Suicide was an American musical duo active between 1970 and 2016. The duo was composed of vocalist Alan Vega and instrumentalist Martin Rev. They used minimalist electronic instrumentation with synthesizers and drum machines. They were among the very first wave of “punks” and utilized the phrase in early flyers for their shows. Pioneers of many forms of music including, synth punk, art punk, electronic, avant-garde, electronic rock, and proto punk. Their legacy lives on in the music that is left but the reverberation of their confrontational style will echo past the end of time. Their shows were confrontational, blasting, and uncompromising. They were so ahead of their time in everything that the world still hasn’t caught up with them, and might possibly never will. Those of us that have been trapped in the music with them will never be the same, always screaming at the top of our lungs happy in our adoration.
Alan Vega was born Boruch Alan Bermowitz on June 23rd 1938 and raised in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. His art and views were shaped throughout his early life and they continued to the end of his life. He was young at the time of Elvis Presley’s rise and the acts of those years shaped his musical heart. In the 60’s he attended Brooklyn College and studied physics and fine art under Ad Reinhardt and Kurt Seligmann. Graduating in 1967 he joined the Art Works Coalition. The group was a radical art collective full of artists, sculptors, musicians and anybody that wanted to make a change to the elitism of the art world in New York. Oftentimes they would harass museums in the interest of implementing economic and political reforms. Their goal was to remove the exclusivity of artists getting shows and also included promoting women artists and artists of color. One change that they affected was the promotion of free admission days that still happen to this day. He started calling himself Alan Suicide and started transitioning his art from painting to sculpting. His work from this period was exhibited at the OK Harris Gallery in SOHO until 1975 and was still shown well into the 80’s. Alan saw The Stooges preform at the New York Pavillion in August of 1969. The show was an epiphany for him. He saw this as something that he wanted to pursue and immediately he wanted to be the person he was meant to be.
Martin Rev was born Martin Reverby on December 18, 1947 in Brooklyn, New York. Martin grew up in a household full of musicians and attributes his learning of music to his father. His family atmosphere added to the richness of his childhood. Martin describes himself as a bit of a rebel in his teenage years. During the time period in between WWII and Vietnam through his eyes he didn’t really buy into the world as most people saw it or even the way kids in his generation saw the world. He knew deep down that there was something else going on behind it all. Martin grew up around the same time as Alan even though he was 10 years his junior. It was the golden era of rhythm and blues and rock and roll and just like most kids at the time he was in love with it. He says he got serious about music around 10 or 11 and at about 12 he was intent on playing music for the rest of his life. At 15 he started playing one nighters and one off shows intermittently. Martin loved the agony of making ends meet playing music and the ecstasy of playing live. He left home at 18 and by the age of 20 he was married and had two kids.
Both Martin and Alan were driven artists, Martin with music and Alan in the visual arts. Martin was in an avant-garde band called Reverend B that was highly improvisational. At this time the only instrument that he had to play on was a low-rent electric keyboard. He could play with that keyboard because it was available at the place he played at. The pieces were moving together unbeknownst to the both of them.
Alan was living the artist life, recently separated and essentially living with friends and living at the Museum itself. Both men were in the same place of dedication and their long nights at the museum together, playing music, talking art and trying to figure out how to survive by doing what they loved. During these long nights together their sound developed into a more mechanical and electronic way. Martin saw the merit in this crazy style and out of necessity they used electronics to create their own sound. Around 70 or 71 the musical energy musically was dying out in New York City. Clubs were closing down so there weren’t that many places that they could actually play their kind of music. It definitely was a transitional time period in the city and there was a musical storm brewing in the most unlikely of places, underneath the city, in the heartbeat of the buildings, the very foundation of the place they lived. This is where Martin and Alan found their energy and they slowly built the foundations for their own music from it. Suicide took their name from a Ghost Rider comic book titled “Satan Suicide”, a favorite of Alan’s. A battered Farfisa organ combined with the effects that they could scrounge up provided the frenetic yet simple sound. Alan’s voice encapsulated the destructive quality of the between the lines identity. They were deconstructing the world around them and no doubt the sounds they explored were a direct result of the sounds of the city around them. The name, the music, the unnerving vocals all combined when it needed to.
