CAREFUL WITH THAT AXE, ALAN: The “Insane Gospel” of Alan Vega

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“Thanks, baby”: In 2008, the iconic Suicide frontman was on the phone and raring to go at it with the future BLURT editor: a tribute to the recently-deceased artist and provocateur.

BY FRED MILLS

“No one believed the story about the axe!”

Alan Vega, on the phone from his home in New York City, is chortling loudly. And with his New York accent and rapid-fire delivery, Vega is a natural raconteur, although given his audience-baiting legacy with electro-punks Suicide, perhaps provocateur terrible is a better title. It was July 24, 2008, and I was talking to him for Magnet magazine, where I was an associate editor, the occasion of our conversation being the release of a pair of Suicide-related artifacts. (The original Magnet story, which you can read HERE, ran around 500 words, although the interview itself lasted nearly and hour and transcribed at nearly 3,000.)

Vega was instantly “on”—ready to talk, and, let’s face it, ready to promote, so there was some well-worn material we covered that he already had answers for. You can compare our conversation below with what was published here at BLURT in an interview conducted by another writer around the same time. But at other points, he definitely seemed less like the artist in promotional mode, and more like the eternal rock fan, simultaneously aware of his place in the proverbial pantheon but still in awe, and appreciative, of the fact that he’d somehow landed in that same pantheon that housed his heroes. Plus, like a true rock ‘n’ roll warhorse, he still loved telling tales of life in the trenches.

“I was on a solo tour, maybe 1985,” Vega continued. “I’d been telling the band this story, but no one believed me. At the end of this show, the Jesus And Mary Chain guys came in and say, ‘Oh yeah, we were at the show in Edinburgh when the axe came flying by your head.’ All the guys in my band’s jaws dropped.”

Vega laughed again. At a safe distance of three decades, he could afford to, although during Suicide’s ascent, being onstage was no laughing matter; the sheer hostility emanating from the crowd and the projectiles launched at Vega and bandmate Martin Rev ensured that.

Vega

Suicide—Rev on minimalist keyboards and drum machine; Vega on Elvis-from-hell vocals; everything draped in thick, claustrophobic sheets of reverb and echo—arguably birthed the modern-day synth-rock movement, although it should be duly noted that the Suicide’s influences were decidedly proto-punk (thing Stooges and MC5), so let’s not blame the band for the subsequent likes of Depeche Mode and Duran Duran. The two helped write the book on electronics-infused rock, channeling elements of punk, garage, and rockabilly and ramming them through a minimalist, pulsing/huffing—though still melodic—sieve of synth-powered noise.

The duo formed in 1970, prowling the same grimy-artsy Manhattan scene that spawned the New York Dolls. With its 1977 self-titled debut, released by the NYC label Red Star, whose founder, Marty Thau, was one of the original record biz mavericks, Suicide was ready to take on the world.

Literally so—as Live 1977-1978 (Blast First Petite) attests. Thirteen Suicide shows spread across six CDs are featured in this limited-to-3,000-copies box, and though the recordings are crude (sourced from audience tapes), the negative energy that cycled between Vega and Rev—both in full provocateur mode, per my note above—and audience is startling, particularly during the gigs in the summer of ’78 that found Suicide opening for Elvis Costello and the Clash. Don’t forget to duck, lads; as the booklet’s liner notes helpfully outline, that’s the sound of a pint glass being hoisted directly toward the stage. Axe optional.

Punks, it seems, didn’t take kindly to a guitar-less duo whose singer taunted them and beat the stage with chains. No, not the kind you wear around your neck for decoration. Real chains.

“I would get so wired and adrenalized,” said Vega. “You hear about those crazy dances Indians would do, how they’d go into these trancelike states? I used to cut myself, too; a little blood would get into your sweat, then it would look like a lot of blood. In a way, it quelled the riot that was about to happen: ‘Wait a minute, this guy’s fucking nuts!’”

