Remembering Suicide's Alan Vega: Screamer of Truths, Dreamer of Dreams

Remembering Suicide's Alan Vega: Screamer of Truths, Dreamer of Dreams


Remembering Suicide's Alan Vega: Screamer of Truths, Dreamer of Dreams news

Rob Sheffield remembers the unsettling genius of Suicide’s Alan Vega. Credit: Peter Noble/Redferns

Baby baby baby, he's blazing away, like the stars stars stars in the universe. RIP to Alan Vega, the voice of the pioneering electro-punk duo Suicide, who died Saturday night at the age of 78, in his native New York City. Even in the confrontational environment of the Seventies CBGB scene, Suicide stood out for their amazing ability to piss people off, with Vega chanting "It's doomsday, doomsday" or "America, America is killing its youth" over Martin Rev's primitive synth rumbles. There's never been a group that captured the sound of a crumbling city like Suicide, despite everyone who's tried. As Vega said in Clinton Heylin's 1994 history From The Velvets to the Voidoids, "People were coming in off the streets, coming into a performance arena where they were hoping they'd be escaping and all we were doing was shoving the street back in their face again."

Vega came on as a primal rockabilly singer in the mode of Gene Vincent or Jerry Lee Lewis – the most intense moments in Suicide recordings are his amplified coughs and huffs and gasps. Martin Rev used a cheap 10-dollar Japanese synthesizer and a pile of effects boxes to create a hall of mirrors where all the twitches in Vega's voice could echo forever into the void. The combination of that voice and Rev's oppressively repetitive keyboard drones made a skin-crawlingly ominous noise. You can get a taste in the amazing 1978 clip from Paul Tschinkel's public-access TV program Inner Tube, with Suicide doing "Ghost Rider" at Max's Kansas City. It's mostly just a close-up of Vega's face and the sound of his voice, yet it's like a full-scale horror movie. Vega announces, "The American skinheads, ghost riders. It's coming your way. It's got something to tell you – we're dead, finished, fucked over. Booooo!" The seething musical tension keeps building without any relief. "America is dead. The world is dead. Mars is dead. Fucked over!"

Vega and Rev were much older than their CBGB contemporaries; Vega was 39 when the band's debut album came out. A Brooklyn boy born Alan Bermowitz in 1938 in Bensonhurst – just three years younger than Elvis – he became a sculptor in the Sixties, and married his first wife, Holocaust survivor Mariette Bermowitz (who later wrote the memoir Mindele's Journey about her childhood escape from the Nazis). The Velvet Underground and the Stooges inspired his rock reincarnation, with his leather-boy Alan Suicide persona. Suicide started long before punk, doing their first NYC loft show in 1970, but they always had trouble getting gigs, mostly because Vega had a knack for starting riots in the crowd. The legendary bootleg 23 Minutes in Brussels documents a Belgian gig from June 16th, 1978, opening for Elvis Costello, that explodes into a full-scale audience brawl. "Alan Vega would come out with this motorcycle chain that was like eight feet long," the New York Dolls' late bassist Arthur Kane recalled in the punk documentary Attitude. "Marty would start playing, and he'd sing a couple notes, then he'd start whipping the floor with this eight-foot bolt of this chain. This completely frightened people out of the room." An impressive feat in any room – but especially when the room happens to be CBGB. 

Rev and Vega began Suicide with a rock concept, but soon ditched the parts of it that didn't seem real to them. "Marty and I said the first thing that has to go is the drums, and the next thing was the lead guitar." To get this effect, they used the most primitive electronics. "We found a 10-dollar Japanese keyboard, it was probably the first prototype computerized keyboard, but we couldn't get a sound out of it, so what we did was get a load of effects boxes, Electro Harmonix, we must've had 10 in a row! All lined up! Just to get the sound out of this keyboard we needed all this juice." The results of this heavily reverbed noise felt like demon voices creeping out of a cheap transistor radio.

Their 1977 debut Suicide proved that they were utterly out of place, even in the outre context of punk – no other band was simultaneously so pre-punk and post-punk. They were going for what Vega called "that continuum sound, that monotonous thing." "Ghost Rider" is one of the great first-song-on-first-album manifesto statements, a doomy minimal two-finger synth riff, with Vega cheering on his comic-book motorcycle hero with his post-Iggy monosyllabic chants. "Rocket USA" creates the ambience of a rockabilly motorpsycho nightmare, a sonic space where the jingling xylophone on Buddy Holly's "Everyday" could echo forever into an industrial speed headache. "Cheree" and "Girl" drift into surreal Fifties slow-dance territory. Countless artists have taken this album as a primary inspiration, from the primitive industrial synth-pop of the Human League or Antenna to the high-goth antics of Bauhaus or the Sisters of Mercy to the psychedelic noise of Spacemen 3, whose "Che" remaims the finest Suicide cover ever attempted.

The closest Suicide ever came to a hit was the 1979 single "Dream Baby Dream." But over the years, their underground influence has spread to the strangest places. "I like the band Suicide," Bruce Springsteen told Rolling Stone's Kurt Loder in a 1984 cover story. His stripped-down landmark Nebraska, especially the stark highway murder tale "State Trooper," was explicitly inspired by Suicide. "They had that two-piece synthesizer/voice thing. They had one of the most amazing songs I ever heard. It was about a guy that murders …" The interviewer comes up with the title: "Frankie Teardrop." "Yeah! Oh, my God! That's one of the most amazing records I think I ever heard. I love that record." Like many other teens at the time, probably, I read that Springsteen quote and got intrigued enough to play "Frankie Teardrop" on my late-night college radio show, never having heard it before, more than 10 minutes minutes of claustrophobic despair and morbid shrieks, and it scared me out of my wits. I wasn't prepared for that – I never am, no matter how many times I've heard the song.

In the Eighties, Vega began a strange solo career with singles like "Jukebox Babe" and "Saturn Drive," which made him a bona fide star in Europe, with his souped-up synth-rockabilly sound in the vein of Billy Idol or Gino Vanelli. Suicide kept gigging in recent years, with Vega always displaying a hilariously unreconstructed don't-give-a-fuck attitude. At a 2009 All Tomorrow's Parties gig, he and Rev were often doing different songs at the same time, with Vega singing whatever he felt like at the time, yet remained stubbornly himself. In his final interview in December 2015, with Rolling Stone's Kory Grow, he told the funny story of touring with Alex Chilton in Europe in the 2000s, when he had a nasty encounter with a French journalist who called Suicide a dinosaur band. Vega became "unleashed," as he recalled. "I said, ‘Get outside!' He was like, ‘No, no, no.'" No matter what time or place, Suicide will never sound remotely like a dinosaur – and neither will Alan Vega.