Suicide is an out of tune waltz created to honor self-destruction. An ode to this incendiary talent that lives in the neighborhoods with a defiant song. During a brief period, they made the word punk flourish in New York under the mantra: art must provoke. They did it unpretentious and with a unique style that influenced many after pissing them off. So much so that despite coining the term punk they were hated, spat on and attacked by 70s punks. Their crime? To be a destructive and individualistic nihilists who anticipated the future by making noise with damaged keyboards instead of guitars. Welcome to true punk.
A Tale From Brooklyn
This is a story about some Brooklyn boys and like all Brooklyn stories it ‘s surreal and street. It stars by two disinherited sons of a hopeless neighborhood in dark times. Alan Vega was a restless child, still known as Alan Berkowitz, who had to deal with difficult living conditions since his birth in 1938. Rev also grew up on the streets of Brooklyn, who came to this world in 1947. Both were slow to meet each other, but once together the foundations of modern music shook.
At the end of the 60’s, they were two guys that nobody understood. They knew what failure was. They lived with it daily. Alan was a misunderstood man who had studied art and physics at Brooklyn College. He created gadgets with out of tech junk and generated strange objects that doesn’t fit on the laws of commercial art with messages from the street and echoes of a very murky future.
He was always a combative man and contrary to the established type. For this reason, he was a member of the Art Worker’s Coalition. In this rebellious group, he organized protests in museums and galleries, revealing the great lie of the art market.
His main intervention consisted of surrounding the MOMA with barricades. But, unfortunately, it did not help him to make his way into art and he ended up as Rev, in a place created to give shelter to human beings like them. For his part, Martin Rev wandered around NYC playing as a percussionist in one of those free jazz combos that aspired to change the concepts of the genre with no luck.
The Home of Homeless Artists
In 1970, Museum: A Project of Living Artist opened. The NY city council had designed a program to promote artistic activities in the city and inaugurated this 24-hour gallery attracting to junkies, hustlers and all kinds of people whose greatest talent was surviving on the streets. Alan Vega spent so much time there that he ended up being a kind of janitor who opened the door to anyone who needed a shelter to create or shoot up heroine.
Alan, excited after seeing a live performance by Rev’s band, blow his mind and, in that moment, saw a new vital path for the second time in his life. In 1969, Alan Vega had hallucinated seeing Iggy Pop in the Forest Park of Flushing, in Queens, and wanted to do something similar. He had been working on generating noise by creating loops and disturbed sounds and, like Rev, he was fascinated by everything that was chaotic and noisy. They were destined to come together in something punk, even if that term hadn’t been invented yet.
Suicide Is Born
Once they had the noise, they sought the most difficult thing for any artist: to name their creation. Legend says that Martin Rev wrote down 500 names but only one made him jump. They chose Suicide. It was not, as some people claimed, a nod to a Ghost Rider comic called Satan Suicide, which curiously was not published until two years after Suicide was born as a band.
Later, Alan Vega stamped the word Suicide on his jacket, which resulted in insults, spitting and some attempt of aggression by passers-by who came across him and his powerful message. A premonition of what Suicide would mean throughout their career.
Like all icons, they chose a very personal way of dressing taken from the clothes they found in the garbage and in the Liberation Army stores. The result was a bohemian mix of stale beatnik and badass beggar fashion. Their glittery jackets, hats and skintight jeans gave them a genuine look. They were a true reflection of the street.
At the beginning of 71, they shut themselves up to compose after discarding the idea of using a guitarist or a conventional drummer. Rev proposed to Alan that instead of screaming, he should whisper as if it were a doped Elvis. Then, Rev concentrated on drawing demonic sounds from his Wurlitzer keyboard. Next step: A concert at his favorite club, the Museum of Living Artist. It was the only place where they would let them play for free or at least without the need for a good audience to invest in beers.
Sweat, Blood and Suicide
The result of that concert was to be expected. Tables and chairs flying, people screaming, musicians facing the audience and a great riot. Suicide was born. It would be something usual in Suicide but, in the first time everything is more intense. I feel like killing myself, Alan said after throwing his instruments away coming back down to Earth. Although, like all dreamers he reconciled with his dream and decided to drag Rev to the next venue.
The Gaslight au Go Go had a tradition. It was said, as in many places, that Hendrix had played there. Three minutes after starting, the owner, scandalized by what she saw and heard, lowered the leads and sent them to the fucking street. Their next show, at Ungano’s, wasn’t much better. The locals used to the Iggy Pop or Captain Beefheart shows weren’t in the mood for Suicide, so they decided to throw a glass at them, starting a monumental fight that ended with the unkind invitation from the owner of the bar not to come back there.
Without a dollar in their pockets, both wandered Manhattan with little effort. They lived day by day, but that New York was affordable for people like Suicide. In 1972, they barely offered a few concerts a year to tiny and angry audiences. Alan sold his works to his underground art contacts, who were the majority of the band’s audience. Although, most of the arty community in the city considered his music too vulgar.
