We talked to the legendary Suicide singer about the 70s, working with Alex Chilton, and painting.
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This article is part of an editorial series sponsored by our friends over at HBO celebrating the launch of their new show 'Vinyl,' from Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, and Terry Winter exploring the crazy and fantastic world of music in the 1970s. Throughout the week, Noisey will analyze this iconic era with articles looking back in time.
It’s safe to say that Alan Vega isn’t the confrontational art maniac he used to be. Nearly 40 years ago, the singer was known to terrorize audiences as one-half of the pioneering electro-punk duo Suicide. While his bandmate Martin Rev threw down ear-splitting synth lines and drum machine beats, Vega would cut himself onstage, stare people down, and swing around the mic stand like a weapon.
In their minimalist recordings and deconstructed live takes, Suicide were devoted to bringing to the stage the harsh reality of songs like “Frankie Teardrop”—a harrowing ode to a factory worker who murders his wife and son in a fit of insanity. Even the punks were afraid of them. But nowadays, at the tender age of 77, Vega has settled into a late-career groove. He plays occasional Suicide shows, makes a lot of paintings and sculptures, and reaps profits from sales and guarantees to build a steady income for his wife and 17-year-old son.
“Life is boring,” Vega declares on a recent afternoon. “Right now, I want to get rich. That’s all.”
Suicide had its heyday in the 1970s and 80s. The duo’s first two albums—released in 1977 and 1980—are punk classics, revered for their hypnotically minimalist electronics and for Vega’s raw, crooning vocals and vivid lyrics. “Baby, baby, baby he's screamin' the truth / America, America's killin' its youth,” he murmurs in “Ghost Rider,” an indelible jam that rides into the horizon on a crude three-note synth riff.
Still, Suicide is just scratching the surface of what’s proven to be an epic career for Vega. Born in 1938 and raised in Brooklyn, he was already an older member of the New York scene by the time Suicide came about. His early accomplishments include being a part of the Art Workers’ Coalition, a socialist outfit that reportedly in 1969 staged a guerrilla protest outside the Museum of Modern Art.
In later years, Vega continued with the art projects and released a string of solo albums and collaborations. One of his most memorable performances is now coming back into the public eye with Light in the Attic’s new vinyl reissue of Cubist Blues, a skuzzy blues-rock album that he recorded in 1994 with the songwriter/producer Ben Vaughn and the power-pop godfather Alex Chilton. Recorded over two delirious nights in 1994 and originally released two years later to little fanfare, the album shows Vega in rare form, whooping and muttering ad-libbed lines like a crooner from Hell while Chilton and Vaughn ramble down a primitive road of tremolo’d guitar licks and no-wave synth refrains.
Vaughn, who now lives in L.A. and makes music for TV and film, says the album all came together New York’s Dessau studios, a former machine shop with a noir-ish control room that looked like something out of a Raymond Chandler novel. It was the perfect setting for what Vaughn describes as “an Alan Vega blues album”—a showcase for Vega’s singular poetic style.
“To place too much importance on [Chilton and me] I think would kind of miss the brilliant center of the record, which is Alan,” says Vaughn.
Vaughn and Vega have been friends for years, but when Vaughn first came across the singer, he was terrified to meet him. “He was like Charles Bronson in Death Wish,” Vaughn recalls, thinking back to shows in New York where the duo would stage its full-on, ear-splitting audience assaults. Eventually, though, the two became friends. Vaughn was inspired to get Cubist Blues going in part because he loved Vega’s 1980 song “Jukebox Babe”—a proper rockabilly tune replete with honking harmonica and a brisk, hoe-down beat—but also because of Vega’s spontaneous approach.
“He can just improvise poetry off the top of his head. And he has this incredible voice where it’s sort of like a saxophone or a muted trumpet. He has a lot of fans in Europe, and they’re big fans because of the sound of his voice. They don’t even know what the words mean,” Vaughn says.
“He’s a force to be reckoned with,” he adds. “It’s like the art of the possible. When you’re in his presence, anything is possible artistically. He has this really great, I don’t know what it is—aura or whatever you want to call it—that is just really inspiring and a really strong feeling to be around.”
Vega, in his home in Manhattan, thinks back fondly to the time he spent jamming with Chilton and Vaughn to make Cubist Blues. According to Vaughn, before going into the studio Vega insisted that they not prepare anything in advance; Vega didn’t even want to know whom he was going to play with. Later, locked up in the studios, Vega says the three of them powered through 12 songs, improvising everything. When he started to feel like his head was about to explode, that’s when he decided their work was done.
“We were jamming out. We just went one [song] after another. We never stopped,” Vega recalls, speaking by phone from his home in Lower Manhattan. “I remember the feeling. I felt like I was burning on top. I felt my brain was burning, I swear to God!”
As I talk with Vega, stories and memories flood out of him. His manner of recall takes the same unpredictable course as one of his performances. At one point, he talks about how his parents loved Western movies and opera. Later, he goes into a touching story about how his son has grown into a lovable but expectedly too-cool-for-school teen. He points out that most New York City punk vets have left New York City for good, and he reminisces about the times he spent hanging out with Chilton at a gas station near the legendary East Village punk club CBGB.
“The smell was beautiful,” Vega jokes. “I never really knew who he was until a few months later or something. ‘Oh, that’s Alex Chilton! Holy shit!’”
Chilton—who played in the Box Tops and Big Star, and was immortalized in song by The Replacements—died of a heart attack in 2010. Vega says he was crushed by Chilton’s death. “It’s really a shame. Of all the people who died, he’s the wrong one.” Later, Vega brings up his own mortality. In 2012, he suffered a heart attack and stroke, and now because of it he speaks with a slur.
“I came close to dying several times,” he says.
The rock ’n’ roll lifestyle has a way of beating you down. This is something Vega knows; in fact, it’s a topic he brought up years ago in a searing Suicide treatment of the retro tune “Rock ’N’ Roll Is Here to Stay.” Still, Vega says that these days, he’s doing better than ever. After years of making zilch off his art, he’s finally entered a point where he’s making good money. And despite his stroke he’s retained his craft.
“My drawing is great. I don’t know; I can’t believe it. I couldn’t draw the way I used to. For some reason, now I can draw perfectly,” he says. “I’m crazy. I don’t know why I’m doing any of this. Because I don’t do anything else—you know what I mean?
“There’s no rest for the weary,” he says.
Peter Holslin is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.