A King Has Passed: Alan Vega Remembered

Ben Graham pays a personal tribute to the suicide frontman, who has left us just when we need him the most, while Tim Cooper recalls the vicious spectacle of watching the duo play live and Alan Vega the visionary conceptual artist

Photograph courtesy of Paul Heartfield

We’re all Frankies now.

Alan Vega, who has died at the age of 78 after five decades of astonishing work as a visual artist, a writer and as one half of the seminal art-punk music duo Suicide, was a king among men who just wanted to wake up the world. Though his performances were always rooted in the pure energy and specifically American romance of early rock & roll, Vega was never an entertainer. He was an artist who was prepared to go against his audiences’ preconceptions and to confound their expectations of what a gig or a record or a piece of art should be; not merely for shock value but because he felt it was his duty as an artist to challenge, to show reality and to drag listeners out of their comfort zones, crying and bleeding if necessary.

Born Alan Bermowitz to a poor Brooklyn family in 1938, Vega was already pushing thirty when he formed Suicide with fellow Jewish New Yorker Martin Rev (nee Reverby) in 1970. This was back when rock was widely considered a young man’s game, and until his 70th birthday celebrations in 2008 the singer would often shave ten years off his actual age in interviews. An accomplished visual artist known for his light sculptures, he had also already adopted the name Alan Suicide for his exhibitions before he decided to make rock music the main vehicle for his work.

A 1969 Stooges show is often cited as the main catalyst for pushing Vega into his career as a rock frontman. But when he first met Martin Rev, then a gifted and erudite jazz-rock keyboard player, Vega also enthusiastically introduced his future musical partner to Silver Apples and Can. And although it was Rev who came up with the minimalist keyboard riffs that would define Suicide’s sound, much of the original sonic and visual template for the band was Vega’s.

As well as being a visionary conceptual artist, Vega was a beautiful man with an incredible sense of style who could pull off cartoon machismo or space-age gender-fluid beauty with equal confidence. With Suicide, Vega straddled the Warhol-dominated art world and the glam rock scene of early seventies New York, and was largely misunderstood by both. Vega roamed the stage like a feral Elvis, muttering and howling over Rev’s Farfisa organ, effects boxes and primitive drum machine. Though they began with a guitar player he was soon jettisoned, and their sound became a bottomless, unearthly take on the organ-led garage punk of ? And The Mysterians or The Seeds, via The Stooges’ no-holds barred art attack and a heavy dose of street-level, trash culture pop art. Famously, Suicide were the first band to actively describe their music as ‘punk,’ and were equally famously reviled by fans of the later punk bands they opened for, such as The Clash and Siouxsie & The Banshees.

Suicide’s influence would most clearly be seen on the next generation of post-punk acts that came through in the early eighties, including Soft Cell and every synth duo to stand around looking dour on Top Of The Pops, not to mention The Sisters Of Mercy, Bauhaus and every Batcave-dwelling goth band with a drum machine and more reverb on their vocals than is strictly necessary. Later on The Jesus & Mary Chain, Primal Scream, Spacemen 3, Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Ministry and Nine Inch Nails were among those who openly acknowledged the huge debt they owed to the band. In the current century their influence is widespread, with MIA sampling ‘Ghost Rider’ for ‘Born Free’ in 2010, and their songs being covered by The Horrors, The Savages, Neneh Cherry and Bruce Springsteen to name just four prominent examples.

And yet, Suicide never courted acceptance or became part of the establishment. For one thing, they never exactly flooded the market with product. Their classic first two albums were followed by the still-underrated Way Of Life and Why Be Blue, which while progressively more polished and produced still have a hypnotic and threatening power, as on great songs like ‘Surrender’ and ‘Rain Of Ruin.’ 2002’s American Supreme was a coruscating, experimental work that would prove to be their final studio release. Vega meanwhile produced a more extensive catalogue of solo albums, but beyond the first three (all essential) these too are generally under-appreciated.