At the moment, when I was interviewing Vega, Suicide was in a period of dormancy; the singer, who had been releasing solo projects on and off since the early ‘80s, was working on a solo record that he described would be “insane gospel.” But concurrent with the live box, Blast First also launched an elaborate Suicide tribute project: Each month for two years, a limited-edition 10-inch EP to be released featuring artists (such as Bruce Springsteen, Peaches, Spiritualized, Primal Scream, The Horrors, Lydia Lunch, LIARS, and Grinderman) covering Suicide, plus a previously unreleased Rev/Vega rarity.

The 70-year-old singer was pleased, but circumspect about the tributes. “I get called an icon a lot. I want to go, ‘Wait a minute, don’t they do that with guys who are dead? Did I fucking die and everybody forgot to tell me?’”

To say that Vega was an icon barely scratches the surface. And as anyone now reading this knows, he has fucking died, on July 16, at the age of 78. Nobody’s forgetting to tell anyone, though, and he looms even larger.

According to the New York Times, “His death was announced in a statement from his family posted by the musician Henry Rollins, a longtime friend. The statement said he died in his sleep but did not say where he died or specify a cause. Mr. Vega had a stroke in 2012, but had continued to work as a visual artist… Mr. Vega had exhibitions of his art in France and New York. And last year the Invisible-Exports gallery on the Lower East Side presented what it said was his first full exhibition of new work since 1983.”

The tributes have poured forth in the wake of his death. Among them was one from Rollins, whose grassroots indie label Infinite Zero reissued several Vega solo projects in the ‘90s. Rollins told Billboard, in part:

“Alan was an unceasing creative force: so many records, books, gallery shows and performances all over the world. Until the end of his life, he was blazing away. Five decades of output: Match it. Springsteen encored with Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” on tour. Springsteen probably won’t be covering any of your songs. Ever. Selfishly, I must tell you this: Alan was my friend. He was a lesson in integrity, courage and humanity. I loved him dearly. I can’t explain how much I miss him.”

Rollins also paid tribute to Vega in a Pitchfork interview published earlier this week. There was also Pearl Jam, which covered Suicide’s classic “Dream Baby Dream” last weekend at a Canadian music festival; and Bruce Springsteen, who offered a eulogy at his official website and his Facebook page a few days ago, and that was followed by him doing his patented cover of “Dream Baby Dream” Wednesday night (July 21) to open his Horsens, Denmark, concert. (The Boss also had worked part of the song into his own “Drive All Night” on July 17 in Rome.) Springsteen wrote:

 “Over here on E Street, we are saddened to hear of the passing of Alan Vega, one of the great revolutionary voices in rock and 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.”

Certainly one measure of an artist’s influence are the other artists who have tipped their hats via covers. There’s Springsteen, of course, and also the Rollins Band, of course, cut a version of “Ghost Rider” for the soundtrack to the 1994 film The Crow, and “Ghost Rider” has been revisited by everyone from The Gories, M.I.A., the Horrors, and LCD Soundsystem, and both Neneh Cherry and Savages have recorded “Dream Baby Dream.” Worth additional note: Light In the Attic/Munster recently reissued the album Cubist Blues originally cut in ’94 by Vega, Alex Chilton and Ben Vaughn; go HERE to read our review.

I myself was lucky enough to see part of a Suicide performance in the early ‘80s (my memory is hazy). More recently, in the fall of 2011, Vega and Rev descended upon Asheville, NC, to take part in the then-annual Moogfest electronica festival, and yours truly along with fellow Suicide enthusiast Steven Rosen were in attendance to be summarily blown away.

From our report:

“Late that night, Suicide took the stage at the Orange Peel club for a fiery, no-nonsense and angry play-through of their first album, 1977’s Suicide. The muscular Martin Rev, standing by his synth and looking revved up, commanded his droning, buzzingly ominous electronic music with proud authority, stalking around stage between songs like he’d just dunked a game-winning three-pointer.

“Vocalist Alan Vega, for his part, stomped and swayed like he’d been bitten by something painful and was about to fall over. And when someone in the crowd gave him a requested cigarette (a violation of the no-smoking policy), he puffed so voraciously and defiantly it was scary—like a dying man’s last wish. But he howled, exclaimed, and chanted the lyrics with the kind of punk authority that’s now folkloric.

