Punk, 77: At Home With Alan Vega

Photos by Devon Banks.
Photos by Devon Banks

Alan Vega, New York City punk icon, spent over a decade convinced that no one liked his band. “Suicide was hated by everybody. Everybody! It’s true. You should have seen the night we opened for The Ramones [at CBGBs],” he says. “They were late. Hilly [Kristal, CBGBs owner] was going nuts. So we had to go on… again! You should have heard the fuckin’ ‘Booooooooooooooooo.’ You couldn’t stop it, it was endless. Finally, the Ramones showed up, but Jesus Christ, we still had to do a few songs.” He can laugh about it now, but for him and bandmate Martin Rev, the 70s were pretty rough. “They hated us from the day we started.” So he started swinging bicycle chains at their gigs to overtly menace the crowds unready to embrace Suicide’s brutally minimal, sorta terrifying music, because, fuck ‘em.

Among peers, there were faint signs of acceptance. The Cars were early fans. They took Suicide out on the road and, in 1980, The Cars’ singer Ric Ocasek produced their semi-sweet second record. Vega recognized his own bleak vocal style, like a degenerate nerve-frayed Elvis, in “State Trooper”, the darkest cut on Bruce Springsteen’s darkest album, Nebraska. Suicide’s record label played Vega that album in 82, and when he heard the Boss mimicking his signature spastic “Woo!”s, Vega remembers thinking, “’Did I record something I didn’t record?’ [They told me] it’s not you, Alan, it’s Bruce. I said… ‘Holy shit!’ But it’d be another twenty years before Vega would meet Springsteen in person, be greeted by a huge, affectionate bear hug when brought backstage at one of his concerts. “For some reason I’ve always loved Bruce Springsteen,” he says now. “Don’t ask me why.”

The UK caught on a little quicker, and Suicide became a hip opening act choice for a wave of synth-punks and noise kids, bands like Soft Cell and the Jesus and Mary Chain, who got a much warmer welcome from press and fans from the start. Playing a JAMC gig at some grand English concert hall in the mid-80s, Vega saw the crowd moving towards them in the light of a disco ball and braced for a riot. It wouldn’t have been the first. “Suddenly there was a flash of light on the audience, and we see they’re all dancing,” he remembers. “So I turn to Marty and I say, ‘What are we going to do now?’ We used to go on and start a war with them, but now we can’t do anything. They love us!” He says it was the first time a Suicide show had ever gotten a good response.

Vega, now 77, has lived in New York City his whole life. Born in Bensonhurst in 1938, he fondly remembers the Brooklyn of his youth, but he barely recognizes the borough now, and rarely returns. Vega met his wife and musical collaborator Liz Lamere at a time when she was upsetting her bosses at a Manhattan law firm by moonlighting as a drummer in a punk band. They were called SSNUB, short for Sgt. Slaughter’s No-Underwear Band, absurdly named because its members didn’t often wear underwear and because they once, completely unrelated, spotted pro-wrestler Sgt. Slaughter sitting around in his camouflage Camaro. For the last 30 years, Vega and Lamere have lived together in the same building, adjacent to Wall Street “of all places.” Vega says he hates the neighborhood, yet won’t likely leave. “I was born in apartments, in a box,” he says. “Soot and water, that’s me.”

This week, Seattle label Light in the Attic Records will re-release Cubist Blues, an album recorded in December 1994 by Vega, along with producer and multi-instrumentalist Ben Vaughn and dear, departed Big Star frontman Alex Chilton. It’s one of eighteen solo or collaborative records he’s made outside of Suicide, and despite Chilton’s enduring fame as a cult-pop genius and Vega’s ever-rising punk cred, it’s just as obscure as all the rest of them. The record was a fevered, one-off improvisation, started with only a few scraps of lyrical ideas meant for an A and B-side that Vega had jotted down ahead of time. (Its making was vibrantly retold by Amanda Petrusich in a recent New Yorker piece.) “I had two songs,” he says. “What happened then was song number three, number four, number five, number six. We just kept going, without saying anything, we just kept going. Twelve songs! On the last song I said, ‘Guys, I think I’m burning up from my head!’ I swear, I could feel it.” Cubist Blues shares the locked-in yet seemingly spontaneous qualities of Suicide, but it’s built from simple riffs instead of synth stabs, and plays with the rockabilly signifiers that mark much of Vega’s solo work. It seems almost perverse that his snarl should dominate the record, with one of rock’s best wasted angel voices right there in the room. “Alex was on the floor in the lotus position, playing throughout. He was, like, stoned or something.”