Also, Suicide weren’t interested in nostalgia. In an ageing rock industry increasingly preoccupied with looking back, Alan Vega and Martin Rev looked determinedly forward. Even when they agreed to play their first album live in its entirety in a series of ATP-sponsored shows in 2010, they reinvented the songs using contemporary technology, in some cases rendering them almost unrecognisable. The end result, of course, was that audiences expecting to hear a suite of songs they’d long grown comfortable with reacted in the same extreme, often antagonistic way that audiences did when first hearing the same material back in the day. Suicide refused to play the heritage rock game, and were never going to indulge those who weren’t there the first time round with a note-by-note recreation of their original sound.

There were also of course sadder and more prosaic reasons why the past could never be recreated. Age took its toll on Vega as it does on everyone, and a series of strokes left him struggling to sing or stand onstage, but still determined to give his all. Last year Suicide performed a ‘Punk Mass’ at London’s Barbican that with hindsight seems like a conscious, valedictory closing to the Suicide story. At last the ground-breaking duo, who regularly faced thrown fists, bottles, axes and teargas while trying to play songs that are now regarded as leftfield rock classics, were receiving the respect and appreciation they deserved. I’m sure that Vega – seated for much of the time onstage on a throne that was both appropriate and a sobering symbol of his frailty – appreciated this in return. For although he often appeared to relish confrontation, the singer would later reveal that he felt pushed almost towards a nervous breakdown by the hostile responses Suicide received. He felt that he was treated as though he was clinically insane for wanting to address the horrors of real life rather than offer an entertaining escape route from them.

Nowhere is this clearer than on ‘Frankie Teardrop,’ the closing track on Suicide’s first album. A twenty-year-old factory worker, Frankie is initially presented as the kind of blue-collar hero frequently eulogised by Springsteen or Bon Jovi, or indeed the epitome of the "hard-working families" ideal so beloved of a certain recently-departed UK prime minister. Let’s hear it for hard-working Frankie – except it’s not enough. Frankie can’t afford to feed his wife and child. Frankie’s going to be evicted from his apartment. And so, in desperation, he shoots his family dead. Vega expresses the unspeakable horror of this moment in some of the most harrowing and soul-chilling screams ever committed to record. This is the psychodrama of The Doors’ ‘The End’ stripped completely of any hippy mysticism, eroticism or gauche silliness; this is real life, stripped utterly raw. Frankie turns his gun on himself, taking his own life, but even this isn’t the end to his suffering. Frankie’s consciousness is now in Hell forever, and not in any camp, fantasy, Ozzy Osbourne sense. This is what Hell actually feels like. "We’re all Frankies," Vega tremulously insists. "We’re all lying in Hell."

In a 2008 interview with Paul Lester for the Jewish Chronicle, Vega compared Suicide’s early live shows to the concentration camps. "The audience would walk through the door of the venue and they’d be in Hell," Vega said. "We were saying: ‘Wake up, man! You’ve got to change this shit!’"

Alan Vega wasn’t insane, or trying to be shocking; he was angry and desperate. He wanted to wake people up to the fact that, however comfortable their day-to-day existence might seem, they were still walking deeper into Hell with every step. And although it might not be them suffering at that precise moment, the suffering remains real and almost unimaginable in scope, and is around them all the time.

A king has passed, just when we need to hear him more than ever.

Ben Graham

Portrait courtesy of Mel Austin

By the summer of 1978 punk rock had lost the power to shock. The revolution that had shot an amphetamine rush into a moribund music scene had been subsumed into the mainstream. Or so it seemed until The Clash invited one of the lesser-known names from the New York punk scene to support them.

