it.) Even my drawing is myth in a way: I jazzed up the drabness of pencil and grayness by using photo-editing to do a blue-tint color enhancement.

But the real Suzanne Vega has a real and beautiful voice, and if you’ve only heard “Luka,” you’d be in for a treat if you sought other songs of hers.

  1. pjhoisch said:

    Although it can be uncomfortable, at times I find it helpful to have my beliefs dispelled. There is integrity and creativity in the world without my attached stories.

    • So well put! “Attached stories” is the perfect word for such self-imposed impedimenta. Brava, that you have the courage to seek the often discomfiting truth.

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