Suicide ‘88: Wild and Blue
I had the great good fortune for a few years of working closely with Marty Thau, who discovered and brought to the world Suicide, the vehicle of Alan Vega and Martin Rev, whose eponymous debut album may be the most significant of its era. I asked Marty once why Suicide never were big in the usual sense and he replied that, simply, at the time that debut was released America just wasn’t ready for music without guitars. A few years later, it was, but the music without guitars it settled for was largely New Romantic-inflected pulp infection. Meanwhile, Suicide soldiered on, releasing record after record of consummate minimalist genius.
They influenced everybody. They were ripped off by everybody, not least Bruce Springsteen, whose epic minimalist work Nebraska openly copped from Vega’s first solo album, and who in 2014 released studio and live covers of Suicide’s towering secular hymn, Dream Baby Dream.
After their second album, released in 1978, Vega, their vocalist and lyricist, a punk Elvis incarnate – a Puerto Rican street kid Jew, no less – went solo and, after some independent releases of awesome directness and power ,with the help of The Cars’ hit-making Rick Ocasek, got Elektra to bankroll “Saturn Strip”, in every kind “Low” for Alphabet City, a careening, joyful, hugely intense ride characterised by primitive synths, heavily processed guitars and Vega’s leitmotif yelps, growls and sneers. Rev, meanwhile released some remarkable solo material himself.
When, in 1988, after almost a decade devoid of new product, they reunited to unleash A Way of Life, the reception accorded it was mostly muted. Having waited almost ten years for the two pioneers to launch their next iconoclastic offensive, the new album seemed to many somehow lost to itself and, worse, the legend Suicide had meantime become.
Repent at leisure redux indeed, though, because through the long lens of another three decades plus, A Way of Life is by turns fierce, feral, and formidable. The problem had been, of course, that having made a debut album the equivalent of a Sistine Chapel slum of sounds, in equal parts sacred and profane, fans and critics wanted and expected another Sistine Chapel slum but go instead a cold condo spitting tracks like the magnificent drone monster Rain of Ruin, a slinky and sly Fifties torch song mutation called Surrender, and Dominic Christ, in spirit a realigned visitation of their debut’s gutwrenching Frankie Teardop, not to mention Jukebox Baby ‘96, a further iteration upon radicalised rockabilly tropes tearing up Vega’s early solo work, and the typically meta-mechanistic but totally human Wild in Blue. Sure, okay, A Way of Life wasn’t Suicide…because it quite simply was the music of defiant survival, not mere atavistic self-indulgence.
My own encounters with Vega were several, but I only met the duo together once, to interview them in 1988 in the wake of their third album’s release. I’d already interviewed Vega at great length previously, and we hit it off; it was somehow endearing when, as I approached duo and saw Rev - wearing his characteristic big shades - exude a sort of derision at the prospect of an imminent interview, Vega said to him, “He’s okay.” Rev never really relaxed but Vega was quite voluble; being in their presence was a privilege, their security in their authority and achievements always tangible but also without ego. Genius don’t come cheap, they’d paid plenty for being among the first making music for a future whose time when it came also left them curiously marginalised.
This interview, then, is the first of a short series to next include interviews with Alan Vega. For now, I give you Suicide ‘88, whose legacy, now rudely intact, was at the time still fresh and vulnerable: its guts fully formed, its shell yet soft.
It’s midweek, midday, underneath Times Square, aboard a filthy express subway train.
Amid the native New Yorkers, a tubby Viet vet in dirty khaki fatigue trousers and a grimy green tank-top is walking the narrow aisle waving his combat helmet.
Small change clatters inside the helmet as he harangues his indifferent fellow passengers.
The vet reels off recriminatory evidence that he and his brothers have been forsaken by the government that was once so happy to see them die.
The train pulls up to the next platform and the vet hops off, his anger leaving a tangible, if invisible, mark on the carriage. Two black guys hop on and, after sarcastically assuring the passengers they want no trouble, they begin ridiculing everyone on board. Someone laughs; someone else laughs at them for laughing.
And while all this was going down, I thought, This is Suicide: rejection, revelation and rancour.
Sixteen years ago, when punk was just a gleam in the eyes of the proto-punks loitering on Avenue A, Suicide was born. Ever since then, vocalist Alan Vega and keyboard player Marty Rev, together and apart, have been sweeping up the cast-off shards of declining civilisation and pasting them into beautiful, challenging collages.
It hasn't made them rich, or particularly famous, but it's made them unique — and, in themselves, an invincible musical statement which many have tried to copy, always in vain.
Suicide, their eponymous 1978 debut album, was so far ahead of its time that even now it seems futuristic. 'Frankie Teardrop', 'Cheree' and 'Rocket USA' — they all got to the bottom and live there still.
