In honor of Tolstoy’s September 9th birthday, I made a lyric video of the song from my second album:
Tolstoy would be 188 if he hadn’t died 116 years ago, but the song’s much younger: I wrote it in early 2000 and it came out on Welcome To My Century in 2001. Tolstoy was the last song written for WTMC, which for practical reasons took a long time to record, and therefore spanned a couple of different “batches” of songs.
The first batch had one love song – Anywhere – but the relationship that fueled Little Things, I Turn Slowly Around, Everyone’s An Actor in New York, Witchcraft Lover, and $100 Bills from the Playing God album went south, and heartbreak became my #1 topic, much to the initial amusement and eventual dismay of those in my musical orbit. Here are three unfinished recordings that will give you a sense for where my head was at. They’re decent, I suppose, but limited in scope:
Forget About You
At a certain point, it got to be a bit much, and people started to wonder WTF I was on about. I even suspected – and accused! – producer Tommy West of hanging up the recording process because he wanted me to write some different goddamn songs. Be that as it may: time passed, I kept writing, and Tommy’s schedule opened up. Valentine’s Day, Too Bad For You, and I Need You – songs about relationships, but not in the same way – emerged and were recorded. A new era!
Indeed, Tolstoy concerned the intensity of a new relationship. The kernel came from a good friend, who said something about Tolstoy knowing everything. She didn’t mean he was a polymath, but rather that he seemed to have VIP access to the thoughts and feelings of his characters, whoever they were: grown man or twelve-year-old girl, noble or peasant, etc. In other words, he burrowed into their heads and hearts, which is what great novelists can do. I appropriated this “extreme empathy” concept for a song about me and the aforementioned good friend, when we were becoming more than friends. I tried to capture the exact moment of our transition – which was a long time coming but still surprising – in the third verse:
First, five years of circumstances loosen their grip
Foreign words on your lips
My lips on your words
Definitions blur and we’re something else
Maybe destined to be
We were destined to be
Tolstoy was a hit when I played it for a group of highly opinionated songwriters at Jack Hardy’s Monday night gathering, only days after writing it. One friend, who does not praise lightly, practically insisted I record it for WTMC, which I did with Sal Maida on bass, Dan Vonnegut on drums, and Mark Bosch on guitar; it sounds like Tommy West added a keyboard pad as well.
Along with Valentine’s Day, Tolstoy is one of my most enduring songs. In fact, it’s one of only two that has surpassed 1,000 spins on Spotify, which didn’t even launch in the U.S. until seven years post-WTMC. Those 1,000+ spins – which add up to nothing for a more successful artist but mean a lot to me – have much to do with Deborah Pardes’s Artists for Literacy project. Deborah included Tolstoy on the first of three Songs Inspired By Literature recordings, which mingled household names like Bruce Springsteen (The Ghost of Tom Joad) and Suzanne Vega (Calypso) with unknowns who were selected via contest. Deb Talan of The Weepies won with her Motherless Brooklyn-inspired song, but I was the runner-up, and so Tolstoy occupies the cleanup spot behind Aimee Mann’s Ghostworld.
Tolstoy has had a more colorful life than most of my songs, in part thanks to the Russian connection. There was a write-up in a Russian language newspaper, which I thought I had but now can’t find. There’s also this story, which is borderline unbelievable:
In the course of a little more than a year, I’d moved from New York to San Francisco to Iowa City, where my wife would attend the Iowa Writers Workshop. A moving company was scheduled to deliver a couch to our new pad on Dearborn Street, but we were going to be out of town. Luckily, we already had a few friends, one of whom agreed to take delivery. When the New York-based Russian mover arrived, he saw a Suzanne Vega/Bob Hillman poster on the wall and noted the name on his paperwork. Then – I swear to God – he asked if the couch he was delivering belonged to THE Bob Hillman. Of course, our friend Brandon could not believe his ears, and there was a slight language barrier, so he sang a few lines from Valentine’s Day. The mover signaled understanding with a head nod: it was THE Bob Hillman. Has anyone ever attached a definite article to your name? That was the only time for me, but it’s a good feeling, and helps motivate me to keep making and circulating music.