There’s going on stage and playing your music and doing your art and not giving a toss what people think of you and your music and your presentation and your art and your way of looking at the world.
And then there’s Alan Vega.
The frontman for the singular band Suicide died July 16 at the age of 78. (For years, people thought Vega was a decade younger. There aren’t a lot of Beatniks who can say they were doing groundbreaking work in 1977.)
“I saw Suicide play at the Mabuhay in SF and CBGB’s when I moved to NYC in ’78,” Alejandro Escovedo said Sunday. “They were like no other. They altered the way we heard rock n roll. Chuck (Prophet) and I listened to Alan’s solo records when we wrote our records. He lived a life full of art and music, and he gave us a glimpse into a world that seemed so exotic to me. A true rock n roll hit man.”
Bruce Springsteen, whose “State Trooper” owes everything to Suicide and who covered the band’s “Dream Baby Dream,” posted the following on his Facebook page:
“Over here on E Street, we are saddened to hear of the passing of Alan Vega, one of the great revolutionary voices in rock & roll. The bravery and passion he showed throughout his career was deeply influential to me. I was lucky enough to get to know Alan slightly and he was always a generous and sweet spirit. The blunt force power of his greatest music both with Suicide and on his solo records can still shock and inspire today. There was simply no one else remotely like him.”
The music Vega, born Boruch Alan Bermowitz, June 23, 1938, was making with his bandmate Martin Rev as early as 1970(!) was so completely unlike anything else going on that it took seven years for the band to release a debut album.
Bands are still trying to catch up to his extraordinary intensity, to the legitimate fear he inspired in early audiences. Suicides influence can be found everywhere from U2 to Radiohead to Henry Rollins, who announced Vega’s passing on his radio show.
“Even the punks didn’t like Suicide,” Vega said in 2009. “We were the ultimate punks because even the punks hated us.”
Indeed, Clash frontman Joe Strummer once proclaimed Vega “one of the bravest men I have ever seen on a stage” when Suicide opened for the Clash.
For Vega knew, as Strummer says, that the audience wasn’t just going to hate them, they were going to want to end him. He would go on stage thinking this might be the show where someone actually kills him. After all, it was at a Clash gig in Glasgow where someone threw an axe at Vega. Yes. an axe.
Suicide’s elements were pure rock music: Vega’s Elvis-reverbed voice, Rev’s electric organ, the primitive drum machine. But that was it and the way they put those three things together, especially on their still-disturbing, still-electrifying debut “Suicide” (1977, Red Star) was unlike anything before or since.
You couldn’t help but be changed by Suicide when you heard them. You could hate it or you could love it but you couldn’t ignore it. And before you hated it or loved it, you were probably haunted by it, especially by “Frankie Teardrop,” still for my money, and the money of many others, the single most disturbing song ever recorded.
Lots of music tries to stare into the abyss. “Frankie Teardrop” stares into the abyss and the abyss blinks. Rolling Stone has a story about how the thing was made.
Vega went on to make several more albums with Rev and a series of solo records as well as visual art.
A personal note: The very first piece I had published in Spin magazine was, in part, about Suicide. I stand by all of it but would add only this: As much as anyone in American arts, Vega followed nothing but his muse.
There’s brave and then there’s Vega-brave.