Saturday, 21 May 2011

Suicide – A Humane Union Of Man And Machines

There was a good degree of camaraderie between fanzines back when we were "in our pomp" (coughs....) and planned for the issue that never happened was this English translation of an article on Suicide which originally appeared in Finnish magazine Ripple. Whilst it borrows from (uncredited) previously published interviews with Rev and Vega, if you know little of the history of this massively influential New York duo, it remains an excellent introduction to the origins and art of Suicide.

As an introduction to Suicide, a snatch or two of cheap melodrama couldn't be much worse than any other way. So, who could know what Suicide really is?

“Suicide is painless” No, it is a desperate, painful act.

“An act like Suicide is prepared with the silence of heart” (Camus) Pathetic, unverified.

“Suicide interviewed in 1971; “What is your message to the youth of America?” “Shoot up, man. Just shoot up.” Stinking Black Humour.

“Suicide is like coming in off the street and finding the street again.” (Alan Vega)

Alan Vega (human voice) and Martin Rev (electric noise).


A dangerous name – why exactly Suicide?

“I think it has a lot of meanings – you can sort of dig into the name itself and it can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and that appealed to us.” (Rev)

“I don't see the name in a bad light; to me, Suicide is re-birth, a life we could have called the group Life, but it would have been too glib and too dumb. But that's what it felt like and that's what it is. I wanted to say: The world is killing itself! The name Suicide was right on.” (Vega)

And yet, it is so easy to misunderstand. But then, what's to understand or misunderstand? Suicide. It certainly looks as if Messrs. Vega and Rev have not, and will not, let anybody off easily, even themselves.

Suicide started some time at the turn of the sixties and seventies, and it hasn't really stopped ever since. What follows could even be printed using the present tense instead of the past: Suicide has always challenged the concept of time as a linear phenomenon. The location has always been the same, however: New York. It couldn't be any other place.

Alan Bermovitz was born in Brooklyn in the late forties, Martin Rev in the Bronx. They met in the art underworld of SoHo. A typical setting, at least on the lower steps of art hierarchy: Vega ran an alternative art gallery with his friends, held an active interest in visual arts, made neon sculptures, and was involved in various performance and music projects.

Two examples of Alan Vega's artwork

“I was working with light sculpture. I used to get tons of lights and just pile them on the floor. I'd walk into a gallery, throw the lights on the floor and leave. Or I'd tack them up on the wall, and go: “This is my art!”” It was a free thing. Then Marty Rev showed up at this place, this strange looking guy just walking round the place, coming in every couple of days. For a few months he didn't say a word.”

As a matter of fact, Rev was a genuine musician, all the way from rhythm & blues and doo wop. To jazz and avant garde. He was taught piano by be-bop cat Lennie Tristano.

He dug 'Trane, Sun Ra, Ayler and Miles; free-jazz gigs in down town Manhattan clubs, jams with Sam Rivers and Tony Williams. Then he quit the piano and formed a band of his own, Reverend V: an electric keyboard, two or three drummers, a sax, a couple of trumpets and clarinets. Next up, a musical dead end and a solution. Suicide.

“From before the age of ten, I was getting hit by the music I really love, and then when I was a teenager, the rock stuff I was playing – as a musician and craftsman – really didn't challenge me enough. Jazz was the most alive music for me, but after a while I got disenchanted with the tendency of jazz to get more and more cerebral, and distant from its environment. The visual aspect, the way the musicians saw themselves performing, was going back to express African things, which was great. But there were still stories to be told about what we were living through that the jazz musicians just were not telling any more. They had gotten so sophisticated that they were going back to their spiritual roots, the post-Coltrane back-to-the-tribe thing. What Alan and me were living in had still to be expressed, and the only way to express it was through a sound theatre, which meant lyrics, a story, characters.”

“Music is like a visual thing. When you listen to music you visualise like a movie or something. We just decided to build a music around certain characters. The kind of people we ran into on the street and so on” (Vega)

Rev and Vega were certainly not the only artists in New York who decided to unite their creative powers:

“A lot of those artists' bands were terrible but they got around because they had a conceptual framework. Real talents never think about that do they? Pollock never sat around thinking about splashing. One day he woke up and went splash...actually, the whole performance art thing came after we were doing our first gigs. I never thought of it as art, I just thought of I as rock'n'roll. We were just rock'n'rolling. We were just doing what we were doing. It had no framework to it; we were just being who we were” (Vega)

Art farts toying with rock music, a trendy noise? Typical decadence of the New York school. Social rejects playing with hard drugs? No, more like an antidote. Avant garde? Not any more than just rock'n'roll. A two-man group out of social necessity and the irony of rock'n'roll? Maybe.

First there was a guitar player, but finally only the important remained. Vega's singing, talking, screaming, ranting and whispering. Rev's Vox Continental keyboard, rhythm box, space echo and amps.

