I have loved Suzanne Vega's music since I discovered it 25 years ago. Seeing her live at Newcastle City Hall on 1st June 1987 was my first experience of how extraordinarily moving seeing your favourite artist live can be. I've seen her live many times since then and can't wait to relive the experience again tomorrow when she celebrates the 25th anniversary of her platinum album Solitude Standing at the Barbican in London.
'Night Vision' is a beautiful and relatively unknown song from Solitude Standing. I had previously understood it in its literal sense, in the sense Vega meant it, as a description of a loved one falling asleep as night gradually fills the narrator's room. But earlier today I was listening to it whilst worrying about how to find my way to The Barbican in the dark. Suddenly the lyrics gained a new depth of meaning and it became a song about my own experience of partial blindness.
The opening lines: "By day give thanks, by night beware; half the world in sweetness, the other in fear" evoke the age-old myth that associates light and day with joy and happiness and darkness and night with danger and misery. Vega's lyrics frequently evoke received wisdom in this way before subtly overturning the listeners' expectations. (Think of the narrative of childbirth in 'Birth Day'; the unexpected sagacity of the unnamed lover in 'Gypsy', the beauty of asymmetry in 'Left of Centre' or the mischievous riff on misery in 'Straight Lines'.
The implications of the cliche evoked at the beginning of 'Night Vision' are familiar to the blind and the partially blind. Too often, blindness is seen as just as irrevocably negative as the darkness with which it is erroneously associated. As the song develops, however, Vega demonstrates that vision is not about seeing, but rather about using the available clues to fill in the gaps left by either partial blindness or nightfall:
"When the darkness takes you with her hand across your face,
don't give in too quickly, find the things she's erased:
find the line, find the shape through the grain,
find the outline and things will tell you their name."
This is a perfect description of the way my brain tries to make sense of the patchy, blurry world I inhabit. Like the narrator in Vega's song, I am always trying to make sense of edges, outlines, contours. I see a ghostly shape and my brain tells me what it is most likely to be. This song is - perhaps unknowingly - a celebration of the particular way the partially blind relate to the world. The narrator's promise to teach her child "night vision' ends the song. In this promise I hear a celebration of both literal and metaphorical darkness which invites the blind and the partially blind to enjoy and treasure their way of seeing in the dark.
(Vega's song may be exquisite and inspiring in equal measure. But it will not actually help me find my way to the Barbican in the dark. Luckily the Baribican provides an incredibly helpful and wonderfully detailed description of how to get to the venue on their site, complete with extremely helpful photo-maps of key points along the route.)