“After “Rocket USA,” with its cautionary refrain, “It’s 1977/Whole country’s doing a fix/It’s doomsday, doomsday,” he shouted in complaint, “And look at the country now.” His meaning, one presumes, is that it’s only gotten worse with time. But Suicide’s music only has gotten better.”

Thank you, Alan Vega, for that performance, and also for one of my more memorable conversations with one of my heroes back in the day. Thank you, too, for keeping the faith all the way to the end. Long may you howl.

Below, read the complete unpublished transcript of my 2008 interview.

BLURT: I pulled out my copy of the first Suicide album the other day and realized I had a test pressing – I don’t even know how I got that now.

ALAN VEGA: That’s crazy man! I’ve heard Suicide records going for 200 dollars over in Europe and Asia. Hang on to that thing, it’s probably worth something.

 

You’ve probably got a box of those Red Star records under your bed, right?

Oh no, I wish I did! In those days they used to give you a box of 25 vinyls, but of course everybody wanted one so I handed them out and handed them out until I only had one or two of my own! Now I’m kicking myself…

 

Listening to the new Suicide live box really brings into focus how chaotic and confrontational the early gigs were. Were you surprised when you revisited the tapes? What memories came back?

Those were the most memorable days of my life. So intense. The whole thing was insanity. Listening to them was painful in a way. Musically and artistically I’ve advanced so much further than where I was then; I’m so into what I’m doing now. And then you hear this stuff and it’s like a retro view of your life. It’s like when I look at old pictures of me from that era or the ‘80s: what was I thinking about, some of these costumes — why was I wearing them?!? But at the time it all seemed so “right” to do, you know? Playing the game, in the uniform of a rocker or something.

 

Can you think back to what you were feeling or thinking when all this was going on, stuff being thrown at you onstage? Fear, anger…?

I dunno if “fear” is the right word, but I used to tell Marty, “Am I gonna die tonight?” For the first 15 years, every show, I thought I was gonna get killed. But you went out there so adrenalized, I love/hated it. I loved those reactions we were getting. Marty and I were trying to get those reactions. We were provocateurs.

 

Like a circle of negative energy that keeps looping.

Yeah, and I felt so enveloped in the music it was like a religious experience going out there. I would get so wired and adrenalized that… you felt you were gonna die [laughs] but there was also something about you that was, nahh, it’s gonna be all right. I felt that something was protecting me somehow. Which was pretty amazing because you had everything on the planet thrown at us. Yeah, I got hurt. I dunno, though, it’s really hard to explain. You hear about those crazy dances Indians would do. They’d get liquored up and go into these trancelike states. I think with the music and the newness of it all, I felt totally liberated. I felt free, like I was doing what I wanted to be doing to the full hilt.

 

With an axe spinning past your head…

Yeah, with an axe going past it! No one believed the story about the axe for years. [laughs] I was on an Alan Vega tour, maybe about ’85, and I’d been telling my band about the time an axe went flying past my head like I was in a 3-D cowboys and Indians movie with arrows and knives flying past. No one believed me. So we were doing this show in Liverpool or Leeds, and at the end of the show the Jesus & Mary Chain came in and they say [in fake Scottish accent], “Oh yeah, we were at that show in Edinburgh when the axe came flying by your head!” And all the guys in the band’s jaws dropped!

Like I’m saying, everything you can name – axes, bottles, tables, money, shards of broken glass.

 

But at the same time you’re slamming a chain against the stage, too, so you’re kind of inviting this behavior too, right?

Yeah, inviting it, but also to cool it. I used to cut myself too, not much, but a little blood would get into your sweat and then it would look like a lot of blood was flowing from your arms or face. And people see a little blood they’d stop in their tracks. There’d be the chain, and the cutting, and they’d stop in their tracks. I figured out what they were saying: “Wait a minute, this guy’s so fucking nuts,  there’s nothing we can do to him!” So in a way it cooled them out, quelled the riot that was about to happen. “He’s crazy! What are we gonna do to him?”