The first show at Ungano's night club in '71; one half of the audience of 20 run out screaming during the first set. The shows were very free in form, and the sets could last 15 minutes or two hours. Visual psychodrama, monotony, cacophony, urban paranoia, nervous tension released, a promise of catharsis, theatre and rock. Rock?

Apart from Elvis and the Velvets and Iggy, that was it, plus Question Mark, obviously, Hendrix, Seeds, the Silver Apples, a two-man band from the '60's that no-one has heard of, who did this repetitive, almost Kraftwerk type of thing. Incredible. One of them played a thing called a Theremin or something, the other played drums. They were closer to the '80's than the Velvets were.

Silver Apples - Program

"Seeing “96 Tears” on “American Bandstand” was like holy shit for me, these 5 Mexican wet-backs in shades and black leather, junked out of their minds. The keyboard player was, like, 15: he was snorting so much glue he couldn't even move his fingers. That song is like the National Anthem as far as I'm concerned.” (Vega)

Galleries and clubs, the first bigger gig at the Mercer Arts Center in 1972, together with the New York Dolls, Wayne County and Jonathan Richman.

“The Mercer scene was incredible. The whole glitter scene was growing in there. They would have 5 or 6 bands playing in one night in all of the little theatres they had in the building. A typical night at the Mercer would be Wayne County, the Magic Tramps, the New York Dolls, maybe even a blues band.

The Magic Tramps
- S & M Leather Queen

Then we came in. We'd do shows the same night as the Dolls. They'd be in one theatre and we'd be in the room next door. It was like putting World War II and the Industrial Revolution in adjacent rooms” (Rev)

Suicide wanted to squeeze a reaction out of its audiences, using force if necessary.

“One night at the Mercer, Marty decided he was going to hold on to one note for the whole night. But what a note! I went crazy as anything, jumping on people. Somebody tried to get me with a bottle on the head. There were more people on stage than there were in the audience: I'm dragging them off and Rev is still holding on to this note for a whole fucking hour! Then after the gig was over, the manager came running up to me with tears in his eyes, embracing me, saying “Alan, is this how you are going to make a living?” He actually felt sorry for me.”

“We both had an incredible need to do something different. Rev was in to the avant-garde jazz trip and I was coming from an art trip. He needed something more visual for his music and I needed something more musical for my art. Before us there was nothing, that's why we did it. We didn't hear that sound in our lives so we had to go out and do it. And they ignored us totally. We played for five years without even getting mentioned in the Village Voice. I used to say “Hey, Marty, did we just do this gig? Are we invisible? Are we dead?”

Gradually, the songs were honed and sharpened, but they never really got finished:

“With Suicide, I never knew what was going to happen. I never knew what Martin is going to play. I'll be ready to go into something and he'll shoot into something else entirely. That makes me do something theatrically and even lyrically” (Vega)

The music of Suicide often starts with a little, single sound, a chord pattern, a rhythm. It's repeated, it grows, revolves, spreads and embraces, with the heartbeat of rock'n'roll at its core.

“It can really get tedious listening to people doodling on keyboards without any rhythm” (Vega)

“It's always tedious to us, too, and that's why it was never our intention to be an experimental band for 30 minutes at a time, and have 20,000 keyboard artists standing at the same time and making a sound that one or two can play.” (Rev)

“It has the beat, but the beat is implicit – as you go round, it still hits a higher measure, a high spot on the curve of sound. It goes under, comes back round on itself. It's like when you walk out on the street, you are hit by 40,000 different sounds, but somewhere within is the New York beat. Suicide has spaces where you can put in your own beat and your own vocal. That was what drove people crazy. Everybody says it was minimal, but it had everything and more, it was very maximal. It's just that there were holes in it. In the early days, people would bring their own instruments, trombones and stuff, and play along. Even when people were throwing bottles and chairs at us, that was just their way of performing” (Vega)

Suicide made several recordings in a home studio, but it took five years before anything was released on vinyl. “Rocket USA”, something of a social protest against a nation feeding its youth to a war machinery, was released in 1976 on the first Max's Kansas City compilation of new wave acts, where it was drowned, as were the brilliant early Pere Ubu, under a heap of musical dross.

Some electro-enthusiasts and new wave fanatics may have felt a vague itch in their ears, but was that all? Surely punk was hip in New York in 76, and so Suicide has always been hip, or vice versa, hadn't it?

