Caramel (Suzanne Vega, This Beer’s For You)

Leffe Brune
Leffe Brune

A few days ago, in a local supermarket’s beer section, I assembled and bought a “create your own six pack.” At dinnertime later that day I grabbed one of the six from the frig, and I’m glad I did. It was a thick, rich, mellow ale. Dark and handsome too, I might add. And delicious. Leffe Brune (brown), brewed in Belgium.

If it weren’t for this excellent beer I wouldn’t be typing this story right now. Instead I’d probably be cemented to the living room sofa, counting the number of dust balls scattered on the room’s hardwood floor, one of my typical pastimes. But I am typing this story right now, and here’s why:

Earlier in the aforementioned day, fishing around in my mind for something to write about for my blog, I thought about Caramel, a song by Suzanne Vega that I’ve always loved. But I wasn’t sure how I’d incorporate Caramel into a story. It’s a great song, not too well-known. For years I’ve thought it deserves to become a heavily covered tune, a standard if you will, as it is perfectly formed musically and lyrically. For 40 years I’ve thought almost as much of Tom Waits’s (Looking For) The Heart Of Saturday Night. “Maybe I’ll write about Caramel and (Looking For) The Heart of Saturday Night and one or two other songs that, in my ideal world, nearly everyone would know about,” I more or less said to myself. “That’ll be at least a  couple of weeks from now, though. It’s a tough story to work out.”

But a few hours later, scanning the label on my Leffe Brune, I shifted course. It read: “Savor the mystery of the ages. The authentic Belgian Abbey ale. Enjoy this delicious Leffe Brune with its sweet caramel yet bitter taste.”

Caramel! Whoa, no way this could be a coincidence. No question about it, the beer gods who hover invisibly above Planet Earth are fans of Suzanne Vega’s Caramel. That’s why they placed the Leffe Brune label before my eyes. Which means that they wanted me to devote a story solely to that song. “Screw Tom Waits,” they in effect were saying to me. I love and revere the beer gods. I pray to them before turning off the bedroom light each night. Therefore, I shall obey.

Suzanne Vega is one of those artists who has been around for a long time (in her case, for about 30 years), though not too obviously for much of the span. She hit her visibility peak in the mid 1980s through mid 90s, when a bunch of her songs received lots of airplay. Tunes such as Luka, Tom’s Diner, Marlene On The Wall and Blood Makes Noise. Things have quieted a lot since then in terms of Vega’s fame. She still tours a good bit, playing before plenty of fans, and releases albums fairly regularly. But, barring a fluke of some kind, she’s unlikely ever again to be a big media presence. She hardly is alone in that. The same might be said for Tracy Chapman, Joan Armatrading, Bruce Cockburn and near-zillions of others. The music biz, like life in general, is fickle.

Left to right: Beer; Caramel's lyrics; the CD on which Caramel appears.
Left to right: Leffe Brune; Caramel’s lyrics; the CD on which Caramel appears.

Despite that . . . if somehow Caramel were to come to the attention of many classic singers (calling Tony Bennett and Jane Monheit) and singer-songwriters, I’m of the belief that it would be recognized as awfully damn good and irresistible and eventually would find its way into the pop music canon. It came out in 1996 on Vega’s album Nine Objects Of Desire and had a now-forgotten shot of exposure that same year when it played during a scene in the movie The Truth About Cats And Dogs. But as far as I can tell, Caramel rarely has been covered by other musicians.

Yo, tell me that I’m wrong. Here is the first half of Caramel’s lyrics. They are concise and they pop. Poignantly. If they didn’t come attached to music they’d read as a cool poem. Coming from me, not exactly a huge poetry fan, that’s a major compliment.

It won’t do
to dream of caramel,
to think of cinnamon
and long for you.

It won’t do
to stir a deep desire,
to fan a hidden fire
that can never burn true.

I know your name,
I know your skin,
I know the way
these things begin;

But I don’t know
how I would live with myself,
what I’d forgive of myself
if you don’t go.

The lyrics above take up 16 (short) lines. And they comprise a mere four sentences. Four additional sentences, which you can read by clicking here, complete the lyrics. Me, I’m totally taken by Caramel’s simplicity. There are no head feints or foot shuffles. Wham, Suzanne Vega gets to the essence of a sexual attraction that must not be pursued, a love affair that must not be allowed to flower. It ain’t easy to write like that.

But Caramel isn’t a poem. It’s a song. And its music makes me want to head south. To Brazil, home of the samba, of which Caramel is an example. What a melody, so sweet and wistful. Such melancholy chords upon which the melody hangs. Ah me. In Rio I’ll set up a hammock on Ipanema Beach. I’ll watch the girls go by and sip on a long cool one (yeah, it’ll be a Leffe Brune). And as the Sun dips below the horizon I’ll listen to Caramel on iTunes. Or maybe on YouTube, which you too may do by clicking right here.

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(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

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