A few years later, buoyed up by The Cars' Ric Ocasek's philanthropic interest, Suicide executed their second album, another love missile the saw-toothed stages of which cut deep, showering the mind and body with a perverse energy. 'Dream Baby Dream', the single, had a religious intensity, a sanctified, sensual core
NOW, WITH A WAY OF LIFE, SUICIDE have returned. Two years in the making, with Ocasek once again at the controls, A Way Of Life is everything its title infers, the sound of a world collapsing.
Nobody does it better. Nobody does it, period.
Just Vega and Rev, the men for a job too dirty, delicate and important to leave to anyone else. Between touring and several solo outings, Vega and Rev have concocted another perfect Suicide album, one that is so plugged into this time and place that you can smell the wires and fuses burning as the internal logic unfolds.
But... three albums in 18 years! What's the story?
"It's like good art," Vega explains, himself a conceptual artist of some standing. "So many artists put out tons of paintings and sculptures; with my thing I'll take off five years at a time. Jasper Johns does one painting a year and people think it's strange, but there's something beautiful about it.
"At the same time, including our solo albums, it's our eighth album in a body of work. Everyone else would have, like, 29 albums out in that time, but that almost reduces the quality of each one as it comes out... I like the specialness having fewer creations."
"We've never put out Suicide records on a major," adds Rev. "We've never been able to just walk in and make a record, so the timing of the records is indicative of things socially — when they'll let us in. The reason we can't get a deal in America right now has to do with the climate there. Every record we do is precious..."
A Way Of Life might have been released much sooner, had it not been for the indecision of American majors, three of whom took turns making empty promises. Finally, Suicide looked again to Europe, where they've always had a reverential cult following, and dealt successfully with Chapter 22.
"It's a moron nation," Vega says of his homeland, with evident disgust.
I suggest that the fundamental, enforced similarity of the new record to its predecessors might leave them open to accusations of stagnation, but Rev disagrees.
"Most people are going to say, ‘Why doesn't it sound exactly the same as the first album?’ Everything now is weighed and measured against the first one, it's the standard."
Vega: "I think there are some very subtle and major differences. They're not explosive, hitting you over the head. As you listen, there's a hidden wall in there, a quality of sound — a lot of it had to do with the technology, too, the mixing and mastering — but it doesn't say, Hello, here I am!"
Rev, whose background is in jazz — he met Vega while playing drums in an improvised jazz band — contributes a useful analogy: "Most jazz musicians, once they reach their sound, they don't usually take leaps. They find different sides, they express it in facets and areas. Like, John Coltrane playing tuba... It's under the same umbrella..."
A Way Of Life is the first Suicide album where technology to match their vision has been at their disposal. Ric Ocasek has parlayed this into a sound that is simultaneously agitated, oppressive and peculiarly positive.
Initially, the record is deceptively obvious, but its invisible power exerts a mighty pull, sucking you into a turbulent demi-monde.
A Way Of Life isn't merely apocalyptic, it's millennial, straining to bypass your reserve and complacency. 'Rain Of Ruin'; 'Sufferin' In Vain'; 'Devastation'; they're urgent bulletins from our frontline, they're scaling the wire we all feel but few can see.
"I always visualise music," says Vega, "and this album has a sort of greyness. The second Suicide album was technicolour; the first one was black and white, highly-contrasted. This new one has a brooding, moody, something-about-to-happen feeling. It's a thunderstorm, but it hasn't broken yet. It might on the next album, who knows? I like that tension; it's like something ready to explode."
A Way Of Life is unremittingly dark and ominous. 'I Surrender' and 'Juke Box Baby '96' are the exceptions. The former is a tender love ballad that could be the spiritual descendant of The Crystals or The Shangri-Las, the latter is a radical rearrangement of a song first featured on Vega's debut solo LP and which became a French hit single. While 'I Surrender' is the logical latest in a long line of romantic Vega/Rev compositions, 'Juke Box Baby '96' seems an odd choice.
"We did it mainly because of new technology, and the way Marty plays it. Ironically, I specifically used the same lyric, too," says Vega, "although I had others for it. I knew Marty would listen to my version, and he would do it different and it would be brilliant. I like taking my old songs and redoing them. A lot of jazz guys do that, too — and it shows the changeability of music as well.
"We did 'Cheree' live the other night and a woman was standing in front of the stage screaming at me, Do 'Cheree'! I said, ‘We just did it!’
"There's some good new vocal things on that 'Juke Box Baby', some tense screams, and a croak — like a dying thing. There's some lyrics about that: 'The kids ain't dancing, instead they're crying 'cause they lost their mama'... they're new, that's the new line."
