“I think all art comes out of conflict.” It was the American novelist Joyce Carol Oates who spoke these words, but it was Alan Vega who lived them.
Vega, who fronted the indescribable proto-punk duo Suicide from 1970 to Saturday, has unfortunately passed away over the weekend at 78. His death lengthens a devastating list of artists we’ve lost this year. Henry Rollins broke the news with a statement from Vega’s family.
I woke Sunday morning to word of his death, and instantly that phrase sprang to mind: “all art comes out of conflict.” Art is not only born of chaos, it is chaos. Art is conflict. And what artist exemplified this truth more than Alan Vega? His 46-year partnership with Martin Rev as Suicide (they never called it quits) produced a body of work that is sublimely discordant-like an Edgerton snapshot of fruit being eviscerated by a bullet. An explosion made delicate by means of destruction.
Vega’s music is a monument to the avant garde, the dark, and the soulful. And it is, for me, the embodiment of everything I look for in art. Something dangerous, yet repulsively gorgeous. Something that makes you fear for your own sanity. Suicide’s eponymous debut from 1977 is as awash with this kind of dissonance as it is sounds of the future. Its severity is matched only by its simplicity-Vega’s croons and shrieks loping over Rev’s unrelenting synths and drum machine. That record predicted post punk before punk had learned how to spell its own name. You can hear its influence in Throbbing Gristle’s work, and Sonic Youth’s and even Bruce Springsteen’s; the latter admittedly an enormous Suicide fan. The Boss has not only attributed “State Trooper” off of 1982’s Nebraska to Suicide’s influence-he also covered the duo’s song “Dream Baby Dream” throughout his career.
Springsteen recently paid homage to Vega with a eulogy he published on his website:
“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.”
It might seem a stretch that one of America’s most successful musicians would have such obscure tastes, but if you listen to Suicide tracks like “Ghost Rider” and “Frankie Teardrop,” the influence might not be so shocking. Springsteen is known for his pointblank narratives of working class drudgery. That same desolation can be found in “Frankie Teardrop,” a disturbing tale of a disgruntled factory worker who massacres his family in a fit of insanity.
Suicide is an album that still sounds treacherous today. This cannot be said of much from its era. It is a difficult thing to admit, as it was an exceptional period in American music. However, I am aware of its historical relevance-that perhaps a Television gig in 2016 might not be as reckless as it was in ’77. Suicide on the other hand, has remained a lung-splintering scream frozen in time. A photograph taken with a rapatronic shutter. But don’t take my word for it. Go ahead. Cut the jams at your next party and put on “Frankie Teardrop” instead. See what happens.
It is important for music, or at least some music to incite panic. In their earlier years Vega and Rev did just that, and drank up the repercussions firsthand. Their shows bear the deviant legacy of hell raisers like Iggy Pop and GG Allin. In 2008, Vega recounted an especially perilous gig to The Guardian:
“That would be the show in Glasgow in 1978 when someone threw an axe at my head. We were supporting the Clash and I guess we were too punk even for the punk crowd. They hated us. I taunted them with, ‘You fuckers have to live through us to get to the main band.’ That’s when the axe came towards my head, missing me by a whisker. It was surreal, man. I felt like I was in a 3-D John Wayne movie. But that was nothing unusual. Every Suicide show felt like world war three in those days. Every night I thought I was going to get killed. The longer it went on, the more I’d be thinking, ‘Odds are it’s going to be tonight.'”
I sometimes feel that Suicide were the Dylan-going-electric of punk rock. And while I suspect that thought would cause Vega to roll in his grave, it’s a comparison I find comfort in. When the world cried “Judas!” at Dylan’s new noise, it wasn’t the sound they were screaming at-it was the icon he burned and the bird that rose from it. Punk was so busy edifying its defiant image that it was out-defied by Vega and Rev…the ultimate prank. It’s pretty funny, if you think about it.
But despite all the mayhem in Suicide’s history, all the near-death evenings and endless assaults, Vega remained a sincere artist, a loving family man, and a hilarious interviewee. In the same interview from ’08 he recalled the shift between being public enemy #1 and becoming an “entertainer”:
“People were looking to be entertained, 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.’
The axe in Glasgow was just one of many weapons hurled at us. When we played in Metz, someone scored a direct hit on me with a monkey wrench. I’ve still got the scar on my head. Supporting Elvis Costello in Brussels, we provoked a full-scale riot and the venue was stormed by police letting off tear-gas canisters. Then something very strange happened. We headlined our own tour of Britain and ended up in Edinburgh. Two songs in and there was no riot, which was very, very unusual. Then we started to see people move around. I turned to Marty and said, ‘Here we go – watch out for flying objects.’ To my amazement, people started dancing. I turned back to Marty and said, ‘We’re finished, our career is over.’
We’ve turned into fucking entertainers. It was never meant to turn out that way. But what can you do? People are completely unshockable now. Even if you brought a fresh corpse out on stage and started eating it with a fork, no one would bat an eyelid. Still, one of the things about playing live these days is that at least we know we’re not going to die on stage. That’s kinda nice, man.”
Vega’s wry sense of humor always peeked through his work, even when veiled with the most hideous snarl. It surprisingly wasn’t always doom and gloom with Suicide; their fragility surfaced on cuts like “Girl,” “Dream Baby Dream,” and “Child, It’s a New World.” The former being my personal favorite-and not a bad tune for a romp might I add. In spite of the band’s propensity for violence and distortion, they were also vulnerable…far more than they’d have liked you to believe. This diversity was apparent to those who took time to listen between the crashing beer bottles. For them, Suicide were a beacon of possibility; a manifesto for undefined sound.
Alan Vega may have not wanted to be an entertainer; that’s just what happened over time. More accurately, Vega was an artist. A real conflicted motherfucker.
R.I.P Alan. Thank you for the noise.