Thanks to the oft-repeated (but totally incorrect) factoid holding that the rate of people opting to end their own lives spikes during the winter holidays, many of us associate Christmas with suicide, but I don’t think this is what anyone has in mind: the assaultive, proto punk, electronics-and-misanthropy duo Suicide released not one, but two Christmas songs. Sort of. We’ll sort out the messy details in a bit.
In 1981, the great no-wave label ZE Records—home to the eardrum-hurty likes of Lydia Lunch and Arto Lindsay—decided that the label would release A Christmas Record, a compilation of original Christmas music by its deeply underground artists. It seems, and was, pretty ridiculous, but that album yielded an actual enduring holiday season classic in the Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping.” Other artists who contributed were Material with Nona Hendryx, Cristina, and Was (Not Was). It was and remains deeply regrettable that Lydia Lunch contributed no Christmas song, but there was one by the equally malevolent Suicide, and another by that band’s singer Alan Vega. (Here’s the “sort of” alluded to above: both the Suicide track and the Vega “solo” track bear the songwriting credits and synthesizers of Suicide’s other half, Martin Rev. So I completely don’t get how the Vega song isn’t a Suicide song in reality if not in name. If it waddles and quacks…)
Here’s the Suicide cut, “Dear Lord.” It’s pretty messed up. I especially dig the chimes.
Vega’s “solo” track, “No More Christmas Blues,” featured the same music bed, with somewhat different dithering, moaned lyrics. When A Christmas Record was re-pressed in 1982, this was left off in favor of James White’s “Christmas With Satan,” but it was restored to the 2004 CD reissue, Xmas Record Reloaded.
Frankie’s having a terrible day. His wife and infant son are starving. He’s run out of money and food. Now he’s going to be evicted. He’s got a gun. Let’s hear it for Frankie…
If this sounds familiar, it’s because the story of the 1984 Troma movie Combat Shock bears a striking resemblance to that of Suicide’s harrowing song “Frankie Teardrop.” The movie concerns the struggle of a young man named Frankie to feed his wife and child in blighted Staten Island, and if you’ve heard the song, I don’t have to tell you that it ends pretty badly for Frankie, his family, you, me, and the entire human race.
Frankie isn’t a factory worker in this version of the story, but an unemployed Vietnam vet whose days and nights are continually interrupted by flashbacks of ‘Nam and the torture he suffered at the hands of the VC. These, in turn, lead to flashbacks within flashbacks where, for purposes of exposition, Frankie relives arguments with his father, now estranged because a) Frankie has refused to carry on the family legacy of race hate and b) Dad disapproves of Mrs. Frankie. Suffering through the exposition of any movie is itself a form of torture.
However, these gestures toward the conventions of plot are mercifully few and brief, and Combat Shock soon makes with the laffs and gasps you crave from late-night horror fare. Much of the pleasure of watching Combat Shock comes from the genre detail writer, director, producer and editor Buddy Giovinazzo adds to extend Suicide’s story to feature length. For instance, because of Frankie’s exposure to Agent Orange, and because this is a Troma movie, the child looks like a cross between the Eraserhead baby and Edvard Munch’s screamer.
Until the awful climax, the movie takes its time presenting a loser’s-eye view of urban anomie. If you’ve ever lived in a place that had a TV set, you already know all these characters: Frankie’s slow descent into madness involves demoralizing encounters with small-time hoods (Frankie’s creditors), child prostitutes, junkie thieves and social workers (one of whom is missing a Ronco Veg-O-Matic). There are also one or two thrilling surprises, even for the very jaded.
And in case you somehow feel cheated of your full share of human misery after watching Combat Shock, here’s a kind of sequel to “Frankie Teardrop,” Alan Vega’s 12-minute bum-out “Viet Vet.”
“SHUT THE FUCK UP! THIS IS ABOUT FRANKIE!” —Alan Vega
“23 Minutes Over Brussels” is a recording of an incendiary performance given by Suicide in Brussels, Belgium on June 16th, 1978. Martin Rev and Alan Vega were opening for Elvis Costello and the audience, let’s just say, didn’t like them very much. In fact, they hated their fucking guts and let them know it in no uncertain terms, including booing loudly, snatching the microphone from Vega’s hands and even breaking his nose!
Suicide hated them back and the result was performance art meets a full-scale riot, perhaps the most legendarily confrontational ur-punk moment this side of Iggy and The Stooges’ Metallic K.O. After Suicide escaped with their lives, Elvis Costello and The Attractions came onstage, but Costello was furious at how the crowd had treated Suicide and played an extremely short set that was also short on pleasantries. The crowd went nuts when they refused to return for an encore and the riot cops were called in armed with teargas.