Part electronic rock band, part performance art project, Suicide comprised visual artist Alan Vega on vocals and musician Martin Rev on electronic keyboards and drum machine. Formed eight years earlier amid Manhattan’s downtown art scene, alongside the New York Dolls, they were inspired equally by Iggy Pop and Elvis Presley, Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground, Kraftwerk and Stockhausen – and sounded like none of them. With their grimy black leather street clothes, wraparound shades and a confrontational attitude to performing, they found a natural home in the Manhattan clubs, where punk was kicked into life by The Ramones, Patti Smith, Richard Hell, Television and Blondie.

Not many people enjoyed the experience of watching Suicide’s ground-breaking experiments in tech-noir. In an era of rock & roll hedonism they made an intense electronic noise in which primitive rockabilly rhythms and fragments of melody fought to escape from a maelstrom of feedback and distortion played at maximum volume. Vega’s aggressive stage persona blurred the boundary between performer and audience in the manner prescribed by the Surrealist visionary Antonin Artaud in his manifesto Theatre Of Cruelty (1935), using confrontation to break down barriers. He swung a huge motorcycle chain menacingly around onstage. Sometimes he would cut his own face with a switchblade, ‘just to freak people out’. Once he leapt offstage and blocked the door, bike chain in hand, to stop dissatisfied audience members leaving.

When Suicide came to Europe they proved too extreme even for audiences accustomed to the de rigueur anti-social behaviour of punk. The booing began moments after they took the stage in front of an audience impatient for the hyped-up garage rock of The Clash. Beer bottles began to be thrown – full beer bottles. Rev, impassive behind his bug shades, responded by cranking up the volume and attacking his keyboard with renewed aggression, stabbing jagged shards of discordant noise into the pulsing rhythms that rumbled through your gut. Beside him Vega, blood seeping from a head wound, openly baited the angry crowd and carried on singing – if singing was the word for a voice that ranged from psychotic crooning to a satanic Elvis impression, punctuated by strangulated yelps and howls. And that was not just one isolated show; it happened every night. In England an enormous skinhead clambered on to the stage and thumped Vega in the face, breaking his nose. In Scotland the many missiles hurled at the singer included an axe. In France there was a full-scale riot. Suicide’s crime? To have no guitars or bass or drums.

"It was like being in Hell," recalled Vega in David Nobakht’s biography, Suicide: No Compromise (2005). Reminiscing further before a London concert this January, Vega added: "In the Seventies I was afraid for my life every night but that didn’t matter, it energised me. Growing up in Brooklyn you learned never to give up. You could get your ass kicked but you fought to the death. Stupid macho crap. But that’s why we were never forced offstage." Suicide, as their name suggested, were not for the meek or faint-hearted. They might not have had guitars but they had more punk attitude than the countless copycats who followed in the footsteps of The Sex Pistols and The Clash. In fact Suicide had coined the term punk for their music as far back as 1971, advertising their shows as "a punk music mass". Their signature track was ‘Frankie Teardrop’, a terrifying twelve-minute psychodrama about a factory worker who loses his job and murders his wife and kid before committing suicide. By the end of it (if you got that far) you knew just how he felt.

"We were waiting on line when punk arrived," said Vega, who had the stocky build and strangled vowels of an ageing Brooklyn streetfighter. "Here was finally a movement that took us with it. Before that there was not anything that could place us. We thought of our music as being religious and it probably is in a way. Whoever woulda thunk it that the word punk would become a movement that we inadvertently probably started? I dunno, I’m not into taking credit as the first one to do it and shit like that, but it was the first time anyone used the word punk since Lester Bangs used it in a Creem magazine article on The Stooges in 1969."

Suicide never had a hit record, although Vega enjoyed a 1981 solo hit in France with ‘Juke Box Babe’ but they recorded and performed together right til the end. Demand for back catalogue reissues showed that younger generations were perhaps more in tune with their music. They have finally become recognised as one of the most important influences on twenty first-century music.

