Keeper of the flame: Alan Vega 1938 – 2016

alan vega

In a year when music has lost icons like David Bowie and Prince, Saturday’s passing of Alan Vega, founder and front-man of proto-punk duo Suicide, is likely to be off the radar of most music fans. More’s the pity, because while their work remains a dark and underground collection, I defy anyone to listen to Suicide without reeling off the bands they went on to influence with every cycle of their primitive yet captivating soundscapes.

Musicians ranging from Henry Rollins to Ryan Adams have paid tribute to the 78-year-old Brooklyn artist, showing how far and wide his influence spread. But while the pairing of vocalist Vega and instrumentalist Martin Rev were early exponents of the confrontation of punk – perhaps even the first act to be labelled ‘punk’ depending on who you listen to – and the integration of keyboard effects and synthesizers to formulate that scuzzy New York garage sound now not out of place in the mainstream, their music ventured into areas that few bands would dare to tread in any decade, let alone one 40 years ago. Between them, they created a blueprint that everybody wanted to follow, but only from a safe distance.

Indeed, such was Vega’s mystique and legend, it’s only in the last few years that his true age has come to light. Most sources thought he was a good decade younger, but in fact he was well into his thirties before Suicide had even formed in 1970, and was pushing forty by the time their 1977 self-titled debut was released. As I suspect is not a unique case among Suicide fans, that was my introduction to the band.

On first listen, I had no idea whether or not I liked it, but I found Suicide to be intriguing, arresting and frightening. It had that ‘car crash’ effect of being uncomfortable and gruesome, yet difficult to turn away from. The songs themselves are minimal and repetitive, the lyrics are blunt and literal, the vocals are wavering yet authoritative, and the themes are raw and emotive.

The listener is first subjected to the hedonistic, reckless drive of motorcycling anthems ‘Ghost Rider’ and ‘Rocket USA’ (both, I think, clear influences for one or two tracks on the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy eight years later), then the lust and eroticism of ‘Cheree’ and ‘Girl’, before their most famous/infamous work, ‘Frankie Teardrop’, a bone-chilling narrative of an overworked and underpaid young father driven to murdering himself and his family.

The quiet hissing, like a field of cicada beetles on a sweltering night, sets a sinister scene as Vega narrates Frankie’s downward spiral of a life. The song has the peculiar effect of actually being more frightening on the second listen than the first. Those awful screams and sickening grunts might make you jump the first time, but second time, you know they’re coming, but when? In this 10-minute nightmare, you’re on the edge of your seat with your finger nervously hovering over the volume control.

But the song is no ‘shock rock’ PR stunt – it’s too real for that. ‘We’re all Frankies’, urges Vega as the song peters out, not trying to paint Frankie as some kind of psychopath, but an ordinary human being. It’s a track that challenges the listener to sidestep the tabloid-style hysteria of admonishing Frankie and instead relate to him, questioning how things could ever have got that desperate for him.

That’s why Vega’s work stands as not just a prototype for the punk explosion, but a gateway to the avant-garde. Later arrivals like Swans and Throbbing Gristle, who challenged the whole notion of what ‘music’ could be, make a lot more sense through Vega’s groundwork. Moving closer to the end of the millennium, acts like the Butthole Surfers and Mr. Bungle no doubt learned from his ability to dive headlong into issues rarely explored in music.

As punk melded into post-punk, Suicide thickened and industrialised their sound further. Their 1988 third album A Way of Life offered a moving, stripped-down ballad in the form of single ‘Surrender’, but the rampage of ‘Rains of Ruin’ maintained the intensity and boldness for which Vega and Rev were known. The chorus becomes more pertinent with each reprisal, with its ending refrain ‘keeper of the flame’ at first murmured, then asserted, and finally growled as the song’s thumping rhythm fades out.

And a flame was always what Vega was – changing form, raising heat, destroying matter. Vega admits that many crowds hated Suicide and their fiery stage performances in their early days, but the band would relish their role as antagonists, brandishing motorbike chains, and almost literally grinding their audiences’ gears. That, after all, is what punk rock truly is – it’s about making people think, doing what you feel like and not giving a flying fuck if others don’t like it. Vega and Suicide, together with acts like the Stooges and the Velvet Underground, were punk before punk rock even knew what it was. They pushed boundaries, asked questions and credited their listeners with having enough about them to accept their challenges.

If nothing else, musicians and artists as extreme and experimental as Vega are needed so that other music can be normalised. Hopefully, in Vega’s sad passing, some of today’s post-punkers will explore Suicide’s back catalogue and learn of Suicide’s dark, dystopian world that unwittingly filtered into their influences.

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