The original plan was to call the band Life, but downtown New Yorkers Alan Vega and Martin Rev were barely hanging onto life as it was. Vega was at the time the custodian of an art venue named the Project of Living Artists, funded by New York State, where he and a whole mess of other musicians, artists, and hangers-on met in a second-story loft to woodshed, swap ideas, perform, hang out, get high, and get by as best they could. It was open around the clock, and everyone took turns making sure the place was kept intact (along with the people in it). When it wasn’t his turn to perform or oversee, Vega would grab what little sleep he could in a pup tent he’d erected in the back of a nearby abandoned lot. Food was a luxury: one Blimpie tuna-fish sandwich a day between the two of them, if they were lucky. Winters were murderous. Friends were all anybody had.
Vega’s original inspirations were the visual arts, photography and sculpture. He’d had gallery showings that consisted ropes of Christmas lights arranged on the floor, but it wasn’t until he saw Iggy Pop performing as the frontman of the Stooges in 1969 at the World’s Fair that music opened itself up as a possibility for him. To see someone expressing himself that nakedly, that violently on stage, both with and through the music, was nothing short of inspirational. Martin Rev had come from a highly musical family and had been playing organ and electric piano with various jazz outfits (his main inspiration in his youth was Thelonious Monk). When Vega saw him at the Living Artists space one night in 1971, the two of them were drawn together like unpaired oxygen atoms.
Like most of the artists and musicians in the bottom tiers of New York’s art world back then, there was no money. One made do. Rev had managed to pick up a cheap little used drum machine — the sort of thing used at bar mitzvahs and weddings, not a rock band’s instrument at all — and a second-hand Farfisa organ. The organ turned out to be partially broken (he couldn’t play more than a couple of notes on it at a time) and the drum machine sounded like it was steam-powered, but when fed through the sound system of a rock club or amped out with distortion pedals, it was monstrous. This “transistorized apocalyptic blues” was paired up with Vega’s “Elvis-cum-Iggy psychobilly attack” (as rock critic Dave Marsh put it), wherein Vega threw on a leather jacket and a bike chain, stalking from one end of the room to the other smashing at things while bellowing out short, imagistic verses. “They came off the street,” Vega said once in an interview with the Village Voice, “and I gave them the street right back.”
As if the sound wasn’t enough to alienate any potential audiences, when it came time to settle on a name they chose one that to them just seemed like a great rock’n’roll moniker: Suicide. It wasn’t a command, but a description. They looked around and saw their friends dying, their world destroying itself; it seemed only honest to describe what they saw as suicidal behavior. This was not what people hung over from the Summer of Love wanted to hear. The narcissism of the disco era had come into vogue, and while punk hadn’t yet exploded in any recognizable form it was sure building up a sizeable head of steam.
Small wonder that by the time the band got any recognition at all, it was in ’77 — the year when the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and everything else that could remotely be named “punk” incurred the denigration of the mainstream and was steadfastly ignored for decades thereafter (only to be later embraced as “influential” and “indispensable”). Suicide got lumped in with the rest of them mostly for being in the same place at the same time, even when punk audiences despised them for … well, on general principles, really. What was one to make of a band with no drummer, no guitarist, no instruments at all save for a guy standing behind a stack of electronic gizmos, and a singer who dealt in subjects like an alienated factory worker who kills his wife, his baby and then finally himself (and that’s not even the end of the song)?
The few people who were listening, though, couldn’t tear themselves away. Everyone from the young Henry Rollins to Andrew Eldritch (and their friends) sprung for cut-out bin copies of the original Suicide records and were transfixed. The records didn’t merely swing; they buzzed, burbled, pulsated and finally overwhelmed. If the bomb had been dropped on New York instead of Nagasaki at the end of WWII, doo-wop and streetcorner soul would have probably come out sounding like this.
The fans were, unfortunately, in the extreme minority. Even the Sixties hadn’t brought much tolerance to music audiences — no, not even the downtown New Yorkers that were Suicide’s mainstay. Their records sold barely at all, and critics lined up to blow them full of holes. Even Lester Bangs, he who brought rock fans “A Reasonable Guide to Horrible Noise”, despised Suicide for being deliberately boring (when in his mind there were many other, better things to be). For some reason he was willing to grant exceptions to many of the other downtown “No Wave” crew, many of whom were far less listenable, and emotional, than Suicide at its most abrasive.
Their concerts were about as hard to swallow as the records, the most upsetting being a violent performance in Brussels that was immortalized on flexi-disc. Glass shattered against the stage, the audience was often rowdier than the band, and the whole thing climaxed with Vega screaming “Shut the f — up!” and storming off … to great applause.
The small circle of fiercely devoted fans eventually grew to include folks like Ric Ocasek of the Cars. He lent a production assist on the group’s second record — somewhat confusingly titled Alan Vega / Martin Rev / Suicide — and gave the instrumentation a more polished veneer without removing the harsh electrical pulse that jabbed through everything they did. (Bands like Whitehouse would later remove everything but that sheer burst of electricity — a nifty experiment, but hard to sustain over the course of a career.) Some of the songs on that second record are among the best things they ever did: “Diamonds, Fur Coat, Champagne” remains my favorite, a wonderful encapsulation of loveless material decadence that is at least as good as anything Bryan Ferry or Roxy Music recorded in the same rubric.
The first record, though, is where everything really started, and there still isn’t anything that sounds remotely like it — no, not even Suicide’s other records. The first time I put it on I was startled at how crude it was. Everything seemed submerged in a haze of white noise, made all the rougher by the tape-loop echo chamber Vega channeled his voice through. But it cut through everything, in more ways than one, and I found myself putting it on and sinking into it because of the crudeness and not even in spite of it.
At least two CD versions of the first record have come out, and there are marked differences between both. The first, issued in 1990 or so under the Restless label, combines the first two albums onto one disc and has some nice liner photography — most of it from a concert they gave at the Ritz which I was lucky enough to attend without quite knowing what I was in for. The most recent 2-disc reissue has the first album on one disc along with single / 7” versions of various songs, and a second disc of rehearsal tapes made at the same time — all of it previously unreleased material and similarly fascinating in a primeval way. The two editions have slightly different sound quality, which leads me to believe they were prepared from different mixes of the master tapes; it would be hard for me to say which of the two is definitive in any respect. But the 2-disc reissue is a good deal easier to find, and is not strictly speaking an inferior copy.
Suicide are still around. Vega and Rev have released many other records, both together and individually, and there’s scarcely a bad one in the lot (I own many of them). They never made a lot of money, and for that matter were never very famous — but one does not have to be famous to be powerful, or influential, or important, or just plain great in one’s own way, and Suicide are living proof of that.