Before Suicide there were no electronic duos on a gig circuit dominated by rock bands. The release of their debut album in 1977, with its arresting melange of industrial noise and heart-melting melody, and its 1980 successor (adding the pop sheen of producer Ric Ocasek of The Cars), directly inspired many of the first wave of synth-pop bands. Without Suicide there would have been no Soft Cell or Human League, Depeche Mode or Pet Shop Boys. They inspired Joy Division, Primal Scream and the Jesus and Mary Chain, REM, Nick Cave and even Bruce Springsteen, who befriended them and acknowledged their influence on his stark Nebraska album. They could be heard more clearly in the post-rave generation of dance musicians like Underworld and the Aphex Twin.

Yet for many years Suicide received little credit for their work, languishing in the ghetto of artists whose critical acclaim fails to translate into record sales. "We only made enough money to live but if you gave me a choice to make all the money some of those people made and sound like Soft Cell, I still wouldn’t do it," insisted Rev. "I wouldn’t want to be part of it. It’s a betrayal. I’d rather make no money and do what I do. We have a different path and a different destiny."

Similarly, credit eluded Vega the artist, originally a painter who found a niche with sculptures of cruciforms using light bulbs, neon and found objects, which was equally ahead of its time. Jeffrey Deitch, the New York gallery owner who championed Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, recalls his 1972 show at the OK Harris gallery as "the toughest and most radical art I had ever seen". He described Vega’s installation made of "lights, TV sets, coils of wire and other discarded electrical equipment dumped in piles on the floor. Some of the power cords were spliced together and plugged in". And this, remember, was nearly 30 years before Tomoko Takahashi’s installation of electrical detritus filled the Saatchi Gallery, earning her a Turner Prize nomination. "Apparently my work started a school called Scatter Art, so Jeffrey Deitch told me," said Vega, who started exhibiting again ten years ago after a break of two decades. "So it happened again – a coupla guys got famous for it. I’d done it already, but they sold theirs for megabucks and had it shown in museums and stuff like that. Just like that Soft Cell thing all over again."

For Vega, there was never a distinction between his music and his art. "Art and music – it’s all the same thing to me," he insisted, "I’m still the same guy doing it." Julian Schnabel, writing in 100,000 Watts of Fat City (1997), a book of photographs of Vega’s sculptures, saw parallels in Vega’s favoured themes: "Alan Vega has been meditating on the crucifix, death and ecstasy with every sensory pore in his body," he wrote, "whether singing, making music or building crosses, since I can remember and even before that".

Vega’s art and music began life at the Project Of Living Artists, a publicly-funded art space in New York which he had helped to found in the late 1960s. Open 24 hours a day, it was similar to Warhol’s Factory, with artists and musicians, feminists and political agitators sharing space with junkies and alcoholics. It was there, in 1970, that Vega met Rev, who had an avant-garde jazz group called Reverend B, and they discovered a shared interest in radical politics and electronic music as a means of artistic expression.

Suicide stayed together ’til the end. It is only a year since their last UK gig – The Punk Mass – held at the Barbican in London. Their last album American Supreme may have come out in 2002 but it addressed the state of post-9/11 America and showed them to be moving on, incorporating elements of hip hop and funk into their stark minimalist palette. More recent shows found that they had gained a new audience, many in their teens and early 20s: people who were not even born when Suicide began but have tuned into their sound through the groups they influenced and the acknowledgements paid by people like Bobby Gillespie and REM’s Michael Stipe, another fan. ("I really like Suicide," said Stipe. "They were so ahead of the curve and therefore really unpopular, as well they should be.")

Toward the end the shows usually ended without bloodshed but, far from mellowing with age, Suicide remained as experimental as ever and no two performances were ever the same. "In the beginning Suicide stood out because there was nobody like us. There still isn’t," said Vega. "I have known bands who try to sound like us and some of them do a fairly decent job but they’re not like us. They don’t have the intensity. Back in the day people used to say to us: ‘Oh you guys are ahead of our time’ but I don’t believe in that stuff. I thought we were right on our time – everyone else was behind the time."

Tim Cooper

The Quietus Digest

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