Punk Rock

Suicide's Alan Vega Left Behind a Template For a Riot

Alan Vega confronted rock music’s establishment by appealing to their own consciences. In turn, they greeted him and Martin Rev, the duo forever immortalized as Suicide, with bottles, boos and spit. No guitar, no bass, no drums. Two guys armed with first a Wurlitzer, and later a Farfisa organ with Roland CR-78 drum machine. Vega saw through the bullshit of what rock and roll had become. He remembered Elvis, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry. Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway was boring. Frampton Comes Alive! and ELO gnarled the music’s original intent. For Vega, rock and roll was an unrecognizable rotting corpse lying in the middle of Route 66, surrounded by overfed magpies. He and Rev picked up the remains and returned it to Clarksdale, Memphis and Detroit – the shelled remains of the center where it all began.

When asked by French television what Vega thought of rock and roll in the ‘80s, his response reflected his conviction:

I think it’s pretty terrible, don’t you think? I don’t think there is any rock and roll, actually…anymore. But it’s changing, and it’s changed into rap and into other things, which is rock and roll. Rock and roll is the language of people who have something strong to say about life or something. But it is a funny word – rock and roll. Beethoven was rock and roll in his time. He was playing real loud because he couldn’t hear.

Suicide’s sounds crawled on beer- and vomit-soaked floors, droning like simple machines in sharp decline. The duo's rhythms pushed the walls closer together to create the claustrophobia that encased Vega's daily life. Born in Bensonhurst to Jewish and Puerto Rican parentage, he blended the two worlds in his poetry and art. With Rev, he composed one of the world’s most terrifying songs — a ten-minute torture chamber filled with horrors that mirrors our world of mass shootings and disparate families. “Frankie Teardrop” is an epic that, at first, reads like a newspaper headline. With the Farfisa repeating the same humdrum factory life that adds to Frankie’s madness, the song transforms into an unforgettable crime scene:

Frankie is so desperate
He’s gonna kill his wife and kids

And then Frankie sees the abyss and cannot look back.

Pointed at the six month old in the crib
Oh Frankie
Frankie looked at his wife

Shot her
‘Oh, what have I done?’
Let’s hear it for Frankie

Later, Vega reminds us that we are all Frankie. We are all lying in the same hell he occupies as waves of delayed sounds wash over Vega’s screams and pleas and cries. In this dirge for sanity, he illustrates the ill effects of urbanization. The low-level screams in the background become foreground. Rev and Vega create Hell’s first soundtrack.

With Iggy Pop and Patti Smith, Suicide helped return danger to rock and roll. Their performances scared many people out of Max’s Kansas City, especially when Vega used the microphone like a flagellate, whipping his face and body with it. Blood poured over his face at CBGB’s when performing a 40-minute rendition of “Ghost Rider.” As quickly as they filled venues, they cleared them, too. Because so much emphasis was placed on Vega’s self-abuse, behind him were the wolves of three-chord Chuck Berry and Elvis simplicity dressed electric sheep’s clothing. Songs like “Cheree” and “Johnny” are vintage rock and roll. “Cheree” plays with young lust like Buddy Holly’s “Umm, Oh Yeah Dearest;” “Johnny” is electronic 12-bar blues. Suicide’s decaying sounds and drones match the relevance of the times, and therein lies the difference.

The year  1979 gave birth to the song performed at the end of every Springsteen show during his "Devils and Dust" tour: “Dream Baby Dream.” What draws The Boss to the song is what draws most anyone to it. The pleadings of one lover to the other is private. The words transcend the more overt poetics Vega applies to the majority of his songs. He announces to his lover that they “[G]otta keep the light burning,” and “Come on and open up your heart.” At the end of every doomed relationship is the desperate plea to return to the simple moment that sparked the original flame. Even though Vega railed against the very likes of Springsteen in the ‘70s, his blunt treatment and straightforward delivery of “Dream Baby Dream” flattered Vega. Even Springsteen once remarked in Spin magazine that if Elvis came back from the dead, he would sound like Alan Vega.

Others heard something different in Vega’s art, voice and rock and roll reinvention. Suicide were the foster parents of New York's No Wave movement; DNA, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Rhys Chatham and many others found comfort in their atonality and drones. They made manufactured sounds the heart of their sound. Industrial musicians heard the violence that was missing in early electronic pioneers like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream. Also missing was the direct connection to early rock and roll that can be found in Ministry and Killing Joke. Listen closely and you can hear Vega’s growls from “Mr. Ray” in Al Jourgensen’s guttural delivery at the end of “Stigmata.”

Vega’s first stab as a solo artist saw a minor departure from Suicide’s sound, embracing early Elvis' rockabilly sounds. He sounded like The King, and his minor hit “Jukebox Babe” bore all of the “uh-huh-huh’s,” slurs and slides. Collision Drive sustained his fixation on Gene Vincent and his early rock and roll heroes. But Vega betrayed his own code of bearing false witness and clasping onto rock and roll’s golden calves. The diversion was brief, but Vega’s descent could not put out the already lit powder keg.

Later in life, Vega revisited Collision Drive, but this time using found objects for an art exhibition. Little can distinguish the difference between his approach to art and music. His 2009 retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Lyon, entitled Infinite Mercy, showcased crucifixes influenced by minimalist artist Dan Flavin. His art reflected the discord found in his music. It was not linear or appropriately spaced like Flavin’s use of light. Vega’s raw use of materials reproduced his Bowery influences. The scum does not come off easy.

Vega and Suicide impacted music more dramatically than the Ramones and Sex Pistols. Those bands risked little by comparison. Musically speaking, they played the same instruments as Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. They had the same fail-safe structure recycled today, with the archetypal front person as the stage’s centerpiece. Ramones midwifed the nasty birth of punk rock, but they did little to cultivate it any further. Sex Pistols suffered from Malcolm McLaren's Situationist-influenced manipulative guile to hoodwink the public. Despite both bands having grisly and unmusical vocalists, they broke more ground in social and cultural ways that changed the cultural fabric forever than they did with their instruments. 

On the other hand, before Suicide was found discarded next to an abandoned industrial plant, no one sounded like them. There were two people: an atypical front person who was backed by one person who created a symphony from destitution, isolation and desperation, resulting in music perceived as chaos. A two-piece? Where’s the drummer? Who's playing guitar and bass? What’s making those sounds? They created rhythms excavated from future times with an attitude reflecting their decayed surroundings. Vega’s lyrics read like headlines that provided the real goings-on in New York City in the ‘70s. No separation between audience and performer. Even so-called punks doomed the band with boos and spit because Suicide did not fit. In spite of the irony, time will tell a different story. Alan Vega leaves behind a template for causing a riot with blunt instruments, authentic reflections and earnestness.
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Stephan Wyatt