NEW YORK CITY BLUES Suicide

Alan Vega spins tales
of a terrorist rocker.

By JIM ALLEN

 

When singer Alan Vega and keyboardist Martin Rev started
Suicide in the early ’70s, their unprecedented mix of Elvis
Presley-goes-to-art-school vocals and driving musical minimalism laid the
groundwork for everything from punk to techno. This summer, Suicide’s legacy is
celebrated by the six-disc box set Live
1977-1978
(Blast First Petite) as well as an ongoing series of EPs
featuring both rare Suicide tracks and covers by everyone from Bruce
Springsteen to Primal Scream. BLURT talked with Vega about his long, hard road
from proto-punk pariah to avant-rock godfather.

 

***

 

So how did a young
Jewish kid from Brooklyn become an avant-garde
rocker?

 

I was already doing electronic music…this was in the late
’60s. And I was already into some of the German groups, like Can. This was a
little bit before Kraftwerk. I used to take my classical records, Bartok and
Stravinsky, and scratch them up, I was into scratching before anybody was
scratching. And I had all these toys that could make noise. I never ever
thought I’d get on stage in my life, I was terrified. I was just very shy. In
1969 I went to the New York State Pavilion, not far from Shea Stadium. MC5 was
playing, and opening for them was a band called the Stooges. And my mind was
blown apart. My life was changing in front of my eyes. I was never the same
after that.

 

How did you hook up
with Martin Rev?

 

I probably met Marty maybe a year later. I was fooling
around with electronic music and I was playing with other people, and Rev would
sit down with a pair of pencils and start tapping on the floor. Never said a
word. Eventually he did a show, he had this incredible jazz band. At some point
I took a tambourine and started joining in with the band, and he just looked at
me and said, “Someday we’re gonna do music together.”

 

When you started
playing together, were you aware that it didn’t sound like anything else?

 

I guess I knew that, but I used to go, “Why is everybody
hating this shit?” I was loving it so much. I already knew that for me, rock
and roll had reached its end. We talked about having a drummer: It wasn’t
feeling right, and then one day he [Rev] found this drum machine, and that was
it. Every time we got a gig, there was always a riot of some kind, because it
was a new sound, and it didn’t have drums and it didn’t have a guitar, and
we’re calling it rock and roll. It was almost like a joke.

 

If your shows
engendered such hostility, how did you get a record deal?

 

Everybody else was getting a deal except Suicide, and we got
approached by Marty Thau, who had a little label, Red Star. He wanted to sign
something and all the groups were signed, so [he said], “I’ll take Suicide.” He
really dug it, though, he really understood… Marty had good ears. Then we
started going on tour with all these bands. We were opening for Elvis Costello,
and that was hell — there were riots every night. We opened for the Clash after
that, and that was even worse. I got my nose busted by the skinheads! When we
opened for the Clash there was nothing but skinheads and Teddy boys, and the
punk kids were shoved to the back, the ones that were really digging us. But
then we got our own tour, and the first night we played in Edinburgh. After about the fourth song I
started seeing people milling around, I figured “Oh, here it comes.” So I say
to Marty “Watch out, the shit’s about to start flying any minute.” And all of a
sudden these lights flash onto this huge disco ball, and I looked out and I
could see the audience, and they were fuckin’ dancing! I go to Marty “I think
my days as a terrorist rocker are over, take a look! I’m turning into an
entertainer!”

 

How did you deal with
the hostile crowds?

 

I thought I was gonna die every night when I went out there.
They used to throw everything at us. One night I got an axe thrown at me in Glasgow. A fuckin’ axe
comes flying right by me, and I’m thinking, Am
I in one of these 3-D Westerns, where the arrows and the tomahawks are flying
by you?
An axe, knives, hammers, oh man! Somebody threw a wrench at me, in France I think.
I was walking around the whole tour with a concussion.

 

So many people have
been influenced by Suicide over the years: can you hear the influence in other
artists?

 

When Springsteen was doing that Nebraska album… I had hung out with Bruce a lot, because when Suicide was doing our
second record, Bruce was doing The River in the same studio, and Bruce loved it, he freaked out right away, and we just
started hanging out together. A couple of years later I’m walking into Ze
Records and a song goes on…“State Trooper” [from Nebraska]…and it sounded just like Suicide! All the inflections,
the whole minimal thing.

 

You know, he just did “Dream Baby Dream.” [Ed. note: Springsteen has frequently played
the Suicide song in concert and recorded a version for the tribute EPs.
] They
drove me up to Bridgeport, CT [to hear him play it live], Bruce wanted
me to come. He almost had me in tears; I’ll never be able to sing it the same
way again.

 

What do you think it
is about the Suicide sound that still appeals to so many people three decades
later?

 

I think it’s honest. I sometimes jokingly consider it like
the blues, the New York City
blues. This is what we do; we’re not putting in flashy guitar riffs and drum
rolls. It’s just unlike anything else. It’s the Suicide sound, that’s it. I
just want to keep moving on, that’s what keeps me alive, I think.

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