Suicides performances at this time were already antagonistic and full of this found energy. This explosiveness in their shows was barely contained and will become the backbone for their style later on. It was later that Alan would sometimes brandish a motorcycle chain and proceed to whip it around the stage and the walls during the performances. The energy that the exhibited forced you to pay attention and listen. The terms “punk” “punk music” and “punk music mass” was used frequently on their early show posters and they adopted the word very early on. Alan witnessed The Stooges performance years before and adopted the style to suit their own shows.
After about 5 to 6 years of intermittent performances throughout the city Martin and Alan became connected with Marty Thau. Marty was a successful promoter and managed bands like The New York Dolls, and he worked with The Ramones, Blondie, Brian Setzer, Richard Hell & the Voidoids. He eventually left Buddha Kama-Sutra records and went independent. Suicide was known to him but he never really believed in the band until he heard the single “Rocket U.S.A.” at Max’s on the jukebox. Almost immediately he got in touch with the band at the museum one night after they got back from a show in Boston. Soon after Suicide was signed to Marty’s new label Red Star Records.
Suicide had been playing music around New York for years before they had the opportunity to record them and with that practice they had under their belts helped them be ready for the recording process. Recordings for their first album started later in 1977. The band had been playing so much that coming up with material wasn’t an issue because they already had so much. Their initial process for coming up with music came out of their wall of sound from their rehearsals. Martin would just start playing something and Alan would just scream different undiscernible parts. Hard to really put into tangible music but the tracks were starting to come together and be recorded. Seven songs were released for their first record titled “Suicide” in 1977. Ghost Rider, Rocket USA, Cheree, Johnny, Girl, Frankie Teardrop, and Che. The album was punishing with its pulsating rhythms and physically jarring vocals. There is nothing tame about the album. The album as a whole pushes everything to the breaking point and then just as your about to give up it drops more on your senses. Its true expression wrapped in anxiety and pain, but it makes you love every second of it. Simple and complicated at the same time, and an enigma but an open book at the same time. Contradictions wrapped in truths. The world was clearly not ready for what it was.
After the release the American press were more than unkind to the band. Downright mean and hateful to them in numerous reviews. Rolling Stone “absolutely puerile” and of Alan Vegas vocals “nothing but arrogance and wholesale insensibility.” Robert Christgau gave the album a C+ rating and stated “there are little problems like lyrics that reduce serious politics to rhetoric, singing that makes rhetoric sound lurid, and the manic eccentricity of this duo’s live performances turns to silliness on record.” Martin has said that the negative reviews didn’t really matter that much to him because he was doing something he loved. It was theirs and nobody else’s. Except for the early adopters of them. NME, Time Out, and Melody Maker in the U.K. were favorable in their reviews.
During this time Suicide landed a touring slots opening for Elvis Costello and The Clash. When the band got to Europe Martin recalls “Going to Europe, I felt like that we finally we were going to get some recognition that American artists have traditionally gotten there.” The first show was at a Science Fiction convention festival in Metz, France. The audience flipped out and just started throwing what was on them or near them. Wooden chairs, boots, anything they could find. “After that it was like going into the trenches” Martin says. These kinds of shows lead to their infamous show on June 16th 1978 in Belgium. The show was recorded that night and eventually released as 23 Minutes Over Brussels. That’s how long the show lasted. The show started whit them basically against the crowd. Suicide fed on the energy and gave it all back. Alan screams on the recording and then the crowd screams back “I fucking hate you” His mic was stolen and when he got a new one he screams back “Shut the Fuck Up!! This is about Frankie!” The audience erupted in cheers when they finally left the stage. Elvis Costello came onto the stage and played an equally frenetic and short set because of the way Suicide was treated and refused to do an encore. The place erupted and the police were called in eventually, bringing teargas and riot gear. The band was escorted out a side door and they sped straight to Paris. “Every night was like Brussels, and a lot of them were worse.” Said Martin recalling the tour.