The Real Punk
In the early 70s, Suicide came up with the term Punk that had seduced Alan Vega after reading it in a Lester Bangs article. Punk, Funk and Sewer Music claimed the concert poster at Mercer’s Oscar Wilde Room on October 19, 1972. That first official punk night did not go unnoticed and that thunderous term began to attract the public. The anger of the crowd before the strange noises by Suicide gave them a bad reputation in the underground. The most authentic thugs wanted to see the duo that everyone wanted to hit.
That wild vibe was what drew the icon of NYC music in the 70s: The New York Dolls. The Dolls invited them to open for them for the first time on February 11, 1973 at their favorite club, the Mercer’s Arts Center. It was a Valentine’s Day party and people weren’t exactly loving to Suicide. Dolls fans were dissonant with them, something that fueled their creativity with hatred and contempt.
They got along well with the Dolls and played together on various live shows. Unlike them, they had no passion for drugs. The reason: we were too poor even to buy drugs. With no choice, they played anywhere regardless of the type of audience or the capacity. Sometime later, promoter Peter Crowley signed them for a residency at Mothers, a gay bar located on West 23rd St. During this period, their sound evolved, becoming more audible and their fans began to form a larger range of people definitely away from the arty world.
During that year 75, they got a contract for a trans bar in East 4th. The 82th Club had illustrious visitors such as David Bowie and Lou Reed, although Alan and Rev did not receive caresses there either. The 2-meter drag that acted as janitor kicked them out with insults and spittle. But the spit soon became synonymous with their success. Something that attracted more people every day.
Their growing fame opened the doors to one of the reference venues of the underground scene of that time. Max’s was top notch. It had a larger than average capacity and its posters featured the leading bands of the alternative scene. It was a meeting point for some of the stars of the Warhol universe and, ultimately, the trendiest and most authentic place in New York. Suicide was a perfect fit at Max’s.
Over there, they shared gigs with Talking Heads, the Cramps or the Fleshtones. However, the people who came to their shows could not stand more than fifteen minutes before messing it up and leaving the club indignant.
The fury provoked by Suicide was a two-way street. It began with a musical proposal that in the lower depths of New York was an offense: the absence of a guitar. The public’s contempt grew with the attitude of Alan who insulted them and beat them with a motorcycle chain. Blood and lack of control became part of a new era in the city.
Alan Vega turning into primal punk, Rev smashing the keys on his keyboard found in the street, both getting punched and spit. Pure Suicide, pure punk. So were their concerts. Their first songs in those concerts were dysfunctional pieces of synth pop. Songs recorded in the bootleg: The first rehearsal tapes. In these sessions, they recorded crazy sounds from a guitar amplifier with two plugs to which they connected a box, a drum set, a keyboard, a mic, and the recorder. Nothing sounded more authentic or dirtier. Starting in ’75, they blurred their incendiary musical premises influenced by Elvis, rock, doo-wap and R&B. The dark Elvis was born.
One day, a guy named Hilly Crystal opened a place dedicated to Country, Blue Grass and Blues. However, the CBGB began to resonate in the city thanks to the concerts of Patty Smith. Then, Hilly abandoned his initial idea to shelter a noisy bunch of young artists. That graffiti-filled matchbox attracted the first punks who lived in the Bowerie, one of the neighborhoods forgotten by the NYC administration. Suicide were two of them.
They became patrons enjoying concerts of bands with whom they shared the stage like Ramones or The Cramps. Against the current, they made a room in the scene and shared nights, confidences and the stage with those bands that established punk in America. The low prices of the venue made it affordable to Blondie, Television, Patti Smith, Ramones, Talking Heads and enough youthful talent that the entire city turned to that cavern where a new rhythm was beating.
One of its most famous neighbors was the writer William Burroughs, who greatly enjoyed there. That stinking place seemed to be taken from one of his books. CBGB was impregnated with the smell of shit from Hilly’s dog that shitted everywhere competing in crapulence with the pee and vomit of the audience of a bar without a toilet. There, Suicide fit and didn’t fit. After the occasional concert turned into uncontrollable chaos, Hilly and Suicide arguing and were banned for a while.
But they always had Max’s, a key place in their history. Rev always says that Max’s was their natural home. In 1977, a British promoter came across Max’s compilation featuring their song Rocket USA and later the band’s first album, Suicide.
The album had been recorded by the Red Star label, partially qualifying the savagery of Suicide. They had already softened their sound when Rev found a $30 Seagrams drum machine at a pawn shop.
Much more melodic, they seduced the English promoter Harry Thompson who attended one of his concerts at Max’s thanks to a friend’s tip. He doesn’t doubt it. He offered them a UK tour supporting Elvis Costello.
We thought it was a dream come true, a form of recognition that only the big stars got, Alan Vega thought before embarking on that hot summer of 1978 in the United Kingdom. There’s nothing further from truth.
European punk, especially British punk, was highly politicized and revolved around the guitar. Alan and Rev, by contrast, enacted an individualism and artificiality that would not be understood until much later. Suicide was going to unknowingly embark on a mousetrap of hatred fueled by the crisis and disenchantment of those crazy years. A train wreck that would soon derail.