“The time was right. We were making New York music and people knew it deep down, but they really didn't want to know. Then what they were living with in the streets got so bad that they began to see Suicide as a form of entertainment....something really happened. We walked off the stage one night, and people applauded. We really didn't know what to do, it was uncomfortable after all that booing. We looked at each other – really stared – what is all this? We thought there was something wrong, were they waiting for another band? Maybe they didn't know it was Suicide? But they just kept applauding and that was the most uncomfortable moment in my life. I had been thrown at with just about everything, kicked and who knows what, and now they were just applauding and I didn't know what to do” (Vega)

An artist was a punk now, and a punk an artist. Vega was not afraid to give vent to his view of the situation:

“A lot of people come to New York with bucks in their pockets. Oh, I'm gonna live in the Bowery. I'm gonna play CBGBs. Oh, I'm poor. I'm therefore a punk. That's a majority of the scene in New York. Nice, comfy people with college degrees, going through the Rimbaud thing: Oh, I'm suffering....I'm suffering”

Suicide got its contract too, but behind it there was Marty Thau, the former New York Dolls manager and the owner of a new, sharp record company called Red Star.

The album “Suicide” from 77 is even today just as impressive as it was at the time of its release: a rough, even brutal, ugly yet beautiful, piece of work that speaks of love, anger, humanity and concern. A clear spoken, almost naïve record which often trips over its almost pathetic moments, but that never ceases to get back on its feet, time and time again. It also tells about those Suicide characters: Frankie Teardrop, a laid-off factory worker who murders his starving family;

Johnny, the eternal cool king rocker;

the mystic Motorcycle Ghost Rider, an American outlaw character if anything; a dying Che Guevara.

The passionate and breath-taking love songs are scattered among violence and suspension.

“Violence. That's what's happening all over the place. Everybody's blowing everybody else away, and who are these people? They're not maniacs. They're just ordinary people gone a little berserk because life got too hard for them....we were really pissed, politically and all ways else. Rev wanted to kill Nixon, bought a ticket to Washington to kill Nixon in the White House. I had to lock him in a room for a week because he'd just flipped, this real quiet guy. Essentially I'm shy and introverted too, but in Brooklyn it's like Cowboyland. You learn your smarts. If you don't have
a gun, man, you better have a rap”.

But now, back to the sound. Rev does thousands of tricks with his equipment, not using high-tech, but using touch. Those electrically amplified sounds reverberate with life. It's easy to find reference points on the album: the beginning and chord pattern of “Cheree” resembles “Stay With Me” by Lorraine Ellison.

Lorraine Ellison - Stay With Me

“Johnny” is structurally pure rock'n'roll, the chromatically descending motif of “Che” was used by Bach to symbolize death. As Rev manipulates a paradoxically laconic but rich sound collage out of his Farfisa and other gadgets, Vega puts the emphasis on intensity, a breathless 50's style rock'n'roll delivery, as well as mannerism, melancholy, and, when telling the story of poor Frankie Teardrop frying in the fiery pit of Hell, TORTURING SCREAMS that make you forget Morrison on “The End” and Iggy's “LA Blues”. “Suicide” is one of THE unforgettable, if not necessarily perfect, New York records.

“The beauty of Suicide was that it was the ultimate pop group, but it could never be pop. It pushed out the potential of what pop can be” (Vega)

Along the years, Suicide has experienced its share of just about everything, but the first European tour was, by all accounts, quite shocking. The year was 1978. The audiences were expecting New York punk. What they got was two cockroaches. Weird creeps who played a strange noise. That's what people seemed to think. First, Suicide guested at the tragi-comic science fiction festival of Metz in France, went on as support to Elvis Costello on his European tour, and finally joined The Clash for their On Parole tour. The punk mobs greeted the duo with spitting, bottles, anything that could be thrown. Some people seemed to think that punk and violence belonged together; Suicide objected strongly to that kind of philosophy.

“That Clash tour was like going to Hell. Talk about crazy audiences. I still wake up screaming sometimes from that one. It was the blood tour; every night we thought we were going to die. The crew would spend three hours during the sound check building a barricade in front of the stage for protection. And in just five minutes, these kids would just pile over on to the stage, ready to kill us. Funny, we thought England and Europe would be a little more hospitable!” (Vega)

The atmosphere, breaking glass, raging audiences, and, despite it all, the excellent music of Suicide can still be heard on a live album, originally meant for promotional use, and on a couple of re-issues.

“There's two things that people do when faced with something new – they either laugh their asses off or they want to beat the shit out of you. We usually got the latter.” (Vega)

All that wasn't anything new, really; embitterment and quitting would have been too easy. Perhaps the thought occurred to them at one point or another?

