On Sunday, June 12, 2016, my dear friend and former Portlander Michelle Fire Eater will make her first appearance on my little radio show, STUCK IN THE 80s (on WMPG Community Radio), in 9 years, and with a kick-ass theme show she thought of a couple of years ago – THE HEAVY 80s – it wasn’t all bubblegum, you know…
THE HEAVY 80s will feature songs that actually had substance to it, and covered a vast number of subjects including drug abuse, rejection, racism, homophobia, bullying, teenage depression and suicide, alcoholism, feminism, child abuse, homelessness, poverty, difficulties for farmers in the Midwest, media sensationalism, Apartheid, The Cold War, The Vietnam War, AIDS, the Kennedy Assassination, and protests against war, dictators and more.
This week on the blog, I’ll highlight some of the songs Michelle and I will be featuring on THE HEAVY 80s.
California-born, NYC-raised recording artist Suzanne Vega already had her critically-acclaimed 1985 self-titled debut album under her Alt-Folk belt by the time her second album, SOLITUDE STANDING, was released on April 1, 1987.
From SOLITUDE STANDING was a song Suzanne wrote in 1984 called “Luka.” She wrote the song in about two hours, and didn’t think it could become a single because of the sensitive subject matter – it’s about child abuse – and she didn’t think her record label (A&M Records) was going to like it.
But, A&M Records releasing “Luka” as a single proved to be a smart and brave move, and it was the first-charting BILLBOARD Hot 100 single for Suzanne Vega, debuting on the chart in early June 1987 at No. 93. It was like no other single on the chart at the time.
“Luka” is a song about a boy who was abused by his parents, written in the eyes of a 9-year-old boy. The lyrics are set up so that it’s not graphic, more like a “fill in the blanks and you’ll understand what it’s about” kind of way. (Pat Benatar’s 1980 classic, “Hell Is For Children,” was the first well-known song about child abuse, and was a bit more upfront about it.)
According to Suzanne Vega, despite the same subject matter, for her song, she didn’t want something anthemic like “Hell Is For Children.” She says “Luka” is “not a song about an issue, it’s a song about a kid.”
There was a 9-year-old boy named Luka who actually did live upstairs from Suzanne Vega in real life, but he was not abused by his parents. They even had the same last name. She never expected “Luka” to become popular, so it never occurred to her to use Luka as an inspiration of sorts for the song. Suzanne once said she would have been very surprised if “Luka” went Top 10.
Well, once the great word-of-mouth about “Luka” got out, radio stations were playing it, and people were buying it at the record stores. It made a steady climb up the Hot 100, and 4 months to the day after the release of parent album, SOLITUDE STANDING, “Luka” did indeed reach the Top 10 of the BILLBOARD Hot 100. And in late August 1987, it spent a week at No. 3.
The popularity of “Luka” was recognized worldwide as well, reaching the Top 10 in Austria, Canada, New Zealand and Sweden. “Luka” was also nominated for three Grammy Awards in 1988, including Record Of The Year, Song Of The Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, as well as three MTV Video Music Award nominations.
Suzanne Vega received thousands of letters about “Luka,” from all kinds of men and women, telling her about their own experiences when they were children or as adults, some letters written on napkins and others written on elegant stationery, and it made Suzanne feel like she had an effect on the world, which was a strange feeling to her, because when the song was written, it was in a room by herself, and she was unsure as to what would become of the song. But, she was glad “Luka” had the effect it did. I am, too…