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Suicide’s Alan Vega in his own words

In a piece from our December 2007 issue, the late, great, founding member of Suicide recalls how he left behind his marriage and living a life of art-rock, riot and excess

Police, tear gas, a lead singer whipping himself with a chain, and a keyboardist turning his fists into a bloody pulp punching his instrument – what else would you expect from a band called Suicide? For over 45 years the No-Wave electronica pioneers made up of Alan Vega – who sadly passed away this weekend at the age of 78 – and Martin Rev, caused chaos both onstage and off. As Vega once told us, "the one thing Suicide was never going to do was entertain”. Not just a musician but an artist, Vega was one of this century’s true iconoclasts – on the news of his passing, we revisit a feature from our December 2007 issue where he looks back on his life and ponders his remaining years.

"I grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. (1) The mindset was that of a ghetto, people hanging with their own kind as they struggled to make a buck. My father worked as a diamond setter, my mother was a housewife. My father got into the whole country and western thing, I was discovering rock'n'roll and I loved classical music. I used to scratch records and play them over and over to make a crazier sound. I had a two-track recorder that I used to fool around with, because I loved listening to static. I was a shy kid, the last thing I ever thought I would be was on stage.

In my early 20s, I married a French girl. That lasted about seven years. I had a job at the welfare department, which was like Dante’s Inferno, all these people starving to death. One day, I just left the marriage and pretty much lived on the streets. It was like Dickens’ A Tale Of Two Cities – the best of times and the worst of times. A few years ago I asked my brother what our mom was worrying about me for. He said her worst fear was that I became what I became.

“I was a shy kid, the last thing I ever thought I would be was on stage” – Alan Vega

I kept up friendships from college, and a couple of us miraculously got this money from the city to set up the Project of Living Artists. (2) I was showing my light sculptures there, and this big Canadian art critic came – I didn't think anything of it but the next day Ivan Karp (3) called and it fucking blew me away, because Ivan was the man. He looks at my work, and says, ‘You're showing at my gallery in three weeks.’

There were no buyers for my work at that time. I didn't fit in, and anyway The Stooges had changed my life, turned me on to this new art. I saw Iggy perform in New York and I’d never heard or seen anything like it. I met Martin Rev (4) at Project of Living Artists, he was in this group called Reverend B but he quit when we started doing Suicide. We used to rehearse three or fours hours every day of the week because we just loved the music so much. There were times we thought we were nuts, though. We taped everything and we’d listen back to it and think, what the fuck are we doing? We couldn’t ever get shows, but Ivan gave us one at OK Harris. I titled the show a ‘punk music mass’. (5) Little did I know that a few years later punk was going to become this big thing, I was saying it like a joke, because in Brooklyn calling someone punk meant they were chickening out.

The art crowd fucking hated it, as they still do. The worst places I’ve ever played have been to the artists and the intellectual musicians. It wasn’t until Suicide started playing in front of the real people that it started to click.

The first few years, nobody got it. For one thing we weren’t entertainers. People came in off the streets and wanted to escape from their stupid jobs and stupid wives and husbands – but we gave them back their lives, gave them back the streets. Every night we'd go home bleeding. I could tell when riots were about to begin so I’d start cutting or smacking myself with a bike chain. People would look at me and go, ‘He's too fucking nuts, what are we going to do with him?’ It was for defense, but we were angry too. The Vietnam War was going on, New York City was crumbling. They tried getting me for Vietnam three times. They weren’t quite sure if I was insane so every year for three years I had to deal with that heavy shit. I wasn't going to go to no fucking war.

The first time we came to Europe we opened for Elvis Costello. One night we caused this riot in Brussels. (6) The police made it worse with tear gas and Elvis couldn’t get on, but his band didn’t care because they were so whacked after their tour. So, the next day Elvis asked me, ‘Hey Al, can you give us another riot tonight?’ I said, ‘Okay Elvis, I'll give you a riot.’ I was almost sorry, they fucked up that gorgeous place so much.

“They tried getting me for Vietnam three times. They weren’t quite sure if I was insane so every year for three years I had to deal with that heavy shit” – Alan Vega

It all changed after the Clash Tour, when we had our own Suicide shows. It started in Edinburgh. We played a couple of songs and it was very dark, you couldn't see anything. By the third or fourth song the crowd was starting to move, getting anxious. So I walked back to Marty and say, ‘Watch out, here it comes, two o'clock high, four o'clock low,’ like an airplane fight. Then all of a sudden the lights go on, and I look out and everybody is fucking dancing. I go to Marty and say, ‘Marty, they're fucking dancing to this shit, my life's work is over.’ I became an entertainer that night. 

Suicide was the first release on Red Star. (7) We went upstate to this studio that had Bruce Springsteen’s original board, the one he recorded his first album on. (8) It took two days to record and six months to mix. When it finally came out it was one of the greatest feelings I’ve had in my entire life, looking through the record store and there’s Dylan, there’s Suicide. We recorded our second album, but we never disbanded. (9) Marty did his own thing, and I had a hit single that I thought was going to be like Suicide, fade away and do nothing. (10) So that got me going on my own, as Alan Vega. I have an adopted son, Dante; he's nine years old and I get him up on the stage with me sometimes. This is the only thing killing me: I’m not considered a pop star, but I’ve never wanted to be one. I’m an artist – if I was to go now I wouldn’t mind, but I think about my kid, and the world he’s coming into and it scared the crap out of me. I want to stay alive long enough to teach him something, I don’t know what, but I'm hoping I can do something good for him.”

FOOTNOTES ON ALAN VEGA

1. Alan Vega was born Alan Bermowitz in 1938, although it was long believed he had been born ten years later – the original version of this article misstated his date of birth as 1948.

2. Vega and a group of fellow artists set up this 24-hour exhibition space in a SoHo loft in the late 60s. An edgier successor to Warhol’s Factory, it became a focal point for New York’s downtown underground art and music scenes.

3. Ivan C Karp was a powerful gallery owner in New York. His OK Harris Gallery was key to the commercial success of pop art, and the careers of artists including Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

4. Martin Rev was born Martin Reverby in the Bronx. A music college dropout, Suicide’s minimal hiss and reedy organ sound derived from his use of a cheap drum machine and a Farfisa organ.

5. Vega took this from an article by rock critic Lester Bangs in which he referred to The Stooges as “punk music”.

6. The tense gig was captured on tape and released by Suicide’s then-UK home Bronze Records under the title “23 Minutes Over Brussels” in 1978.

7. Red Star was a label set up by Marty Thau, manager of the New York Dolls.

8. Coincidentally, The Boss has long been a fan and supporter of Suicide. He frequently plays Suicide covers as part of his live set.

9. Recorded with Cars vocalist Rick Ocasek, Suicide’s second album (also eponymous) was released in 1980. It is considered a pioneering work of progressive electronica.

10. The rockabilly-influenced “Juke Box Baby” was a massive hit in Europe, reaching the top five in the charts in France and Benelux.

The interview was conducted by Luke Turner.