The author and one of his biggest heros
A guest post from D Generation’s Jesse Malin on Alan Vega
I first heard Suicide on a cassette tape I came across at the False Prophets’ studio on Avenue B, a cool old thrift store turned punk rock rehearsal spot and teenage crash pad. It was live tape that I believe belonged to the Prophets’ bass player, Steve Wishnia. It was on a label called ROIR that only put out cassettes, if can you imagine that, but they had a very cool thing going on, like the first Bad Brains LP, Johnny Thunders’ Stations of the Cross and the infamous New York Thrash tape.
The name Suicide always intrigued me but the raw electronic minimalism went way over my teenage hardcore head. Where were the guitars? Where were the drums? At that age, I needed things to be a certain way. Looking back, I guess I wasn’t ready for it. Truthfully, it kinda scared me a bit. Then I saw a copy of the New York Rocker with a cover shot of Alan Vega and Johnny Thunders looking cool and dangerous, hanging out on the floor, smoking and drinking in some downtown loft. Alan looked like Johnny’s more together older brother, but still badass as fuck. That photo spread would revisit my mind in the mid 1980s when I was looking for something outside of the hardcore scene to stimulate me again as a listener and as a musician. The scene I was in was becoming way too macho—and way too metal—for me.
The conformity level had risen to such heights that it was contradicting everything we originally stood for… so I began listening to Billy Bragg, The Replacements, Graham Parker & The Rumor, and many other troubadours fueled by anger and song. I saw the Bob Dylan film Don’t Look Back at midnight at the St. Marks Cinema and began to see that my precious punk rock had existed way before and worked on many levels… not just “Loud Fast Rules” (Hey, I was still in my teens).
One day I came upon a copy of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, and, even though I always had mad respect for him as an artist and live performer, I was not a real fan until I sat down with Nebraska by myself and read along with the lyric sheet. It felt like it was the middle of the night and he was sitting there right with me telling these hauntingly honest stories with dead-eyed conviction. How could this this huge rock star be so connected to the human struggle and the working class on such a street level while still giving us a glimmer of hope?
By this time, Born in the USA was out and I got a lot of shit from my punk rock friends thinking that it was all some patriotic, macho Rambo crap. I had to argue to get them to read the lyrics where, in almost half the songs on album, the main characters all ended up in jail. So I was a new fan, and so was most of the world in that summer of 1985. Hopefully some of the masses got the message through the FM dial: Use the system to fuck the system, or as least hold up the mirror up to it…like Dylan, the Beatles and the Clash had also done.
As a kid I always wanted to know all the crazy backstories about the records and artists I liked. I read tons of music mags, trying to get all the info I could. One day I came across an interview where Springsteen talked about Suicide and how their first record, especially a song “Frankie Teardrop,” influenced Nebraska in a big way (check out the screams on “State Trooper”).
I had recently broken up my first band Heart Attack and formed a group called HOPE. We were playing at a place called the Cat Club one night when an old school record guy named Marty Thau approached us. He said he was interested in taking us into the studio to record a record, and that he had worked with the the Ramones, NY Dolls, and was currently working with Suicide. Next thing we know, we had a gig opening for Suicide at a jam packed sold out CBGBs on a boiling August night. We played our songwriter-esque rock set and went out into the crowd to watch Suicide. It was the loudest, most intense thing I had ever seen (and I had been to a few Motorhead shows).
Suddenly the CBGBs that we were so familiar with became a very different place that night. Alan was screaming like he was going to have a breakdown. It was scary as anything and full of anger, but yet there was something very romantic and classic about it, in a 1950s way, while still sounding like it was from another planet. The levels got louder and louder and pulse was so intense, made by only two people (Alan and his counterpart Martin Rev), without even trying.
Then, all at once, it ended abruptly with Alan smashing the microphone several times into his face and then slamming it down on to the floor. After the show, Alan collapsed down on a broken wooden bench behind a sheet in our dressing room, sweating and breathing like he just came out of a heavyweight brawl, but dressed like an Elvis apparition passing through the Bowery. He didn’t say a word, just slowly nodded his head at us kids.
About a year or two later, my friends and I find ourselves out every Sunday night at a New York City nightclub in a big old church called Limelight. It was the height of the hair band days and, even though we hated 99.9% of the music, we went there to chase the girls (which there plenty of). Sometimes, feeling a bit self-conscious about how lame we were hanging out in this scene, we would hide in the dark sidelines and drink up the courage to yack to as many big-haired, sleazed-up ladies as we could.