Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Alan Vega (1938-2016)

More death (it is 2016 after all): Alan Vega of the band Suicide died on July 16. Apparently he was 78 -- I thought he'd be more like 58 but what do I know. In any case, lots of stuff written about Sucide since his death, the best stuff being here and here and here. Even Bruce Springsteen had something to say about it.

I first heard of the band, I think, in 1987, when I saw R.E.M. on their Document tour. During the encore, the band, unexpectedly, did a bunch of covers: They covered "Strange" (Wire), "See No Evil" (Television), and "What We All Want" (Gang of Four). Then, lead singer Michael Stipe also mentioned another band, Suicide...which, he admonished us, we should be listening to. So being incredibly impressionable, I went out and searched out their stuff, all of it. To say Suicide was the weirdest of the lot (and that's saying a lot, when you think about how weird Wire was in the late 1970s) was not an understatement. I was completely blown away by all this music but Suicide was really an outlier, like music made by aliens. You could break down the constituent parts (50s rock'n'roll iconography, punk rock attitude, electronic music straight from krautrock via Kraftwerk) but the outcome was like an alternative soundtrack to a nihilistic version of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The first self-titled album (1977), people, will tell you, is brilliant. And another thing people will tell you: it still sounds ahead of its time. There are a few albums like that, that still sound completely OUT OF TIME, not rooted in any time period or decade or idiom. The first Suicide album is like that. I give you two songs by them:

This is "Ghost Rider," the opening track on the debut. Look at the intensity of Vega's face. His stage antics were legendary. Taking a page out of the Iggy Pop rulebook, Vega would threaten the audience, confront them, fuck with them, and totally subvert any semblance of the normal accepted conventions between performer and audience. If you were in the audience, you were likely to be kicked in the face. Here, in "Ghost Rider" he kicks you in the face.. in spirit, just by standing almost in one spot, his eyes boring through your skull.

And here is their magnum opus, "Frankie Teardrop." Ten-and-a-half-minutes of aural violence, laying the foundation for Throbbing Gristle and everything after.

I hate the word "singular" when music critics use it, but really, Suicide deserves that descriptor. They were, to use another cliche, one-of-a-kind.

Here is a wide-ranging interview with Vega from 2002 with one of my favorite pop culture writers, Simon Reynolds.

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