“A few million times” (Vega)

“No, if there was something else we could have given it up for, but there just never really was” (Rev)

“I still believe in artists; I still think artists are the most important thing in the world. But if they kill of all the artists, they're killing themselves, and that was the message behind Suicide. That's why I called the group Suicide too. I used to say if I'd called it Life, which is what it was, no one would have come to see us at all. You give people knowledge, entertainment, the pure thing, something for your mind, and you're never going to get sick. When people don't have that they live in mental hospitals because there's something wrong. Suicide was really about helping people through music and the theatre. People have actually told me I've helped them off drugs because of what I do on stage. I always thought we were doctors anyway.” (Vega)

Another album, also called “Suicide”, in 1980 was an obvious but enriched continuation of the first one. This time, there are signs of advanced studio technology, more tracks, and the unimpeachable production skills of Ric Ocasek of The Cars. But the substance itself is the same as earlier, and even the song titles reveal a great deal; “Diamonds, Fur Coat, Champagne”, “Mr. Ray”, “Fast Money Music”, “Harlem”, “Be-Bop Kid”, “Las Vegas Man”. The wonderful single “Dream Baby Dream” won't let anybody forget it.

“”Dream Baby Dream” has so much feeling, it could be a gigantic hit song. Probably will be, someday, when we're dead. When they don't have to look at us.” (Vega)

The years 1980-81 brought about a new stage in Suicide. It had now gone on for some 10 years, made 2 precious albums, a couple of singles and played countless gigs. It was time for a change of method, time to divert creative talent elsewhere.

As early as 1980, Rev made a solo album, “Martin Rev”, and another one in 1985, “Clouds Of Glory”. Pretty much like Suicide without Vega.

“It was sort of second and third generation Americana being told through its landscapes. It went beyond the land and way back into a kind of pictorial, biblical, visual representation, like the way Renaissance paintings were basically taking place in the sky, not on land, and you had many forms counter-reacting against each other, while others remained solo, all in their own world whilst also relating to the form next to them.” (Rev)

Vega concentrated on sculpture and had several shows in New York. His works have always been in the shape of a crucifix.

“I always liked it. If there's two infinite lines meet at the one time in their existences. I guess like Suicide, it's two guys, maybe it's two lines, crossing each others lives at a certain point. All phenomenal meetings of people are like that.”

During the 80's, Vega made 4 solo LPs, after incendiary neo-rockabilly (“Alan Vega” and “Collision Drive”), modern urban rock (“Saturn Strip”) and finally hollow techno-rock swollen by the financial calculations of the record company (“Just A Million Dreams”), which was followed by a swift kick in the pants as Vega turned out to be no bonanza sales wise. Ironically, in the 80's, that is to say the age of dead electric pop pap, dumb synth bands whose names don't belong on these pages, have been catapulted into mega-success by utilising the pioneering sound of Suicide. As for Suicide, it has stayed clear of the stardom spotlight. There have been occasional concerts and reunion gigs in 81, 84, 85, 86 and 87. ROIR has released one show on a cassette only album. A new LP produced by Ocasek is in the pipeline, and some lucky folk may have seen the duo on their recent trip to the UK.

“It doesn't matter if we were misunderstood or not, we just did what we did. We took the shit for it, knowing there was a reason why it was happening. We knew we were doing something pretty heavy. I mean, we could empty a whole house in three minutes! I used to be able to empty a house by just walking out on stage before the music started. There had to be a Suicide at that time and place. There might be a Suicide now, the way this music business is going. It's time for another injection of some kind”. (Vega)

“We used to kid each other, we figured if we just quit for five years, we probably wouldn't lose a thing. The fact is we're not making a comeback. We've always been here. It's the audience that's been away.” (Rev)

“I can make sounds with radios that'll still outstrip anything that anybody else could do with a synthesiser. I think it's a joke. I think this whole high-tech thing is just fucking seductive. Rev still doesn't have it, this new technology. He's got a Prophet synth and he makes it sound like a Vox. He turns everything back into a Vox, that $10 Jap keyboard Suicide started with.” (Vega)

“It would be nice to come across something hot, something really new, but that just aint happening. The younger people who have a mind to enter the music business have an attitude problem, an impediment that restricts them from working outside a hit formula. The basic strength to starve, and the insanity of youth is gone, swallowed up by outside pressures and tunnel vision. These kids have no delusions or illusions. Uncharted territory such as Suicide explored just isn't given any thought. It's as if there are no challenges left, everything just gets recycled. It's that kind of world.” (Vega)

There is, however, no need to say goodbye to the subject in an atmosphere of defeat, depression and indifference. Suicide has never really stopped.

“When you hear Suicide, it still sounds like nothing on earth. There is still an anger, still a statement, just crazier than ever. The only problem is that this time around we might get accepted. There's more to fight against now in that sense.” (Vega)

“It's like working on a painting that you've been doing all your life, just changing colours and images. Suicide is becoming clearer to me now. I can hear why it was different and it's now enabling me to go back to the basics. There IS something more to say.” (Rev)

copyright and translation from Finnish: Arma de Fuego/Ripple Magazine
(with a secret handshake to a few gentlemen of the press)

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