VEGA HAS NEVER BEEN A ‘SINGER’ as such, but his 'screams' and 'croaks', adapted and mutated from countless rockabilly and rock 'n' roll sides, have always been the outstandingly cutting edge of his attack. 'Dominic', which opens side two of A Way Of Life, shows off his unorthodox style to terrific effect.
The song swings in on Rev's compulsive, syncopated beat, archly minimal as always, while Vega indulges himself in a first person narrative, telling the tragic story of a homeless beggar. Suicide's marked gift for stirring our social conscience without any vulgar appeals is to the fore, as Vega repeats several key phrases in rotation — "No hope"; "Cigarettes?"; "Bless y'sirs..."; "Jesus, where are yuh??" — surfing the song's hypnotic wave.
"It's a sequence of events," explains Vega. "He goes to a gambling casino, a church, and all along the way he's meeting people, begging for cigarettes. It's a street thing. Homelessness is going to be a big thing in the '90s — it already is — and euthanasia, too, which is where the Suicide thing is relevant.
"'Dominic’s like 'Frankie Teardrop': if anybody thinks there's no tension on this record, this is as good as 'Frankie'. But 'Frankie' was about a different world, and he was a younger dude, too. It's a little hard to hear on the record — but I wanted it to be a growling, mumbling thing... the guy's going nuts."
A WAY OF LIFE MARKS MATURITY FOR Suicide on many levels. Vega claims that these new lyrics are
his best to date and, undoubtedly, his long-term working relationship with Rev has yielded some
incredibly organic, unified sounds and feelings. Live, too, Suicide have changed, albeit subtly.
Ten summers ago, Suicide supported The Clash here on a tour that was, for them, a bitter testament to their uniqueness. Night after night Vega stoically withstood a hail of missiles, the shards of which frequently would cut his face and hands.
It was dramatic, a trial by ordeal, and also terribly unfair. However, it should be borne in mind that, for the majority of his career, Vega has strived to project an arrogant, belligerent street attitude; his solo shows were once punctuated by cranky premature exits and virulent verbal abuse of the audience.
Lately, though, Suicide have been projecting more positively, with Vega communicating as much as castigating, inviting the audience identification he once deigned to acknowledge.
"I'm just trying to open up my whole thing on stage," Vega says. "Because we've been doin' it so long, and'll probably be doin' it until the day we die.
"I've gone through my cycle in life now and I don’t need performing on a selfish, personal level anymore. Now I see it as more well-rounded. I never felt that relating onstage was cool, but I've reached the point where I feel relaxed; I've been through the scars and all that, now I can laugh...
"The world has gotten worse. When I started, I thought people were too comfortable — I was tryin' to shake them up. Now they're shook up enough, working too hard in their damn jobs, doing too many hours, worrying about rent and inflation... Maybe it's time for me to go out there and show another side."
"Instead of being mean to the audience, we want to be mean to the powers-that-be, if anything," adds Rev. "Just our being onstage, playing our music, is a way of saying something against the status quo."
Asking whether they have any 'regrets' elicits some comical asides from Rev and Vega, particularly the latter: "Where's my hundred guitar collection, where's my limo, man?!?" he jokes sardonically, but without bitterness.
"Artistically we're probably in better shape than ever before," Vega continues more seriously. "One of the reasons for that is that we're not (stars), cos Marty and I couldn't work in that state. When I was doing my solo stuff on Elektra, I was close to going over to that other world and it probably would have been the death of me — I'd've been walkin' around with lunatics on my arm...
"Yeah, if we ever get back to a major label, together or apart, it'll certainly be on our terms. If they want to sign us then, there's nothin' they could do with us anyway — we'd already be what we are, y'know, the 'hopeless cases'.
"No… regrets? One regret is that I did this whole trip altogether! Doin' it again, I'd be an accountant or somethin'...
"I always say to Marty, Hey, we'll start makin' money someday if we start rippin' ourselves off the way everybody else does. Even when we try sometimes, as a joke, it just comes out soundin' like Suicide... you can't win! Maybe if Marty played some sweet little riff, but the way Marty hits the damn keys, just his physical thing: it's right over there."
Suicide have always been a protest: against mediocrity, complacency and self-seeking security. They've always respected their influences, used them affectionately, never exploited them.
Suicide have had it tough. But what they want will never be our pity. What Suicide need is heart, yours and mine.
© Jeremy Gluck, 1989
Our friend Jeremy Gluck has decided to pull a series of interviews from his archive and publish them in Outsideleft. Featuring major major stars and cultural icons, the interviews are mainly drawn from Jeremy's time at British music weekly, Sounds.
Main Image: Jeremy Gilbert