The first night in Europe was at the Metz Festival, where they already had a first skirmish with their European audience, nothing compared to what happened at their concert at Edinburgh. On July 31, 78, some high-spirited Scots hallucinated with those noises that reminded them of melodies from series B movies of the 1950s. Their aesthetics, the chain on Alan’s shoulder and their provocative attitude unleashed insults, punches and whistling that lasted until Elvis Costello appeared.
In July, they joined the Clash’s On Parole Tour. Alan appeared on stage in a shiny jacket at the first concert of their new tour. The silence was followed by insults. To which Alan Vega replied: Never drink the pee of a guy from Glasgow. The following minutes elapsed between the flight of chairs, attempts of aggression and the throwing of an ax that flew in the direction of the stage and that miraculously did not hit anyone’s skull.
Meanwhile, Suicide continued their business. Alan, out of his wits, amused himself by causing chaos with provocative phrases and self-injury. The Clash had to appear to calm things down successfully. Despite this, Joe Strummer was arrested after the concert.
That was just a warm-up for the Battle of Aberdeen. 800 people waited in the Kinema Ballroom around a stage that was at the same height as the audience. Around them was filmmaker Jack Hazan, who will use the material for his film Rude Boy, and a team from Scottish ITV.
The show would be broadcast live throughout the country. What the Scottish TV didn’t know was that the broadcast was going to be cut by the massive launch of bottles and the arrival of dozens of ambulances to treat several injured by multiple cuts. But the concert for which this incredible tour went down in history took place in Belgium a few weeks before the start of their tour with The Clash. It happened in Brussels.
For some reason that night the public’s reaction was even more violent to that sound, those provocations from Alan and that contained anger. The usual spitting and insults were joined by a funny man who took the mic from Vega when they were just singing the first song. Alan Vega reacted to the hesitant audience by calling him Elvis with the following words that lift spirits: We are just a band of poor musicians, like any of you. We’d like to get our mic back, otherwise the show can’t go on. Please. Ah fuck you, man!
The concert resumed with a new microphone and Alan performing his songs a cappella. At that moment, a massive disturbance began that was captured on audio and added to their first album, which only had 32 minutes recorded. The riots lasted 23 minutes and the police intervention with tear gas left everyone bruised. Suicide returned to NYC after the summer, and like every end of the summer, they were a return to routine.
The Start Of The Icon
They took refuge in those venues where they could close the doors to avoid their followers could escape from the violence unleashed in places like Max’s, CBGB, Club 37 or Hurrah’s. Despite having caused a great impact in the UK, the fact of being the opening act relegated them from the spotlight and they return to the mud they liked so much.
After the tour, they faded into a punk scene that didn’t claim them but was clearly influenced by them. They shut themselves up again to rehearse and play. In 79, they recorded their single Dream Baby Dream, which would not appear on any of their albums because it did not pass the selection by the record label. Time took the executives’ reason. Bruce Springsteen added it to the repertoire of his 2005 tour and recorded it three years later. Another great artist like Neneh Cherry also covered it in 2012.
During 1980, they released their second album, which went unnoticed. In Suicide: Alan Vega and Martin Rev they open up to new melodies and more careful productions without losing an iota of their charm, but they had left behind that anger that had led them to be an icon of the underground.
In the 80s, they continued to publish live albums and new material such as A way of life in 1988 and Why be blue already in 92, although they would never be the same psychotic savages of the 70s.
Alan took refuge in his art and in his solo career with 11 albums, premiered in 1981 with Collision Drive. He also collaborated during the following decades with people like Ocasek, Ministry’s Al Jorgensen or Lydia Lunch. Rev got into electronic music that would explode in the 80s. He has also been a producer for bands like Raveonettes, who freaked out with his work on the album Pretty in Black.
Say Goodbye to Alan Vega
In 1992, they decided to take a break from a decade that lasted until the publication of their album American Supreme in 2002. Sales and the impact of this long-awaited comeback were low. Which led to his followers only being able to enjoy Suicide a few times.
In 2005, they shot a documentary about their fast-paced lives, where they made it clear that they hadn’t changed a bit in their punk attitude towards life. Suicide No Compromise was shot by David Nobaht. Three years later, different vinyls and EPs were released, compiling Alan’s work in tribute to his 70th anniversary. He suffered a heart attack in 2012 but lived long enough to finish his posthumous album, It, which would be released in 2017.
Alan left, calm for the first time in his life, sure that he had lived a life worth telling. He died in his sleep and with him went a part of NYC that nobody wanted to tell. He used to say: I’ll never retire, it’s in my blood. I will die dancing. I will die right on stage.
Although the spotlights eluded them, their music enlightened dozens of bands and pioneered a concept and a sound that would illuminate a future based on individualism and electronic music. The list of Suicide influenced bands includes legends like Daft Punk, Joy Division, New Order, Nick Cave, Depeche Mode, Soft Cell, Ultavox, Massive Attack, Aphex Twin, Dead Kennedys or Radiohead.
Suicide is an almost forgotten band that deserves to vindicate itself for all those songs full of uncontrolled rage and disenchantment that summarize the rebellion so well. In an era like the present, Suicide continues to be a benchmark for the neighborhood rebellious culture that faces harsh realities and prejudices. Real punks never die.
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