All in a day’s work for Suicide. When the band toured with The Clash that same year, Vega was physically attacked several times:
“I got my nose busted in Crawley… In Glasgow someone threw an axe by my head! In Plymouth The Nazis got me in the dressing room.”
The Brussels set was recorded on cassette tape by a friend of the duo and it was released as a legit bootleg (with a Berlin show from same tour) and as a flexi-disc. Eventually it got released on CD as a bonus track. Vega and Rev once referred to their music as “punk, funk and sewer music.”
Below, Suicide on Paul Tschinkel’s legendary InnerTube cable access program doing “Ghost Rider” in 1978:
It’s a brand new year and here’s a brand new feature for you, our dear Dangerous Minds readers…
Gregg Foreman’s radio program, The Pharmacy, is a music / talk show playing heavy soul, raw funk, 60′s psych, girl groups, Krautrock. French yé-yé, Hammond organ rituals, post-punk transmissions and “ghost on the highway” testimonials and interviews with the most interesting artists and music makers of our times…
There will be new episodes of The Pharmacy posted weekly on Dangerous Minds.
Gregg Foreman is a musician and DJ who has played for the likes of Pink Mountaintops, The Delta 72, The Black Ryder, The Meek and more. Since, 2012, Gregg has been the musical director of Cat Power’s band. He started dj’ing 60s Soul and Mod 45’s in 1995 and has spun around the world. Gregg currently lives in Los Angeles, CA and divides his time between playing live music, producing records and dj’ing various clubs and parties from LA to Australia.
Gregg’s got amazing taste in music and access to some amazing people. Since this is the first time we’re featuring The Pharmacy on Dangerous Minds, I thought these three shows featuring an interview with Suicide’s Alan Vega would be of particular interest to our readers and a great way to kick things off.
Over the past 5 decades more than fifty dogs have jumped to their deaths from Overtoun Bridge, near Dumbarton, in Scotland. An incredible statistic, but one made more impressive by the detail, which gives this tale substance: all of the deaths occurred at the same spot, on the right-hand side of the bridge; the dogs were all long muzzle breeds: Collie, Labrador, Greyhound; their deaths all took place on clear days.
The frequency and inexplicable nature of the deaths has lead to this scenic location, to be called the “Dog’s Suicide Bridge.” Over 6 months in 2005, 5 dogs leapt to their deaths. One bereaved owner, Donna Cooper was out walking with her family when her dog, Ben leapt over the parapet and fell fifty feet onto the rocks below.
‘His paw was broken, his jaw was broken and his back was broken and badly twisted. The vet decided it wasn’t worth putting him through the pain, so we had to let him go,’ recalls Donna.
Such tragedies led to claims the bridge was haunted by an evil spirit. In 1994, thirty-two-year-old Kevin Moy threw his baby off the bridge after claiming he was the Anti-Christ, and his son was Satan. Shortly after he tried to end his own life with an unsuccessful suicide attempt from the same bridge. Moy was remanded to Carstairs State Hospital, a maximum-security psychiatric facility.
This being Scotland, there has also been a claim that the bridge is situated in, what we Celts call, a “thin place” - a meeting of two worlds. Cue mist, howl of wolf, and craggy featured old Scotsman saying, “Ye dinnae want tae go doun yon road, naw.” Indeed, B-movies have been made with flimsier plots.
In recent years, a more persistent but equally unlikely theory has emerged, which suggested dogs were committing suicide. But as leading Animal Behaviorist, Dr David Sands, who investigated the story has pointed out, “it is impossible for a dog to premeditate its own death”.
Sands uncovered the most likely explanation to the dog deaths, the onset of mink farming in the area, which started fifty years ago:
Evidence of mink was confirmed in the area not only by a naturalist, who spotted droppings beneath the bridge, but also by [an angler], who explained that the top hill quarry had lakes that contained trout (perfect mink diet).
The intense scent of mink aroused each dog’s curiosity, leading to the fatal leap of faith.
Anthony Burgess chose Beethoven as the favored composer for his character Alex in A Clockwork Orange, because dear olde Ludwig van was a rebel, a romantic, a revolutionary who struggled all of his life against poverty, injustice and ill health to produce genius art.
His struggles took many forms, but his greatest one was physical. When Ludwig van Beethoven realized he was going deaf he contemplated suicide. His deafness had started when he was twenty-six with severe tinnitus - a constant ringing in his ears. This was followed by gradual and then profound hearing loss.
