Prairie Pop: Honoring the kryptonite aura of the deceased, punk progenitor Alan Vega

Martin Rev, Debbie Harry and Alan Vega,  proving there's no place they can't look cool -- photo by Chris Stein
Martin Rev, Debbie Harry and Alan Vega, proving there’s no place they can’t look cool — photo by Chris Stein

For a man who fronted a group named Suicide, Alan Vega lived a very full life. When I spoke with him earlier this year, before his recent death at the age of 78, he was still bursting with creativity and impish irreverence.

Vega — also known as Alan Suicide — was an original punk. As early as 1970, he and bandmate Martin Rev advertised their shows as “Punk Music by Suicide,” which was likely the first use of that term by a band. They transcended the genre’s loud-hard-fast formula and, for that matter, did away with drums and guitars altogether. In doing so, Suicide helped reshape the course of popular music by planting the seeds of techno, electro-pop and industrial music.

Suicide were both electronic music pioneers and performance art provocateurs. As the singer psychologically terrorized his audiences, an expressionless Martin Rev produced a wall of sound from behind a bank of keyboards, primitive drum machines and other crude electronics. “It was the mid-1970s, and he was painted silver, and he’d have big chains that he would be banging on the floor,” recalled Vega’s friend Paul Zone, whose group, the Fast, often performed with Suicide.

“Obviously, we weren’t your typical rock band,” Vega told me. “We were breaking a lot of rules then. Lots of the punk bands we used to play with got it, and were very supportive of us, but the audiences, well, they weren’t as enlightened.” When Suicide opened for the Clash in 1978, for example, an agitated crowd rioted.

“Their partnership and collaboration was seamless and was before its time,” Debbie Harry told me two days after Vega’s death. In the mid-1970s, her band Blondie shared stages with Suicide and other bands that were lumped under the umbrella of “punk,” such as the Ramones, Talking Heads, the Fast and other groups that differed musically, but shared a similar outsider sensibility (with outsider being the operative word).

“It’s like when you’re walking around feeling really unsure of yourself,” Vega told Lisa Jane Persky in a 1976 New York Rocker article, “you don’t believe in yourself and then you see somebody else doing the same thing you’ve been thinking about so suddenly you don’t feel so alone any longer. You start thinking, ‘Maybe I’m not as crazy as I think I am.’ There’s another nut like you.”

This cracked nut was born on New York’s Lower East Side and was raised in Brooklyn, where he later studied science at Brooklyn College, though he always had a place in his heart for the arty side of life. Vega eventually moved to downtown Manhattan and got involved with the Project of Living Artists, where he worked and lived as a janitor. His hybrid art mixed painting, sculpture and assemblages — incorporating objects such as “TV sets, subway lights, electrical equipment and anything, really, I could get my hands on.”

Vega likely would have remained a visual artist, but fate intervened in the form of Stooges frontman Iggy Pop, whose confrontational persona blew his mind during a 1969 concert. “It was the real deal theater,” Vega said. “It was an art piece, that’s the way I saw it.” He had never even considered stepping on a stage, but Vega finally found his calling. “It was like, ‘I’ve seen the future. This is what I have to do. I have to form a band, take over the stage.’”

“I had already been experimenting with drone sounds and electronic stuff, just playing around with sound,” recalled Vega, who incorporated noise into his foreboding art installations. “Looping, playing shit in reverse, that kind of thing. At the time I wasn’t thinking about the stuff I was doing in terms of a band. I was just fucking around with sound.”

After Martin Rev’s jazz band debuted at the Project of Living Artists, “I went up to Marty and told him we should be playing music together, which is how Suicide started.” The name was inspired by dark times, from war deaths in Vietnam to the junkie deaths at home. “You have no idea what a terrible idea for a name choice it was,” Vega chuckled. “I didn’t think of that at the time; it really didn’t occur to me.”

The name was like kryptonite for executives, who passed over Suicide in favor of other punk bands that emerged after them. Producer Craig Leon, for instance, recalled a failed audition for a record company job in the mid-1970s. “I said, ‘Well, I’m gonna sign this band called Suicide,’ and it was like bang — career over at that label before I even started.” (Leon later took a job at Sire Records and produced the first records by the Ramones, Richard Hell & the Voidoids and, eventually, Suicide.)

“We had been around since the beginning of the 1970s, but no one knew what to do with us, and the bar owners hated us,” Vega said. “They hated us because we were so confrontational, which just made us more confrontational.”

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Debbie Harry said that, as a performer, “Alan was sometimes a baffling struggle of danger, drama, pathos and comedy. He held nothing back from us, and the interaction with audience hecklers was fundamental.”

“People thought I was fucking insane, and I guess I was, but I never ever tried to hurt people,” Vega said. “Myself, yes, I hurt myself. I would cut myself with a switchblade, but I would always do it so that I got the most amount of blood with the least amount of pain.”

Harry noted, “Alan often came off stage bruised and bloody, covered in scratches, and we — the audience — left the club in a Suicidal trance.”
“We were trying to break down the boundaries between performer and audience,” Vega explained. “People found that threatening.” But it was all in good fun — even when he menacingly blocked the exits while unsuspecting audience members tried to flee. “Suicide was so groundbreaking,” Blondie co-founder Chris Stein added, “it’s hard to convey how far ahead they were in relation to what was going on at the time.”

Vega often wore a ripped black leather jacket with metal studs and the word SUICIDE written with fake jewels — back when no one dressed like that. “We didn’t have any money,” Vega said, “so what became the punk look was born out of necessity.” Recalling one memorable outfit, he told me, “I cut holes in socks so that my fingers went through and I stretched the socks up to my elbows and had a cutoff pink jacket. That was really something, man!”
Of course, some people didn’t realize that it was all an act; it was all theater. Stein said, “Alan, in spite of his tough stage persona, was one of the nicest guys around, and was always very gracious and generous.”

Vega’s warm spirit and creative drive remained strong, even as his body grew weaker; recently, he began painting again for the first time in decades. “I don’t know why I started again. I just couldn’t help myself,” he told me.

“I sat at a table with him about a year ago,” Debbie Harry said, “and we talked about doing gigs and that he was making plans. I even suggested shows with Blondie, which of course now will never happen.”

Instead, Alan Vega succumbed to the Bohemian Rapture of 2016 — joining David Bowie, Tony Conrad, Billy Name, Blowfly, Bernie Worrell, Prince and others whose magnetic pull warped the universe, making it a little less dull.

Kembrew McLeod knows a little something about agitating unsuspecting audiences. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 203.