By Roy Trakin (Former Red Star Records Minister of Information and Suicide Fan).
In Memoriam: Alan Vega (June 23, 1938-July 16, 2016)
“Come on, we gotta keep the fire burning,” “Dream Baby Dream”
In a year of gut-punches, this one struck to the heart. If there’s one thing I learned from the great Alan Vega—one-half of the seminal art-noise duo Suicide with Marty Rev — you’ve got to keep your dreams even while all around you are trying to puncture them. Born Boruch Alan Bermowitz in the Bronx Hospital, the son of Eastern European Jews, including a father who worked as a diamond-cutter, he spent the first three years of his life on the Lower East Side he would soon traverse as an artist and musician, before moving with his family to the Jewish/Italian section of Brooklyn known as Bensonhurst, which would become the setting for TV’s The Honeymooners, Saturday Night Fever and Spike Lee’s interracial romance Jungle Fever.
His early influences – physics and fine art (which he studied at Brooklyn College under abstract painter Ad Reinhardt and Swiss Surrealist Kurt Seligmann), doo-wop music, Elvis Presley (whom he recalls seeing on the Ed Sullivan Show), James Dean (Rebel Without a Cause) and Iggy Pop (a memorable Stooges performance at the New York State Pavilion in Flushing in August 1969) – Alan met Martin Reverby at an artist-run 24-hour multimedia gallery, A Project of Living Artists, and adopted the surname Suicide.
Quickly coalescing as a duo under that forbidding moniker – describing their music as a “punk music mass” – they played the emerging local circuit, including the Mercer Arts Center, Max’s Kansas City and CBGB, cementing the downtown ethic by combining the worlds of fine art and a fearsome sound emanating from Alan’s confrontational Puerto Rican street thug menace and Marty’s eardrum-shattering synth keyboards and clattering drum machine beat. It was a musical apocalypse that remained ahead of its time right up until the present moment, Vladimir and Estragon waiting for the world to end, Alphonse and Gaston at the Gates of Hell, Abbott and Costello debating who’s on first… and last.
Signed by true believer Marty Thau to his defiantly indie Red Star Records – an offshoot of successful disco label Prelude — in 1976, the first Suicide album, produced by Craig Leon, the same man behind Ramones’ debut, was mostly dismissed in their hometown, but earned raves from around the world. In the U.K., the duo came under the wing of Bronze Records’ A&R exec Howard Thompson – who would later sign the Psychedelic Furs and Bjork during stints at Columbia and Elektra Records, and was a lifelong supporter. That groundbreaking album ranged from the motorcycle vroom of “Ghost Rider” and the indelible melodies of “Cheree” to the searing set-piece, “Frankie Teardrop,” about the disillusioned Vietnam vet who lays waste to his entire family.
As Minister of Information for Thau’s label, I traveled with the duo for their debut European tour, that included a memorable gig opening for Elvis Costello at the Anciennes Belgique in Brussels on June 16, 1978, where a leather-jacketed, cigarette-smoking Vega playfully taunted a hostile crowd, culminating in a chair-throwing, tear-gas-canister-exploding finale when Costello refused to emerge for an encore. On the subsequent tour accompanying The Clash, Suicide proceeded to perform every night to a downpour of gob and worse, alienating most, but building a loyal following among several influential musicians, including Depeche Mode, Joy Division, Jesus and Mary Chain, Soft Cell, Nick Cave, Erasure, OMD, the Pet Shop Boys and on and on.
Away from the stage, Alan was nothing like the threatening figure he portrayed, a warm, generous man with a sense of humor who would just as soon discuss his beloved New York Mets as the downtown art scene. An accomplished artist, Vega began as a painter, then moved to light sculptures, which were the visual equivalent of Suicide’s music, often constructed of thrown-away debris hauled away from the city streets, the leftover detritus of a society suffering from overload. In the ‘70s, Vega’s art found a home at SoHo’s prestigious OK Harris Gallery, then later on, noted curators Barbara Goldstone and Jeffrey Deitch showed his work, which included “Collision Drive,” an exhibition of sculptures combining light with found objects and crucifixes, the latter a lifelong obsession. In 2009, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Lyon, France, mounted “Infinite Mercy,” a major retrospective exhibit, that included two short documentaries, Christian Eudeline’s Alan Vega and Hagues Peyret’s Autour d’Alan Vega.
The closest Alan Vega ever came to commercial success as a musician was as a solo artist, releasing his 1980 debut with guitarist Phil Hawk, a rockabilly-inflected work which included “Jukebox Babe,” a hit in France. He entered the major label fold at Elektra, where he was soon joined by old friend Howard Thompson, for 1983’s Saturn Drive, produced by major fan, The Cars’ Ric Ocasek (who also helmed two Suicide albums and got the band booked on a memorable Midnight Special) which featured Ministry’s Al Jourgenson.
Throughout, Vega remained a fierce loyalist, recording with fellow outliers like Alex Chilton, Ben Vaughan, Lydia Lunch, Genesis P-Orridge and his wife Liz Lamere. Bruce Springsteen, another admitted Suicide admirer, offered his own Vega homage on Nebraska, with State Trooper, performed “Dream Baby Dream” live as the closing song of his 2005 Devils and Dust tour, released a video of the song in 2013 saluting fans of his Wrecking Ball tour, then covered it as the final track on his 2014 album, High Hopes. “You know if Elvis came back from the dead,” the Boss once said, “I think he would sound like Alan Vega.”
When Marty Thau died in February, 2014, I meant to call Alan to commiserate, and I kept putting it off. A piece of paper with his phone number remained on my desk for months, and now I’ll never get to hear that friendly, encouraging voice again, that infectious laugh. I’m happy to know, with his loyal wife Liz Lamere, and his beloved son Dante, that Alan had the kind of comfortable home life which enabled him to keep tilting at windmills, pursuing a life that was steeped in unflinching artistic expression, a warm, life-affirming creative presence that belied his often terrifying stage persona, one that was every bit as tongue-in-cheek as it was frighteningly real.
Thanks to one-time New York Rocker editor Andy Schwartz for his observation that Suicide bridged the gap in New York from the ‘50s Beats, ‘60s hippies and ‘70s punks to today’s EMD acolyes. This is something I wrote in May 1980 for that fabled publication, and it rings true today:
“Suicide is NOT about alienation, but about hope; NOT about perfection, but rather about the inevitability of human error. Suicide telescope their frailties, their inadequacies, their mistakes, like some improvising jazz band, into a unified whole whose theme is simple: ‘To err is human, to forgive divine.’ Suicide’s message is not anti-life, as so many have assumed, but a plea to grasp life by the lapels. It is a paean to the common man, as it is an ode to New York City, the place without which the act is inconceivable. Alan Vega is Suicide’s heart, soul and mind; Martin Rev is the body in which all those parts are housed. I love this band….”
Rest in peace, Alan, even though I can’t imagine you will.