By 1802, the severity of his deafness had caused him great frustration and unhappiness. He therefore removed himself from society to a peaceful house in the countryside of Heiligenstadt, then an independent municipality, now the 19th district of Vienna. It was here, between April and October 1802, that Beethoven wrote a final letter to his brothers Carl and Johann, in which he explained his ‘wretched existence’ and his terrible sense of isolation and despair.
I can understand this. I have tinnitus and hearing impairment, which means I will eventually go deaf. It’s of little consequence when compared to Beethoven’s suffering, or indeed my own Grandfather’s, who spent his final years not only deaf but blind. Yet, I like to think it gives me a small understanding of the isolation and frustration deafness can bring.
Beethoven was only twenty-nine when he faced this severe crisis. His deafness was an attack on his very being, his very existence, greatly impeding his ability to create. Unable to hear the notes he played, he would rest his head on the piano so he could feel their vibration.
After writing his testament, Beethoven decided against suicide, and hid the letter amongst his papers, where it was discovered after his death in 1827. instead of death, Beethoven chose to accept his fate bravely, and focus on his Art, and went on to compose some of his greatest work.
Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament is a deeply moving and highly personal letter, that is also a powerful reminder of the human will to succeed - no matter the obstacles or consequences.
For my brothers Carl and [Johann] Beethoven
‘O ye men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do ye wrong me, you do not know the secret causes of my seeming, from childhood my heart and mind were disposed to the gentle feelings of good will, I was even ever eager to accomplish great deeds, but reflect now that for six years I have been a hopeless case, aggravated by senseless physicians, cheated year after year in the hope of improvement, finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting malady (whose cure will take years or, perhaps, be impossible), born with an ardent and lively temperament, even susceptible to the diversions of society, I was compelled early to isolate myself, to live in loneliness, when I at times tried to forget all this, O how harshly was I repulsed by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing, and yet it was impossible for me to say to men speak louder, shout, for I am deaf.
‘Ah how could I possibly admit such an infirmity in the one sense which should have been more perfect in me than in others, a sense which I once possessed in highest perfection, a perfection such as few surely in my profession enjoy or have enjoyed - O I cannot do it, therefore forgive me when you see me draw back when I would gladly mingle with you, my misfortune is doubly painful because it must lead to my being misunderstood, for me there can be no recreations in society of my fellows, refined intercourse, mutual exchange of thought, only just as little as the greatest needs command may I mix with society. I must live like an exile, if I approach near to people a hot terror seizes upon me, a fear that I may be subjected to the danger of letting my condition be observed - thus it has been during the past year which I spent in the country, commanded by my intelligent physician to spare my hearing as much as possible, in this almost meeting my natural disposition, although I sometimes ran counter to it yielding to my inclination for society, but what a humiliation when one stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard the shepherd singing and again I heard nothing, such incidents brought me to the verge of despair, but little more and I would have put an end to my life - only art it was that withheld me, ah it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce, and so I endured this wretched existence - truly wretched, an excitable body which a sudden change can throw from the best into the worst state - Patience - it is said that I must now choose for my guide, I have done so, I hope my determination will remain firm to endure until it please the inexorable parcae to bread the thread, perhaps I shall get better, perhaps not, I am prepared. Forced already in my 28th year to become a philosopher, O it is not easy, less easy for the artist than for anyone else - Divine One thou lookest into my inmost soul, thou knowest it, thou knowest that love of man and desire to do good live therein.
‘O men, when some day you read these words, reflect that ye did me wrong and let the unfortunate one comfort himself and find one of his kind who despite all obstacles of nature yet did all that was in his power to be accepted among worthy artists and men. You my brothers Carl and [Johann] as soon as I am dead if Dr. Schmid is still alive ask him in my name to describe my malady and attach this document to the history of my illness so that so far as possible at least the world may become reconciled with me after my death.
‘At the same time I declare you two to be the heirs to my small fortune (if so it can be called), divide it fairly, bear with and help each other, what injury you have done me you know was long ago forgiven. to you brother Carl I give special thanks for the attachment you have displayed towards me of late. It is my wish that your lives be better and freer from care than I have had, recommend virtue to your children, it alone can give happiness, not money, I speak from experience, it was virtue that upheld me in misery, to it next to my art I owe the fact that I did not end my life with suicide.
