Some kind of trouble, some kind of fight
Just don't ask me what it was.”— Suzanne Vega, "Luka," from Solitude Standing (1987)
The singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega might have been born 55 years ago yesterday in Santa Monica, Calif., but she is far more associated with the city where she grew up, went to college, and set one of her most famous songs, “Tom’s Diner”—i.e., New York. Even “Luka” seems more a product of East Coast alienation than the sunny West Coast.
In fact, she saw a child by that name outside her apartment building. Thin, sensitive, he also seemed like he could be a tough kid. Above all, he “seemed a little bit distinctive from the other children,” so she grafted a history onto him to explain why he seemed so set apart: the abuse he suffered at the hands of a parent.
“Luka” works through ambiguity and implication. Start with the child’s name: it’s probably, but not necessarily, a boy’s. He could come from a number of countries.
Nowhere does the boy, the song’s narrator (itself an act of creative daring), come right out and state that he has been hit. But he keeps coming close. The second verse, the one quoted above, observes that “Some kind of trouble, some kind of fight” might be observed; later, he thinks he might be “clumsy” or “crazy,” as if blaming himself for the trouble; and the last verse notes that “they only hit until you cry,” with the “you” the thinnest linguistic veneer that it could be someone else, except himself, being hit.
Earlier in the song, “you” is used more conventionally, yet subversively. “I live on the second floor,” Luka says, “I live upstairs from you.” This is more than a child meeting an adult in the song; “you” is now the listener who might find an example of child abuse right where he or she lives. "You" is implicated now in what is told: What are "you" going to do about the suspected violence?
In a transcript for the show “The Infinite Mind,” Vega related how, while performing the song at an Albany, NY appearance on behalf of the Coalition Against Domestic Violence, she was startled by the sight of a crying woman in the audience. It wasn’t until after the show that she could identify the woman: Hedda Nussbaum, the abused partner of Joel Steinberg—the man who had killed their adopted daughter, Lisa Steinberg, in one of the most heinous instances of domestic violence of the last few decades.
(For more about Vega--specifically, her song "Caramel"--please see this prior post of mine.)