The Clash’s fans hated them as well, but Suicide played it off because they thought they were mainly “plastic” punks. They got used to the hatred and actually got used to the hate of the crowds and always fed on it. Among the many things that were thrown at them on stage an Axe was the most violent. It barely missed Alan’s head in Glasgow and then a member of the National Front broke his nose in Crawley. Rev says of those days “Even when you have two or three thousand people wanting to string you up alive, I still feel like I could have taken them all with one hand.”
In 1980 they released their second album “Suicide, Alan Vega and Martin Rev.” and the single “Dream Baby Dream”. The record was produced by Ric Ocasek of The Cars. The record did feature their sound in an almost focused format. Ocasek gave Martin all new equipment to use in the studio and Alan stayed as far away from the music as he could to concentrate on the lyrics. Michael Zilka of Ze Records felt that the band needed a more dance music feel but the band felt that the record the direction was not what they were about. Rev felt that the record didn’t represent the band the way it should have, even going so far as the record company cutting down on the amount of gore on the record cover. A little easier to digest for the mass you could say. The album did end up being a big influence on electronic music in the U.K.
In the years following Suicides epitomes debut and tumultuous touring days, Martin and Alan didn’t ever split the group up. Instead they both started releasing solo records. In 1980 as well as their second album Alan released his debut album “Alan Vega” and brought the release of his song “Jukebox Babe” an obvious nod to his musical roots. After this huge year for him he also released “Collision Drive” in 1981, “Saturn Strip” in 1983 with Ric Ocasek and Al Jourgenson, and “Just A Million Dreams” in 1985. The same time Alan was releasing his solo records Martin was doing the same starting with “Mari” in 1980 and followed by “Clouds of Glory” in 1985, and “Cheyenne” in 1991.
In 1988 Martin and Alan got back together for the recording and release of their third album “A Way of Life.” After that record in 1992 Suicide released “Why Be Blue” and the last official release from the band was “American Supreme” in 2002. Martin and Alan released several albums on their own throughout the years in-between recordings of Suicide albums. Every one of their self-titled releases are highly regarded in music circles and critics alike.
Suicide also played the occasional shows and in 2012 Alan suffered a stroke and pushed him to focus on less demanding art pursuits. Still they never gave up and both men were still together no matter what. The world was also starting to pay attention to the contribution of Suicide’s music and year over year the fan base grew.
Alan Vega died in his sleep on July 16th, 2016 at the age of 78. In a year that so many musicians died, his death was not as highly publicized but nonetheless felt by the ones he touched the most. Henry Rollins was the one to write his press release after his death. Alan and Martin’s influence was so widespread that the echoes of their life’s work spreads like a wildfire will burn forever. Artists like Steve Albini, Bruce Springsteen, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Ministry, NIN, Devo, Joy Division, New Order, Dead Kennedy’s, Sonic Youth, and the list goes on and on. For generations to come their influence will always be prominently heard.
The idea of punk in this authors mind has always been “freedom” Freedom to do what you feel, freedom to do what you want, freedom to not care what is the status quo, freedom to say “no, this isn’t right, and I’m going to say something about it”, freedom to change what you don’t like, freedom to stand with people that may not get along but still find the common goal for good, and freedom to say “Fuck This!” “We aren’t going to take this anymore!” Suicide encapsulated, destroyed, gave life to what was possible. They embraced the fact that they were hated by almost everyone, but they never flinched in any of it. They didn’t and they wouldn’t and because of that attitude towards what they wanted to do they are in the handful of true “Punks”. If Iggy Pop was the Godfather of Punk Rock, then Alan Vega, Martin Rev, Scott Asheton, Ron Asheton, Dave Alexander, and James Williamson were the “Dons” of Punk Rock.
Brock Smith 2020