Punk Legend Alan Vega Was So Much More Than 'Ghost Rider'
Alan Vega died almost two weeks ago, on July 16, so why am I writing about him now? I didn’t know him; I never met him or saw him perform live; and, to be perfectly honest, I probably haven’t listened to his music nearly enough. He was, quite simply, before my time. I feel obligated, however, not to eulogize or write another untimely obit, but to consider his legacy and the impact that he had on almost all the music I listen to today—to at least attempt something of an understanding of his work. Vega was one of music’s first punks, and alongside his friend Martin Rev, revolutionized rock and roll as the band Suicide. His innovations are widely recognized and his sound imitated, so, for someone who grew up in the shadow of his influence, it feels appropriate if not overdue to consider him now.
It’s hard not to fall into the trap of generalization when discussing the outsized importance of an underground figure who has perhaps become known more for his influence on subsequent artists than for his own work. That is, Suicide was until recently acknowledged only in part for songs like “Ghost Rider” and “Dream Baby Dream,” but probably more so for being the “first”—the first electronic duo, the first self-styled punks, etc. “I never wanted to be number one,” Vega said back in 2012. “It’s the worst, because you’re neglected until your dead. Of course, we have no choice in the matter.”
Indeed, many of Suicide’s innovations were borne out of necessity, be it the economic freedom of the drum machine, or the desire to find sonic potential outside of the formulaic four-person “rock band” of the time. The duo’s format, with Vega providing ghostly, left-field yelps and coos over Rev’s ten-dollar keyboard and bar mitzvah rhythm presets, was, quite simply, without precedent. The sounds made possible by such a setup, while certainly limited, were limited in a way different than those of the traditional rock band, and when combined with a propensity for continuous improvisation, led to a series of discrete songs-cum-ideas. Intentionally repetitive, supremely minimal, and lyrically punchy, they helped draw up the punk blueprint used by bands like the Ramones in years to come.
A song such as the Ramones’ “Beat on the Brat,” however, is ultimately incomparable with a Suicide classic like the ten-minute “Frankie Teardrop”—at least beyond certain formal parallels. While the former’s verse is (as one would expect) “beat on the brat with a baseball bat,” the latter tells the story of a disconsolate, 20-year-old factory worker who loses his job and kills his family, and finally, himself. With Vega’s contorted screams punctuated by a rapid, heartbeat drum line, “Frankie Teardrop” is, for lack of a better word, haunting. Nevertheless, it’s not necessarily any “better” than “Beat on the Brat.” It’s just different—it occupies a separate space.
This was a space of self-styled art more so than it was “pop,” although Suicide definitely did bridge the two. The art/pop schism was one that would come to determine punk in the ‘70s and ‘80s—the favorite anecdote being that, on their joint European tour, the Talking Heads woke up early to go to the museums, while the Ramones complained about the continent’s lack of cheeseburgers. It wasn’t so much an emotional divide, to my understanding; instead, the “schism” was merely a useful metaphor for a number of bands cropping up along different themes. Take the New York Dolls, for example, a band that emerged shoulder-to-shoulder with Suicide from the Mercer Arts scene, albeit with an entirely different aesthetic—the glitter and glam opposite of Rev’s cyborg shades and Vega’s rockabilly noir. Both bands trafficked in different species of camp, and to different effects.
“Sometimes, they even locked the audience into the venue so they couldn’t escape; other times, Vega would cut his own face to appease a riotous crowd.”
The Suicide effect, however, was often met with hostility. Everything Rev and Vega did was different: from their band format (the lack of drums, bass, and guitar once fomented a riot in France), to their songs’ subject matter and aggressive performance style. “People were looking to be entertained,” Vega once said. “But I hated the idea of going to a concert in search of fun. Our attitude was, ‘Fuck you buddy, you’re getting the street right back in your face. And some.’” Theirs was a trash aesthetic, evoking visions of poverty and isolation; a clarion call simultaneously being raised and taken up by artists like Claes Oldenburg and Ken Jacobs. Vega would often taunt and charge his booing, spectacle-hungry audience, eventually taking to swinging a bike chain to fend off those who attempted to take away the mic. Sometimes, they even locked the audience into the venue so they couldn’t escape; other times, Vega would cut his own face to appease a riotous crowd.
“The attitude of Suicide is what we are all going for ultimately,” says Ian Svenonius, the lead singer of mainstay DC punk bands like Nation of Ulysses, Make-Up, and, most recently, Chain & The Gang. Svenonius interviewed Vega and Rev for his talk show “Soft Focus” back in 2012, and even opened for their reunited band in the early 2000s. “The gestural approach to music performance as a kind of ‘in process’ art work, with each brush stroke both feared and breathlessly anticipated … a flick of the wrist might ruin or redefine the work thus far constructed. This danger and tension is what really sets Suicide apart and what I was most inspired by from the times I saw them.”
Svenonius describes Suicide as a “live-action painting.” It’s part work-in-progress, part performance art, part rock show, and part ‘happening,’ straight out of The Legacy of Jackson Pollock. This is the legacy of Suicide, and the legacy of Alan Vega: the total work of art, with attitude.
Images via REX and Tumblr. Final photo by Jean Zindel.
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