July 20, 2016
Seasoned sufferers, messengers of imminent doom, Suicide articulated contemporary fears that have only since multiplied. With news that frontman Alan Vega has left us, Vivien Goldman argues the band’s distinct sound of fear also had a side of hope.
Words: Vivien Goldman
Here comes that rain of ruin, screams Alan Vega of Suicide on their third LP, 1978’s A Way of Life, It’s looking for people!…. His lyrics then disintegrate into a here-be-dragons gibber, suggesting horrors beyond words.
Suicide’s combo of Alan Vega, who died on July 16, aged 78, and his partner Martin Rev, is usually thought of as significant because they introduced a sparse but stormy synthesizer duo sound that laid a template for generations, from Soft Cell’s electro-pop to tough industrial techno. But just as meaningful is Suicide’s natural lyrical habitat, a scary terrain of panic and terror. The fearsome frisson of ‘Rain of Ruin’ is all too familiar to many people now. We wake dreading the news, avoiding emails to delay hearing of fresh debacles.
As the old war reporters’ adage, “Bring the war into the peoples’ homes,” has become a worldwide reality, and America is fractured by repeated police shootings of black males, Suicide’s ‘Ghost Rider’ (sampled by MIA on ‘Born Free’) has met its time anew: Ghost Rider blazing away… screaming the truth… America is killing its’ youth. Though it later took its toll, for many years Suicide brought the war into the peoples’ venues, as their gigs regularly erupted into combat zones. Which other artist was known to lock the exit doors, surely a performers’ defining act of post-entertainment?
Suicide first crossed paths in a Manhattan Art Gallery in the 1970s and jointly left light sculptures and avant-garde jazz behind for CBGB’s. Then burgeoning issues of globalization, energy, ecology and post-industrialisation that were starting to squeeze, have since proliferated. These days, things most humans took for granted – water, air, farmers’ rights to their seeds, being a citizen of your own birthplace, are under threat, and it’s often hard to say by precisely whom.
Listen to this Suicide playlist as you read
Then as now, in that mysterious miasma of fluidity, Alan Vega was well placed. Though his music was a naked expurgation, the man behind it felt easier being evasive and retaining his mystery. His published age was ten years out, as revealed near the end of his life. Either way, both Suicide members were born Jewish, in Brooklyn, in the Second World War era. Vega’s first wife, Mariette Bermowitz, was a Holocaust survivor, who wrote a children’s book about her experiences. His Jewish immigrant father must have fled Hitler, before jumping into New York’s melting-pot and marrying Vega’s Puerto Rican mother. No doubt Bermowitz père had good reason to name his son Baruch Alan – the first name means Blessing, and the refugee surely knew his kid would need it.
For most of his life, Vega claimed the Catholic heritage of his Puerto Rican mother, evoked in the spine-chilling screams at the end of the band’s legendary track, the 10 minutes plus ‘Frankie Teardrops’, in which a regular schmoe explodes and kills his family. We are all Frankie! Frankie is going to hell! Vega keens, as if serving at the Punk Mass the band famously mounted in New York in the early ’70s – reputedly the first such use of the P-word. (They re-visited the concept in 2015 at London’s Barbican.) ‘Frankie’ presaged those oh-so-American maladies – army veterans beating their wives; government workers “going postal”; schoolyard massacres.
Not that one’s trajectory should be defined by family faith, but it’s unusual that it was only when being interviewed by writer Steven Lee Beeber in 2005/6 for his book The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s, that Vega suddenly admitted to his Jewish ancestry. Subsequently he mentioned those roots often in interviews; the turbulent dub of ‘Dachau, Disney, Disco’ on American Supreme in 2002, is one direct nod.
However, ‘Rocket USA’ from the significant first, self-titled LP in 1977, already reeks of second- generation survivors’ inherited trauma. With ghostly yearning, Vega sings of Riding around in my Chevy ’69, speeding on the skyway, I’m on my way… but his febrile, plaintive grab for American “normalcy”, is en route to the ultimate, yelled destination – Doomsday!
Though often flavoured, as in the much-loved ‘Cheree’, with the fripperies of rockabilly or disco, Suicide are seasoned sufferers, messengers of imminent doom. It’s not easy, Vega howls in ‘Suffering In Vain’. Your anger is justified! Arguably, those second generation jitters helped Vega access dread for everyone, articulating very contemporary fears.
Luckily for us, even Vega and Suicide had their perky moments of optimism. If not, both life and art would lack texture and thus, nuance and interest. Not to mention hope. In 1992, Suicide cut ‘Why Be Blue’ with Way of Life’s Ric Ocasek producing; a bouncy litany of life guidelines, reminiscent of Ian Dury’s ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’. More subtly, on one of their sweetest releases, the drifty 1979 45 ‘Dream, Baby, Dream’ (covered by Bruce Springsteen and Neneh Cherry and The Thing,) Suicide remind us that we can kill off our own negativity to help cope with the everyday angst they conjure so vividly.