Saturday, July 16, 2016

Alan Vega / Suicide

Village Voice, January 29th 2002

by Simon Reynolds

Alan Suicide leans over and tweaks a detail in one of his light sculptures, almost imperceptibly shifting the jut of a plastic dinosaur. Strewn across the floor or dangling from the ceiling as often as they're hung on the walls, the glowing sculptures suggest ready-made shrines from some J.G. Ballard post-cataclysmic city of the near future—cargo cult-like accretions of 20th-century glitz and grunge. Densely tangled garlands of lightbulbs in all different colors and shapes, the pieces are festooned with pop jetsam: toy guns and monsters, porno cards, kitschy religious trinkets, and photos of movie stars snipped from glossy mags.

Although some of the work currently on display at Deitch Projects (76 Grand Street, through February 23) is recent, most of the pieces in "Collision Drive"—Suicide's first show in almost 20 years—are reconstructions from the 1970s. "I don't know, man, they looked more trashy when I first made them," frets the artist, who is better known as Alan Vega, frontman of New York's legendary electro-punk duo Suicide. "They looked dirty, like they'd been dragged in off the street. The quality of the light's changed somehow. They had this real New York aura, now they look almost West Coast. Or maybe it's the sockets I'm using—they used to come in this ugly brown, nowadays they make 'em white." Even Vega looks like a subtly cleaned-up version of his earlier self. Sporting sunglasses and a blue street-fighter beret complete with an original Black Panther pin, he could have stepped out of a Suicide photo shoot from 1975. Except he looks close-shaven and well-groomed where the younger Vega looked swarthy, seedy, a real street punk.

Patti Smith said, art plus electricity equals rock'n'roll. It's somehow appropriate that the singer of the electronic group that caused riots by jettisoning rock'n'roll's guitar/bass/drums in favor of synthesizer and drum machine should himself dispense with oil paint or clay and embrace the quintessential 20th-century materials: electric light and plastic. "Light's always been an obsession with me," he says. "As a kid I was into astronomy, always building telescopes. Later I did some work with my father, who was a diamond setter, and I loved the glinting light of the gems." Vega reckons the religiosity of the pieces, which suggests a trash counterpart to stained glass, comes from being raised half Catholic. All his pieces feature crosses, either as a dominant crucifix motif or as a small detail. "That's something I really got into the last time I had a show in New York, at Barbara Gladstone in 1983. And when the crosses got really recognizable, that's when I started to sell a lot of stuff."

Making a living has been a constant issue for Vega. "People always give advice to someone who talks about wanting to be an artist, they say, 'Go to college, get a real job, then you can support your art.' That's what I did—I got into music to support my art. Suicide is my regular job!" For most of the '70s, though, both careers were equally unprofitable. "We had no money, me and Marty [Rev, Suicide's synth player]. I used to eat one Blimpie tuna sandwich a day. People always complain about limitations, but that's bullshit—you can do anything you want, if you really want to. Suicide started out with, like, 10 bucks."

Having studied the odd but strangely appropriate combination of physics and fine art at Brooklyn College, by 1969 Vega was involved in the Art Workers Coalition, a socialist group that lobbied museums and once even barricaded MOMA. Out of the ferment of endless meetings emerged the Project of Living Artists, a workshop/performance space on Waverly and Broadway funded by the New York State Council of the Arts. At the Project, Vega worked on his art, experimented with electronic music, and even lived there for a while, illegally. The Project was also where Suicide formed, rehearsed, and played their first show.

The second gig took place at the Soho gallery OK Harris, where Vega also held his first show. "On the gig flyers, we announced it as a Punk Music Mass. We didn't invent the word—I probably got it from an article on the Stooges by Lester Bangs—but I think we were the first band to describe our music as punk." Other early Suicide performances took place at the Mercer Arts Center, an Off-Broadway theater that had started booking rock'n'roll bands like the New York Dolls. "Because of the Dolls, it became the place to party. Suddenly a whole scene started there."

Like the Dolls, Suicide were very much part of a post-Warhol, post-Velvets milieu. Both Vega's artwork and Suicide's songs have a pop art influence: the use of mass-cultural iconography. Suicide's name itself was inspired by "Satan Suicide," an issue of Vega's favorite comic book, Ghost Rider.

Suicide are now so firmly installed in the rock canon, it's hard to remember the scorn they once provoked. Prior to the release of their debut album in 1977, Suicide played barely half a dozen shows over as many years, and most of those performances resulted in riots owing to Vega's confrontational stage persona. "Back then, people went to shows to forget their everyday life for a few hours. With Suicide, they came off the street, and I gave them the street right back." Seeing Iggy Pop's auto-destructive theatrics at a Stooges show in 1970 was a revelation, Vega says. "It showed me you didn't have to do static artworks, you could create situations, do something environmental. That's what got me moving more intensely in the direction of doing music. Compared with Iggy, whatever I was doing as an artist felt insignificant."