 

At what point did this change? It’s funny how the whole punk DIY aesthetic still had this rigidity and conformity build in: “Oh, they don’t have guitar or drums, they aren’t cool…” But at some point people finally had to give you some respect, right?

I’ll tell ya this funny story. [In 1978] first we started out on that Elvis Costello tour, on the Continent, then we went to England and thought it was gonna get better because it was with the Clash. Turns out it got worse. We went from the frying pan right into the fire. It was crazy days in England, the National Front situation, etcetera. Then Suicide had a tour of our own, seven or eight shows as headliners, Wales, Scotland, England. The very first show was in Edinburgh and we were in this old ballroom, a big disco ballroom. It had one of those mirror balls. About a thousand people, and it was dark so you couldn’t see the people. We started playing, and it was like the third or fourth song. I see the people starting to move, so I go back and tell Marty, “Watch out. Incoming at two o’clock. It’s about to start. Here comes the riot.” And the light went on [the disco ball], boom — and everybody’s dancing!

I got back to Marty: “Marty, it’s done. I’m finished. I have no job anymore.” [laughs]

 

“What am I doing wrong here?”

Yeah! “What am I doing wrong? They’re dancing!” So we kinda found out we had more fans than we thought in the UK and Europe. What it was would be [on the Clash tour] was all these skinheads at the front of the stage, and the Teddy Boys behind them, with the punks pushed to the back, so our fans never had an opportunity to show their respect or whatever. But when we had our own tour, they were coming out like crazy. Bands that went on to become Soft Cell, Haircut 100, etcetera. Every night in the dressing room it was packed. So that’s when I began to realize that there were fans out there for us.

 

Of course a year later you’re opening for the Cars on big stages in front of thousands of people…

Oh yeah! L.A., Providence, Hartford… you never heard a roar of boos—it was like an ocean, a wave of 18,000 people booing you. It was awful—no, it wasn’t awful. I loved it! But we come back to the States, open for the Cars, and… America was never one to buy into Suicide.

 

You had your fans here though. One of them in particular: Bruce Springsteen. He’d talked you up in the press. And years later he’s on the Devils & Dust tour covering your “Dream Baby Dream.” A great version. I bet most of his audience thought it was some obscure Springsteen original.

I got kidnapped to go to Bridgeport to see him. He invited me up. Some guys from D*Generation that I know and were friendly with him. I hadn’t seen him since about 1981 when we were both working in the same studios, the Power Station, when he was doing The River and we were next door with Ric Ocasek doing the second Suicide record. He came in one day and said, “Wow, this fucking shit is great.” So we started hanging out together [at the studio]. Just a great guy, just a regular guy.

So anyway, I went up there and spent an hour with him before the show and an hour after the show. He saw me from the stage at soundcheck and he came down and just grabbed me and gave me a bear hug, lifted me up. Everybody around is looking at me going, “Who the fuck is this guy?” He introduced the song that night: ‘Suicide’s a futuristic band, Alan’s in the audience tonight, blah blah blah…’ and proceeded to do the best version of that song ever. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do “Dream Baby Dream” the same way ever again after that night. I almost had tears in my eyes, man.

Then after the show, you know how they’ll pump up some rock band over the P.A. as people are leaving? This very weird piece of music comes on and I’m going, wow, this is cool. Then after about 30-40 seconds I think, wait a minute, this sounds familiar. And then it really hit me: it was one of my own songs! I didn’t even recognize it because it came from left field…

 

Out of context.

Out of context. Right. Then I was about ready to have a heart attack. Holy shit. I was stunned.

 

You’ve got a series of Suicide tribute EPs coming out soon too. Did you have any hand in getting Bruce’s “Dream Baby Dream” for that, or any of the other bands?

There’s going to be a video, a DVD, on there too. There were going to be 12 bands, singles of Suicide songs. Now it’s going to be two years’ worth of 24 bands. Bruce is gonna be the first one, “Dream Baby Dream.” He asked for a smaller advance, which was great of him. So it’ll be [the single] and the DVD. I said, “Now I can die!” when I heard Bruce was going to do it. Nick Cave said the same thing when he heard Johnny Cash was doing his song.