‘Farewell and love each other - I thank all my friends, particularly Prince Lichnowsky and Professor Schmid - I desire that the instruments from Prince L. be preserved by one of you but let no quarrel result from this, so soon as they can serve you better purpose sell them, how glad will I be if I can still be helpful to you in my grave - with joy I hasten towards death - if it comes before I shall have had an opportunity to show all my artistic capacities it will still come too early for me despite my hard fate and I shall probably wish it had come later - but even then I am satisfied, will it not free me from my state of endless suffering? Come when thou will I shall meet thee bravely. - Farewell and do not wholly forget me when I am dead, I deserve this of you in having often in life thought of you how to make you happy, be so -
Ludwig van Beethoven
October 6th, 1802
For my brothers Carl and [Johann]
to be read and executed after my death.
Heiligenstadt, October 10, 1802, thus do I take my farewell of thee - and indeed sadly - yes that beloved hope - which I brought with me when I came here to be cured at least in a degree - I must wholly abandon, as the leaves of autumn fall and are withered so hope has been blighted, almost as I came - I go away - even the high courage - which often inspired me in the beautiful days of summer - has disappeared - O Providence - grant me at least but one day of pure joy - it is so long since real joy echoed in my heart - O when - O when, O Divine One - shall I find it again in the temple of nature and of men - Never? no - O that would be too hard.
A young Tony Scott stars in his brother Ridley’s first film Boy and Bicycle.
This was the film that inspired Tony to make movies, and it’s a long way from the loud, brash, stadium rock ‘n’ roll films he became famous for in later life.
Tony Scott had considerable skill as film-maker. He was great at large scale, set-piece action scenes, which he manipulated with the ease of a master conjuror. He was more than capable at getting strong performances from his cast, even when characterization was flimsy. And interestingly, his films brought together the most unlikely groups of fans - the Goths of The Hunger, the jocks of Top Gun, the Hip of True Romance, and the Geeks of Enemy of the State. I always thought he should have made a Batman or a Spiderman, or teamed-up again with Tarantino.
The news of his death was shocking, but the manner in which he chose to die had something terribly dramatic about it - his fall from the Vincent Thomas Bridge was witnessed by on-lookers and even filmed.
Tony Scott will be remembered for those populist, large scale movies that captured the audience’s imagination, while at the same time reflecting the cultural ambition, fantasies and fashions of their decade.
Whitney Weiss curated this little slice of NYC No-Wave goodness for Network Awesome.
James Chance and the Contortions - “I Can’t Stand Myself ” (live)
Bush Tetras - “Too Many Creeps “/ In the Night (live)
Lizzy Mercier Descloux - “Fire” (on French TV)
ESG - “You’re No Good” (live at Danceteria, 1984)
DNA live at the Mudd Club (on TV Party)
Suicide - “Ghost Rider”
In 1978, the founders of D.I.Y. magazine Art-Rite, Edit deAk and Mike (Walter) Robinson, collaborated with video artist Paul Dougherty in creating this eerie film and video montage for Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop” in which ordinary images are suffused with dread.
“Frankie Teardrop” is a homicidal Punk epic. It’s a working-class ballad about Frankie who’s working from nine to five and can’t survive. His solution is to kill off his family and then himself. But it’s not done in an angry way. It’s done in a frustrated way so the film implies this frustration.” Edit deAk
Shards of New York in the 1970s flutter like the wings of dying birds.
The ending to B. S. Johnson’s film Fat Man on a Beach proved rather prophetic, as the author walked fully clothed into the sea, until he disappeared. It was the last sequence filmed for his documentary, and recalls the opening scene to the BBC comedy The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, and, more significantly, Stevie Smith’s poem “Not Waving but Drowning”. Three weeks after filming this scene, in 1973, B. S. Johnson killed himself.
I’ve liked Johnson since I first read him as a teenager, and he is one of the many authors whose books I still return to all these years later. Although I like his work there is something about Johnson that reminds me of the well-kent story of Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman during the making of Marathon Man, where each actor approached their role through their own discipline. Olivier had learnt his technique from treading the boards and performing Shakespeare alongside John Gielgud; Hoffman was a different breed, his muse was Method Acting, where motivation is key. When Hoffman’s character was supposed to have been without sleep, Hoffman decided to stay up all night in order to perform the scene. When Olivier heard the length to which Hoffman had gone to interpret his role, the aging Lord, said, “Have you tried acting, dear boy?”
There was something of the Hoffman in Johnson, or at least, in the shared need to have the experience before creating from it. What Johnson did not do was write fiction - or so he claimed. He saw stories as lies, citing the term “telling stories” as a childish euphemism for telling lies. Johnson did not believe in telling lies, he believed in telling the truth. And it was this that would ultimately destroy him. For once one has abandoned imagination, there is no possibility of escape, or creative freedom.