Things got slightly better for Suicide in the late '70s, when they played support on tours by the Clash, Elvis Costello, and the Cars. Audiences still hurled abuse and dangerous objects, but the crowds were much bigger, and at least Vega and Rev were getting paid. Some say Suicide were the ultimate punks, because even the punks hated them. In another sense, they were the first postpunk band, jettisoning the sonic trappings of trad rock'n'roll and paving the way for guitar-free synthpop outfits like Soft Cell. But the '80s and most of the '90s were wilderness years for Vega. Splitting from Suicide, he scored a hit in France with the Elvis-flavored "Jukebox Baby" and signed with Elektra, but the anticipated solo stardom never quite happened. Right now, though, Suicide are enjoying one of their cyclical resurgences. They are cited as a source for the highly touted New York band A.R.E. Weapons. An old Suicide outtake from 1975 is appearing in a European commercial for Tia Maria. And Rev and Vega are currently finishing their first studio album in a decade, due for release this fall. Suicide will also perform free February 22 at Deitch's massive 18 Wooster Street space.

Vega's art career had pretty much fallen by the wayside, however, until Jeffrey Deitch remade their acquaintance. "I'd met him just the once, in 1975, at Max's Kansas City," recalls Vega. There was talk of a low-key exhibition at a new Deitch space in Williamsburg, but when that closed, the plan switched to the Grand Street gallery. For Vega, it's a bittersweet thing, having a show only a few blocks away from where the Mercer Art Center used to be. "For the longest while, when I had to pass through Soho, it used to make me cry," he says. "I had a whole life down here, 1970 to '76. We used to hang out on the stoop, jam all night—nobody cared about the noise. It's the same old story—artists move into an area, make it nice. Suddenly people start giving you looks like you don't belong there. You know it's time to move on."

Suicide (Red Star, 1977) [10]
Alan Vega and Martin Rev: Suicide
(Ze, 1980) [10]
1/2 Alive (ROIR, 1981) [9]
Ghost Riders (ROIR, 1986) [7]
A Way Of Life (Wax Trax, 1989) [6]
Suicide/Alan Vega and Martin Rev:
Suicide (rec 1977 and 1980;
             Restless, 1990) [10]
Why Be Blue (Brake Out/Enemy, 1992) [5]

[entry for Spin Guide to Alternative Music, 1995 - director's cut with revised grades)

Suicide should have been the American Kraftwerk.
The parallels are striking: both bands shared
roots in the mantra-minimalism of the Velvets
and Stooges, both renounced guitars and
groove for synths and metronomic beats,
both shared a facility for hymnal melodies.

But where Kraftwerk changed the face of
European pop, siring everything from
Moroder's electro-disco to synth-pop to
techno-rave, Suicide collided with the brick
wall of America's guitar-fixated, Luddite
rockism. Singer Alan Vega and synth-man
Martin Rev spent seven years languishing
in Lower East Side sub-bohemia,
interrupted by the occasional live
performance to baffled, hostile audiences,
before they got to cut their first record.
And Suicide's ideas found their
most fertile reception outside
America, sprouting forth in the form
of Soft Cell's electro-torch songs,
the Woodentops' hypno-grooves,
Spacemen 3's trance-rock and Sigue
Sigue Sputnik's cyber-punk.-

     Yet--despite the fact they favored
two-note keyboard oscillations over three
chord guitar riffs, and inflexible pre-set
drum patterns over a swinging
backbeat--Suicide were a rock'n'roll
band, and American to the core.
Admittedly, that spirit resided almost
entirely in Vega's mannered, almost
ciphered rockabilly vocals, which, in a
deliberate echo of early Presley, were
haloed in unearthly reverb.  In fact, with his
1980 solo single "Jukebox Babe", Vega's
sci-fi Elvis shtick made him a star in France,
where rock'n'roll has always been appreciated
more for its stylisation (the leather, the quiff,
the sneer) than its substance.

    Throughout Suicide's oeuvre, there's a
Warhol-like appreciation of the two-dimensional
myths, cheap dreams and pulp fictions of American
pop culture.  Nuance and ambivalence have no place
in Vega's cartoon aesthetic, and he constantly risks
cliche and corn in his quest for the Epic and Iconic.
*Suicide* establishes the two poles of the band's
emotional spectrum: psychosis and sentimentality.
In the first vein, there's the apocalyptic "Rocket USA",
with its Stooges-gone-electro propulsion and imagery
of "speeding down the skyway"; Vega's heavily reverbed
shrieks and gasps leave a trail of aural after-images in
their wake. In the second strain, there's "Cheree", in
whose churchy organ trills and devotional aura one can
hear the 'ambient gospel' of Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized.

Vega gets around his vocal limitations by exploiting a
fabulous repertoire of whimpers, whoops, shudders,
stutters and tics.  The epic psychologue "Frankie
Teardrop"--the story of wage-slave who cracks, and
kills his wife and child before blowing his own brains
out--is possibly the singer's finest 10 minutes.  Vega's
bloodcurdling howl rivals Iggy's in "TV Eye" as Most
Hair-Raising Rock Scream Ever; the panicky blurts
and tremulous jitters he issues as Frankie hesitates with
his finger on the trigger are method-acting *in
excelsis*. All the while, Rev's sensory-deprivation
synth-drones simulate the soul-destroying routine and
claustrophobia that drove Frankie over the brink.

