ALAN VEGA (1938-2016) WAS THE crowd-baiting agitator and crooner-from-hell who sang Suicide’s extreme inner city blues and rapturous love calls while braving unimaginable abuse from audiences. His death from congestive heart failure on July 16 robs music of one of its most ferociously uncompromising artists and New York City of one of its loudest, proudest sons, while bringing down the final curtain on the only act from the city’s early ’70s punk uprising never to split up.
“If I was gonna be a real artist, I had to go where Iggy was.”
Born Boruch Alan Bermowitz in the Bronx Hospital on June 23, 1938, he lived with his parents in the thriving Jewish community of New York’s Lower East Side before moving to Brooklyn’s Italian-Jewish enclave of Bensonhurst. After studying art and physics at Brooklyn College, he tried blue collar married life but, obsessed with Elvis, ? And The Mysterians and the beat poets, found Manhattan’s lure irresistible and, by the late ’60s, had upped and left for its burgeoning downtown art scene, to which he contributed, constructing crackling light sculptures from street detritus. After witnessing The Stooges at the New York State Pavilion in August 1969, he decided, as he told this writer, “If I was gonna be a real artist, I had to go where Iggy was.”
After feigning insanity to escape Vietnam, his rage at the war manifested in the screeching sonic experiments he conducted at the Project Of Living Artists, a downtown open-all-hours multimedia hotbed where he resided as janitor. After hitting it off with young jazz keyboardist Martin Reverby, the newly-christened Suicide played their first shows at the Project, art galleries and any club which would allow their “Punk Music Mass”, a shattering wall of noise topped by Vega’s confrontational street psycho menace.
Suicide found an ally in Red Star Records’ boss Marty Thau, who signed them to record their self-titled debut album at an upstate studio. Produced by Ramones helmsman Craig Leon, the album mixed scorched-circuit protest vamps such as Ghost Rider and Rocket USA with shimmering doo-wop ballads, climaxing with the bone-chilling Frankie Teardrop, in which Vega placed himself inside the teeming brain of a Vietnam vet who murders his family then himself. The album has since been recognised as one of the most influential works of popular music history, a cornerstone of punk, noise, avant-rock and electronica.
Suicide impressed Bronze Records A&R man Howard Thompson enough to sign the duo, which resulted in them supporting Elvis Costello and The Clash on their 1978 European tours. The nightly abuse and frequent riots Suicide provoked are cited as the most extreme reactions a rock act has ever received from its audience. This writer nightly witnessed Vega face down missile-hurling crowds: always defiant, often winning the night (despite getting soaked in various pungent fluids or, once, having to dodge a flying hatchet). But when Suicide played their own shows, they were accosted by devoted fans, including Depeche Mode, Joy Division, The Jesus & Mary Chain and Soft Cell. “Fuck, I’m dead. I’m entertaining people! I thought my career was over,” said Vega.
“If Elvis came back from the dead, I think he would sound like Alan Vega.”
Suicide still struggled to sell records, despite their timelessly evocative anthem Dream Baby Dream and also self-titled second album which laid templates for synth-based music in the ’80s and beyond. While recording at New York’s Power Station studio, Vega and Rev met Bruce Springsteen, who was making The River next door. After confessing to being a Suicide fan, the Boss began a lifelong friendship with Vega, acknowledging his influence on Nebraska (notably State Trooper) and singing Dream Baby Dream in live encores and on 2014’s High Hopes. “If Elvis came back from the dead, I think he would sound like Alan Vega,” Springsteen once said.
By the ’80s, Vega was conducting the parallel solo career which earned stardom in France with the rockabilly Jukebox Babe, acclaim for his harrowing post-war epic Viet Vet and a stint on the major label treadmill, resulting in 1983’s Saturn Strip. He returned to his light sculptures, continued with Suicide and, after meeting partner Liz Lamere, turned out a series of uncompromising solo albums. He could now sell his light sculptures on the global art market for thousands of dollars (sometimes a piece might feature a genuine New York cockroach).
While their solo projects continued, Suicide continued to perform in a world which now welcomed them, sometimes not seeing each other for months but instinctively plugging into that same infernal alchemy. 2002’s American Supreme has been acknowledged as the single most scathing statement on the 9/11 atrocity, which happened near the downtown loft Vega shared with Lamere and their infant son Dante.
“How can I stop making music? It would be like stopping breathing.”
In June 2007, Suicide were presented with the Innovation In Sound Award by faithful devotee Nick Cave at that year’s MOJO Honours List ceremony. This writer had the pleasure of chaperoning the almost overawed duo, who revealed it was the first award they had ever received. Vega responded by ploughing into his music with feverish energy, telling this writer, “I’m not going to retire anyway. How can I stop making music? It would be like stopping breathing.”
This relentless schedule was forced to abate a little after March 2012, when Vega suffered a stroke and a massive heart attack, although he shocked doctors with his seemingly quick recovery after life-threatening surgery. Despite his strict medicinal regime and disabilities, Vega returned to the stage with Suicide in 2014. His last show revisited the Punk Mass concept with Rev, Liz and Dante at London’s Barbican last July, which showed him frail but undaunted as he sat on a throne and sang his latest work, IT. Suicide were booked to play a Swedish festival this month, but had to cancel after Vega broke his hip in May, which required more surgery.
For this fan and friend of nearly 40 years, the death of this always friendly, down-to-earth and humour-surrounded force of nature leaves a massive hole, but a much larger footprint. Alan Vega’s light may have given out but his creative legacy will always be there to dazzle, inspire and even terrify. As he maintained over the last five decades, Suicide was always about life, and facing it full on. His elemental presence will be sadly missed.
Kris Needs’ Dream Baby Dream: Suicide, A New York Story is published by Omnibus Press
Top photo: Peter Noble/Getty Images