Suicide’s bloody red and Big Star’s FM gold might seem incompatible, but Vega and Chilton were low-key longtime friends, kindred spirits both ahead of their time. “I met Alex Chilton at a gas station,” says Vega. “There’s CBGBs, there’s a right, and down the block there’s a famous gas station where you saw everyone come in and out and in and out. That place was like the World Trade Center,” he remembers. “So, I met Alex down there almost on a nightly basis, went out for air, to smoke a cigarette, and talk and talk and talk and talk. One day I asked, ‘Who is that?’ Someone says, ‘Alex Chilton’ I said, ‘Holy shit!’ I didn’t know if he knew anything about Suicide. It turns out he knew everything there was to know.” They’d never record together again, but the two kept talking up until Chilton’s death in 2010.

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Between those two influential friends, there’s no doubt whose initially underrated records retain the most current resonance. Big Star were a blueprint for large swaths of 80s and 90s college rock. As a harbinger for noise punk, new wave, industrial, EDM, techno, and all manner of aggressive electronic sub-genres, Suicide is still somehow growing in stature. When M.I.A. channeled “Ghost Rider” on her 2010 single “Born Free” it still felt like future shock. I mention to Vega that Yeezus, Kanye West’s vicious 2013 record, drew numerous comparisons to him and bandmate’s Martin Rev’s work. “Really?” he says. “I didn’t know that.” Though he hadn’t heard it, he’s far from a grumpy classic rock dinosaur, like David Crosby or Don Henley, who dismiss West out of hand. “Yeah, I’ve heard Kanye West,” he says. “I like his music.”

“It was funny, starting out we said, maybe we’re like two years ahead of our time?” Vega laughs. “Well, three years ahead of our time? It gets longer and longer and longer and longer. Finally it was, holy shit maybe we were thirty years ahead of our time? Who knows. We might be a hundred years ahead of our time. We might still be a hundred years ahead of our time! There’s no reason for it, you know. I still piss yellow.”

Maybe it’s just the sheer weight of the artists and styles you can trace directly back to Suicide. Maybe what they were doing was so reduced, so pure, that it can’t help but be relevant as an evergreen building block. Maybe when you start so far ahead, it’s much harder for the culture to leave you behind. Or maybe it’s that America in 2015 is still, as “Ghost Rider” says, “killing its youth.”

Vega’s recently regained a focus on painting. He’s still somewhat slowed from a 2012 stroke, and bad knees significantly limit his mobility. Painting most nights in his apartment’s living room is a more sustainable activity than consistent gigs. Plus, art sells better than music these days, and there’s a robust demand for his work. Vega was a figure of some note in the downtown art world of the 1960s, before he took on the thankless business of redefining rock. Influential art dealer Jeffrey Deitch tracked him down in 2002, after a couple of his young gallery employees gushed over a Suicide gig at the Knitting Factory. He staged the first public showing of his work in 20 years, starting a revival that’s led to years of sold-out stock. A massive career retrospective—including paintings, drawings, light sculptures, and biographical films—was held at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Lyon, France in 2009. The French have long supported all of Vega’s work, and like everyone else, the recent terror attacks in Paris made him sick and sad. “Fuckin’ ISIS. They’re crazy. They’re little ants,” he grumbles. “I hate those bastards, I really do. I can’t take them anymore.”

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Vega wants to make more albums, thinks he will. He doesn’t see Rev much, despite living in the same city and not so far apart. But all those years of being defined as “us” in constant opposition to “them” has made them something like brothers, able to instantly pick back up. At their last New York show, this past March at Webster Hall, the two partners didn’t see each other until they walked on from opposite sides of the stage and started playing. “We don’t need to rehearse. At our point in history, the idea of rehearsal is ridiculous,” says Vega. “If we don’t know our shit by now, we’ll never know our shit.” The rare sets they do play are wild, mostly improvisational. Now the crowds are reverent, grateful for anything Suicide’s got left.

“I don’t know what to make of it. It’s still like, ‘Gee, this is strange,’” Vega says. “I can hardly move anymore, but everything I do is right.”