     Produced by die-hard fan Ric Ocasek of The
Cars, *Alan Vega and Martin Rev* is cleaner,
crisper and more conventionally 'beautiful'. Suicide
are now maxi-minimalists, i.e. the motifs are still
simple, but there's more of them.  Ranging from the
glacial grace of "Diamonds, Fur Coat, Champagne"
and the stealthy tenderness of "Touch Me" to the
twitchy, street-punk hustle of "Fast Money Music",
the album perfect blends avant-garde edge and
pop accessibility.  The highpoints are the
extremities, however: "Harlem", with Rev's whirring
and buzzing hypertension framing Vega's
multi-tracked paranoia-babble, and the Martian
disco soundscape of "Dance".

     *1/2 Alive* consists of live tracks circa 1978,
plus a handful of unreleased lo-fi studio gems from
1974-5.  On "Long Talk" and "Speed Queen", Rev
reaches beneath minimalism and achieves a Sun
Ra-like muzak-of-the-spheres, while Vega's
brokenhearted echo-chamber murmurings on
"Space Blue" poignantly conjure the astronaut's
loneliness.  There's also an early, chorus-free
version of "Dream Baby Dream", the 1980 12 inch
that is possibly Suicide's prettiest synth-psalm ever.

*Ghost Riders* is live'n'murky, notable mainly for
otherwise unreleased ditties like "Rock'n'Roll Is
Killing My Life" and the anti-heroin sermon
"Sweet White Lady", plus a version of "Harlem",
where Rev's killer-bee drone-swarm of sound is
at its most Throbbing Gristle-meets-Aphex

     For most of the '80s, Suicide went their
separate ways.  Vega was busiest, pursuing a
solo career that started superbly with the robotic
rockabilly of *Alan Vega* and *Collision Drive*,
then degenerated into Billy Idol-ish disco-metal.

When Suicide reconvened for *A Way Of Life*
and *Why Be Blue*, their music mostly conformed
to the sterile Noo Wave contours of Vega's
solo LPs, leavened by the occasional sickly-sweet
ballad (the Angelo Badalamenti-like "Surrender"
even featured female backing vocals!). Despite a few
glimmers of yesteryear's controlled mania, the
comeback LP's offer scant indications as to why
Suicide warrant legend-status. For that,
stick with the first two studio LP's and *1/2 Alive*.

The Observer19 February 1989

by Simon Reynolds

"New York is getting dull," says Suicide's Alan Vega. "The downtown New York of the Seventies has gone. But there's still something here, an electricity, a charge that keeps you nervous... A lot of ghosts maybe. It's hard to get bored hare. Just the noise and the pace of the place keeps the juices flowing."

Suicide exemplify one sound of New York, coming out of the downtown art/fashion crossover that spawned the Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls. They began in 1972 as a two-man performance art group, with Alan Vega's psychotic vocals backed up by Martin Rev's brutally simple use of the synthesiser and the drum machine. Despite being, in the words of legendary critic Lester Bangs, "the first real IRT-lurking move since the Velvet Underground", Suicide initially played to near-total incomprehension. It took them five years to make their first record.

Like other groups whose influence outweighs their sales, Suicide were critically reviled and ignored by the general public in their day. In Britain and Europe, Suicide's strict adherence to the fundamental precepts of minimalism and monotony, together with Alan Vega's confrontational stage act, were too much even for the punk crowd. A 1978 tour supporting the Clash saw them provoking a sequence of audience riots.

After recording two excellent  albums in the late Seventies  Rev and Vega went their separate ways, recording six solo LPs between them. While Rev concentrated on synthetic, instrumental textures, Vega returned to his first love, rockabilly. "There's a lot of rockabilly in Suicide. Rev does the same thing with synthesisers that the early rock 'n' rollers did with the guitar. I've always loved Elvis Presley, but I wanted to do it in a modern way."

Meanwhile, Suicide's reputation was increasing. In the nine-year gap between trial separation and official reunion, their stature has snowballed. Soft Cell have admitted to being inspired by Suicide's combination of cybernetic sound and lyrical sleaze. Sigue Sigue Sputnik and Transvision Vamp frankly plagiarised Vega's Pop Art fascination with the cheap beauty and two-dimensional dreams of US pop culture, while groups like Loop and Spacemen 3 aspire to Suicide's hypnotic intensity.

All this flattery has its down side, however. Surrounded by, disciples. Suicide don't stand out, any more, and their new album, A Way Of Life, has been poorly received as a modest reiteration of past achievements. Alan Vega is irritated: "Everyone in the business tries to give you your chunk of time and then that's the end."

In a way Suicide are now of the time instead of ahead of it. As Vega adds: "Maybe with these groups like Loop and Spacemen 3, something's going to happen at last. And House music has something going for it in bringing back the repetition. But Rap was maybe the only radical thing this decade, a new beat, a new minimalism, weird sounds floating around in there."

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