Bruce ended up sending us some autographed pictures, for my son and his best friend, and I said, “Hey, can I get your address, let’s be in touch, send Christmas cards or something…” So he wrote it down on this white piece of paper, and we left, walking back out to the car, and I turn the paper around and it’s his setlist! [laughs] So it went right into a frame immediately!

 

There’s an earlier Suicide tribute too, on a Spanish label, called Your Invitation To Suicide. You’ve seen that?

Oh yeah.

 

What does an artist feel when he learns there’s to be a tribute album?

I felt old at the time! [laughing] I was old anyway, but then I really felt it! Every time these words like “tribute” or “icon” are used, I get called an icon a lot, I want to go, “Wait a minute, don’t they do that with guys who are dead?”

One day in Paris, I was down at a museum, and in [the gift shop] there were post cards, blah blah. I’m standing there looking at one of the post cards, and it was like the music thing with Bruce: “Wait a minute, this looks familiar, who is it?” Turns out it was ME! I gotta tell you something man: a fucking postcard along with all these old rocker, like Gene Vincent, the ‘50s Elvis – and me! Which I didn’t recognize right away. A postcard, man. I turned it over, it says “Alan Vega.” THEN I felt dead! “Did I fucking die and everybody forgot to tell me?”

 

Go ahead and reserve a spot at the Pere Lachaise in Paris…

Oh, that French cemetery? With Jim Morrison? I gotta get into a hot bath first…

 

Do you ever feel like retiring?

I get that a lot: “Oh, why don’t you retire?” I feel like I’ve been retired all my life, man. Just one long vacation. No, it’s been hard work, it’s rough, traveling, and people think it’s a glamorous thing but it’s a lot of hard work. Which I love! I love working.

No, you don’t retire from this shit man. It’s in my blood. What am I retiring from? I can’t retire. Every night I write lyrics, I do drawings. It’s something I enjoy. I come home from the bar, it’s the middle of the night and all the devils are around, and it’s the perfect time. I just start writing or drawing.

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What are you working on nowadays?

It’s a solo album, it’s crazy, using new technology and these crazy wild beats, these advanced rap beats, and electronics. I’m kinda going to make it like a country & western, Johnny Cash record, like his last one, that beautiful, amazing album. Kind of the mood of that thing. Maybe because I’m getting old, I gotta make peace with my God or whatever. I’m trying to get into that place—an “insane gospel” sound is the best way I can describe it. I’m not achieving it—maybe in my mind I am, and maybe I’m hearing it that way and no one else will, but… I think the feeling is going to come through. I think the future of hip-hop is in this thing too. Going for that kind of advanced beats thing, and the sounds are electronically bizarro, crazy, but it sounds great to me. It makes me feel good.

It’s amazing, because sometimes I’ll walk into the studio and feel like shit, and at the end of the session I’m flying out of there because the music is doing that to me, man.

 

That’s what it’s supposed to do, isn’t it?

Yeah, exactly. I walk in half dead and [laughs] I walk out 20 times alive, you know? Just something in the sound itself that is healthy.

 

And “insane gospel” – that’s the pull quote. I like that.

The only thing I can think of!

I’ve been working with a lot of other people too. You remember that show Paladin? “Have gun, will travel”? I’m “have voice, will travel”! [laughs] People will come to New York, young kids, and I’ve just worked with this hotshot producer from England, Liam Howe [of The Prodigy] from London. And they come in with reverence or something, like I’m the old man now. I do these one takes, one take vocals, and I’ve always loved to do that. The producer guy is amazed: he’s used to getting 16 vocal takes from a band, and he’s standing there with his jaw dropping when I go, “Bing! Done!”

 

The Suicide box would suggest you’re the master of one-take vocals…

Oh yeah. And after working with Marty I could sing with a backdrop of garbage trucks at this point. [laughs]

 

My hat is off to you.

Thanks—I appreciate it. You take care of yourself—great interview, man. Thanks, baby.

 

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