“Where I grew up in Brooklyn, man, a punk was like a wuss — the guy who ran away from the fight. ‘You’re a punk. You’re a weasel. You’re nothing.’ Now it has this connotation of being the tough guy thing. The revolution. Are you kidding? So I liked the word and used the term ‘punk music mass’ [on a flyer to advertise a live show in the early 1970s], maybe inadvertently trying to turn it into something else. One day I wake up and there’s the word ‘punk’ all over the place. Somebody said that Suicide had to be the ultimate punk band, because even the punks hated us.”
Alan Vega said that.
Before it was even a little bit cool to be a synthesizer-based duo, there was Suicide. There’s no guitar on their self-titled debut album, no bass, no acoustic drums, and it’s some of the truest punk music you’ll ever hear. It still sounds like nothing and no one else.
It’s hard to believe now, given the depth of the influence they’ve had on electronic, industrial, and post-punk music over the last few decades (and even on Bruce Springsteen — listen to “State Trooper” on Nebraska and you’ll hear him channeling Alan Vega something fierce), but for a long time people hated these guys. There’s an EP called 23 Minutes Over Brussels, available as part of the two-disc CD reissue of the debut album, and it might be the best aural evidence of just how reviled they were.
It’s a hissy bootleg cassette recording made the night they were opening for Elvis Costello in 1978. The audience booed. They heckled. They stole the microphone from Alan Vega in the middle of a song. The set ended after a little more than twenty minutes. Elvis came on and played a very short, very angry set of his own to let the crowd know he wasn’t happy with the way they’d treated his opening act. They responded by rioting and breaking Alan Vega’s nose.
Some bands would have been discouraged by an experience like that. Alan and musical other half Martin Rev thrived on the contempt. They used it as fuel. Alan would knock a chunk out of a club wall with a motorcycle chain and hurl abuse right back at a hostile audience. It wasn’t for nothing that they gave their two-man band such a polarizing name.
“Suicide was always about life,” Alan said. “But we couldn’t call it Life. So we called it Suicide, because we wanted to recognize life.”
On that first Suicide album, with little more than a Farfisa organ and a secondhand drum machine made by a bowling-pin-setting company, Martin Rev created rhythms that sounded like the steam-driven heartbeats of demon trains and married them to repetitive, hypnotic melodies that buzzed and throbbed. Alan Vega sang on top of those sounds in a menacing croon, kicking his rockabilly influences down to a hell Gene Vincent would never have gone near, bending his yelps out of shape with dub-like delay effects, turning every performance into a confrontation.
There’s the odd pretty love song on Suicide like “Cheree”, and a fun ’50s throwback in the shape of “Johnny” (hey, that’s me). But even on the more restrained tracks Alan sounds wild, unpredictable, electric. “Frankie Teardrop” is one of the few songs in anyone’s catalogue that terrifies me every time I hear it. Over a punishing ten minutes, Alan tells the story of a factory worker who can’t keep it together after he loses his job and can’t support his wife and young child anymore. There’s no deep psychoanalysis. No poetry. Just the awful, banal facts, until the facts break down and all that’s left is subhuman screaming ripping through a dense sonic nightmare.
Every subsequent Suicide album is a lot more polished, and the use of actual synthesizers and drum machines not made by bowling-pin-setting companies means they can sound a little dated in a way the first album never has and never will. The one exception to the rule is an album’s worth of demos pre-dating the first album, tacked onto the reissue of the second album as extras. There’s something eerie and magnetic in this music, lo-fi and murky as it is.
In what has to be the most bizarre soundtrack decision of all time, one of these demo tracks was used in a 2001 commercial for a dark liqueur that wasn’t Kahlua.
I’m still trying to wrap my head around that one.
Alan and Martin made more albums apart than they did together, and the crown jewel of the bunch — at least in my opinion — is Alan’s self-titled first solo album, which somehow manages to capture some of the unsettling, hypnotic quality of Suicide with a very different set of sounds. It’s another two-person affair, but this time it’s Phil Hawk filling in the blanks, playing guitar, bass, and an actual drum kit.
If Suicide is minimal electronic proto-punk without much in the way of conventional electronics, Alan Vega is rockabilly on downers. In a good way.
“This music is long nights and cold sweat,” Henry Rollins wrote in the liner notes for the Infinite Zero CD reissue. “[It’s] a closer look at the enigma that is this shadow poet. You think you’re getting closer to him, but you’re only getting deeper into yourself. You’re on your own.”
I hone in on those two albums, and Suicide in particular, because it’s desert island music for me. I didn’t have regular internet access or a computer at home until I was eighteen, so a lot of the music I got into as a teenager came to me from magazines, books, and rock and roll encyclopedias. I couldn’t audition anything before I bought it. I read about it, and if it sounded interesting, I went out and tried to find it. The more obscure and divisive it was, the more I wanted to hear it.
As great as I think it is that the internet has done so much to make a lot of music easier to access and put more power in the hands of the music-makers, sometimes I miss those days of uncertainty. I had no idea what i was going to hear, and no idea if I was going to like what I heard, until I sat down to listen to a CD for the first time. It was all blind fumbling.
Some things kind of disappointed me. Some things I liked, but I found the idea of the music more compelling than the music itself. Some things I loved. That first Suicide album grabbed me from the moment “Ghost Rider” came roaring out of my headphones, and it hasn’t let go since.
Now the voice that drove that music is gone.
Alan Vega spent most of his seventy eight years making uncompromising art in one format or another. So you can’t say he didn’t live a full life. Still, 2016 needs to lay off of this whole “shoving great artists off this mortal coil” thing already. It’s getting out of hand now.