In 1965, Johnson wrote a play called You’re Human Like the Rest of Them - a grim, unrelenting drama, later made into an award-winning short film in 1967. In it, the central character Haakon realizes his own mortality and the inevitability of death.
We rot and there’s nothing that can stop it / Can’t you feel the shaking horror of that? / You just can’t ignore these things, you just can’t!
For Haakon, and so for Johnson, from “the moment of birth we decay and die.” An obvious proposition, as Jonathan Coe, pointed out in his excellent biography on Johnson Like a Fiery Elephant, one which any audience would have understood before watching. Not so for Johnson the realist - death is the final answer to life’s question, and once realized nothing else is of significance. You can see where this is heading, and how Johnson started to unravel. Though he did go on to write three of his greatest novels after this: Trawl, about life on a fishing vessel; The Unfortunates the episodic tale of a friend’s death from cancer; and the brutally comic Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry, in which the titular hero becomes a mass murderer and succumbs to a sudden death form cancer; you can see the pattern, all three were shadowed with death. However, each is so brilliantly and engagingly written their dark heart is often overlooked.
There is a key moment in Fat Man on a Beach, when Johnson described a motorcycle accident in which the cyclist was diced by a barbed-wire fence, like “a cheese-cutter through cheese.” He explained the story as a “metaphor for the way the human condition seems to treat humankind,” then digressed and said, life is:
“...really all chaos…I cannot prove it as chaos any more than anyone else can prove there is a pattern, or there is some sort of deity, but even if it is all chaos, then let’s celebrate chaos. Let’s celebrate the accidental. Does that make us any the worse off? Are we any the worse off? There is still love; there is still humor.”
This in essence is what is so marvelous about Johnson and Fat Man on a Beach, as Jonathan Coe later wrote as an introduction to the film:
One evening late in 1974, the TV listings announced that a documentary about Porth Ceiriad was to be broadcast. It was being shown past my bedtime (I was 13), but was clearly not to be missed. After News at Ten, we settled down to watch en famille.
Instead of a tourist’s-eye view of local beauty spots, what we saw that evening was baffling. A corpulent yet athletic-looking man, bearing some resemblance to an overweight Max Bygraves, ran up and down the beach for 40 minutes gesticulating, expostulating, reciting strange poetry and chattering away about the randomness of human life, his quasi-mystical feelings about the area and, most passionately, the dishonesty of most modern fiction and film-making. With disarming bluntness, the programme was called Fat Man on a Beach. We could not make head or tail of it.
And yet memories of this film, so unlike anything seen on television before or since, stayed with me, and 10 years later, when I was a postgraduate student, I stumbled upon a reissued paperback novel by someone called B. S. Johnson and realised that this was the same person. Amazingly, it came with a puff from Samuel Beckett, someone not known as a regular provider of jacket quotations. Encouraged by this, I bought the novel, which was called Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry, devoured it in a matter of hours (it’s less than 30,000 words long) and realised that I had found a new hero.
When I thought about the film that we had watched in a daze of collective bewilderment all those years before, I remembered the sense of fierce engagement, combined with a spirit of childish fun, that had characterised BS Johnson’s virtuoso monologue to camera. I remembered his strange, unwieldy grace - the sort of fleet-footed grace you find unexpectedly in a bulky comedian such as John Goodman or Oliver Hardy. And I remembered the wounded eyes that stared at you almost aggressively, as if in silent accusation of some nameless hurt. It was impossible not to recognise the pain behind those eyes. Even so, I had not realised at the time that I had been looking at a dead man.
The writer David Quantick has uploaded this and some other excellent films by Johnson onto You Tube, which I hope will provide a stimulus to reading his exceptional books.
Marc can say what he wants about M.I.A.—we’re an anarchist collective here at Dangerous Minds—but I love her. if you ask me, her performance of latest single Born Free on The Late Show with David Letterman positively tore the roof off the sucker. I was absolutely blown away by what she did on that stage. And with Martin Rev of Suicide playing beside her? Playing his synth with his fist? We’re not worthy.
Kudos to M.I.A. for bringing Martin Rev out on to the stage with her. I found it sad how so few of the blogs, of all the many that wrote about this performance, even mentioned Martin! Kids! What’s the matter with kids these days?!?
Shit! Have you heard this new song by M.I.A.? Dig that rad Suicide sample! If you want the ultimate sound of power electronics—so violent—why not go back to the ur-source of Alan Vega and Martin Rev? I could listen this on repeat all day.