The following Alan Vega interview is taken from 2008. It’s reprinted in full as a tribute to the fallen Suicide frontman, who passed away peacefully in his sleep on Saturday night.
Words AARON RICHTER
“These recordings are not for the fainthearted or casual fan,” warns the back of Suicide: Live 1977-1978, a limited-edition six-disc box set out now on Blast First Petite. The collection documents the tour following the release of Suicide’s classic self-titled debut. It includes rough recordings of full shows at New York City venues CBGB’s, Max’s Kansas City and The Palladium, as well as brutal sets from a European tour with Elvis Costello and the Clash.
Riots were incited. Bottles were thrown. Faces were cut with glass. The punks were royally fucked with. For singer Alan Vega and keyboardist Martin Rev, instigation and agitation were vital and necessary. Although it’s a difficult, monotonous listen, this box set (limited to only 3,000 copies) captures an anger, a frustration and an oppressive, pulsating sound that truly pissed people off.
Here, Vega speaks candidly with self-titled about the death of punk, the art of confrontation and his biggest fear…
self-titled: What do you like about this box set?
It’s a blast from the past. It was a great time. I remember opening for the Clash in those days, ’78. That tour was unbelievable. The riots. The nightly riots. I had to listen to a lot of the stuff over again, and that was kind of difficult.
What was difficult?
It was a long time ago. I’ve done so much since then. You gotta remember that was the tour for the first album with Suicide. Since then I’ve had 21, 22 new albums. I’m using the word albums–I’m an old guy. It was like going back to something, like, “Oh, shit. I wish I did that this way, or this that way.” You can’t change all that, which is why it’s kinda great in a way, too. Every album is… Or every record… Or whatever you call them these days… You don’t even call them CDs anymore.
You mean “collection of MP3s.”
Right. Exactly. Outer space [laughs]. Yeah, it’s like a diary. Everything’s like a diary. I could listen to this album and zoom back in time. Who was my girlfriend? What was happening? Where was I? What was I thinking? How the fuck did I even dress like that?
Where did the recordings come from?
A shitty little tape recording from someone sitting in the balcony or something. That’s why it sounds like it sounds. We used to do our own recordings, prior to making records: We used to record on a one-track tape recorder, use two sides of an amp–those Fender amps–one side for the vocals and one side for the keyboard.
Everything featured in this collection is unrefined from the original tapes. Why keep it so rough?
I hate when people remaster stuff. The other day I just had to buy a Rolling Stones record. What was it? One of the famous ones: Beggars Banquet. I was really looking forward to listening to the Stones. But I bought such a remastered thing; it sounded so fucking terrible.
I think my mom bought me that same version this past Christmas. It’s like the Super-CD format, and it sounds awful.
Right? I was so disappointed. Remember that thing, “Where’s the beef?” I mean, where was the music? What did they do to this thing? It wasn’t the Rolling Stones. With vinyl, you’ve got all the scratches and bumps. You get used to listening to it that way. I listened to this one time and said, “Where’s the banquet?”
Even though you don’t alter the recording quality of these live performances, you do bleep out a word that you used to introduce “96 Tears” in Liverpool. What did you say, and why did you choose to censor yourself now?
I always loved that song. When I was a kid, I used to come home and turn on Dick Clark’s show. It used to be on between 3 and 4. All that horrible pop shit. I don’t know why, but I’d come home, and before I’d start my homework, I used to watch this program to just see what the fuck was going on. It was total garbage. But one day, these four guys, all in black leather and chains, come on. They hit this song with the Farfisa. I’ve always loved the Farfisa organ. That sound! And then, “Cry, cry, cry.” I think I’d heard it on the radio and thought, “Wow, this is cool,” but I never expected them to be what they were. On Dick Clark! Such a Wonder Bread show. And here’s these guys.
Right. But what did you censor out of the performance recording?
Maybe I shouldn’t say it. I said something in adoration of these guys. I used a word. In this day and age, it would be considered inflammatory or politically incorrect, and it would have been misinterpreted. At first we wanted to keep it in out of respect for these guys. I don’t want to say what it is. I don’t want to start this all over again because we spent months arguing about it. It would have started all over again. Old wounds would reopen. I knew it would be taken out of context. You gotta remember, this was like ’78. That’s fuckin’ centuries ago. The word was meant differently in those days. Now I’m a dad. I don’t want my son to be listening and going, “What the fuck did he say?”
“I saw a fucking ax go right by my head. I thought it was like a Western movie.”
Did getting booed ever hurt your feelings?
No. I used to aspire to it. They’d yell, and I’d say, “I can’t hear you.” When they were throwing shit all over, I knew things were going pretty good. I knew we were agitating somebody, which is what Suicide was supposed to be. We were on tour with Elvis Costello, and then we went with the Clash in England, and we got shit, man. I thought it was gonna be better than Elvis, but it got worse. We were out of the frying pan and into the fire.
Then Suicide got its own seven or eight shows in England, Wales and Scotland. The first one was Edinburgh, Scotland. Marty [Rev] and I are playing to a big disco hall–probably a couple thousand people. It was all dark. You couldn’t see the audience, but there was a big globe–one of those old disco globes. They’d shoot some light on it, and the thing would be turning, and it would blast squares of light all over the place. So anyway, around the third or fourth song, I noticed that people were starting to mill around, starting to move. I went back to Marty and said, “Watch out. The shit’s about to come.” [Laughs] “Just watch out. Two o’clock. Three o’clock. Incoming!” All the sudden the lights went on, and I looked out there, and everyone’s fucking dancing! I go, “Wait a minute. What the fuck?” I walk back to Marty and go, “Marty, I’m finished. Our days are over. I’m turning into an entertainer. They’re dancing man.”
And then you moved to Vegas to become a lounge singer.
I got the name. Just add an S.
Did you ever fear for your life when you were onstage?
Every show I ever did for a good 15 years, I thought I was gonna die every night.
Oh, absolutely. The shit that was thrown at us, man. I remember one night, we were in Glasgow on that same tour. I saw a fucking ax go right by my head. I thought it was like a Western movie. Are you shooting arrows, too? Tomahawks flying by.
Who brings an axe to a concert?
Well, I know it was the Scots. Drunk out of their minds on a Friday night. That’s who brings it.
It must have taken you amazing restraint not to lash out at the audience when you were being abused.
Oh, I lashed out. I screamed at them, told everyone to go fuck themselves. I was a total agitator.
But you never resorted to violence.
Well, just to myself. I cut myself up a couple times. When they see me with blood on me, and I’m cutting myself, they say, “Wait a minute. We can’t fuck with this guy? He’s crazier than we are.”
That’s like how you have to do some crazy shit the first night you’re in prison so you don’t end up someone’s bitch.
Exactly. I didn’t hurt myself that bad, though. I knew how to do it. When you’re sweating and you get a little cut, it looks like a stream of blood all over the place.
Does confrontation still make for good art?
I think it’s impossible. But yeah, I do. I love confrontational stuff, but it’s hard now because kids are subjected to so much war. They see shit already. Look at the world. Open the front page of any newspaper, and you’ve got violence all over the place. You confront it, man. There’s nothing you can do. So in a way, you become an entertainer, and I’m enjoying it now. We play in front of packed houses wherever we go, don’t get anything thrown at us. Well, I shouldn’t say that. Some lunatic is going to come around and shoot me.
I went down to Texas with Marty to play the famous club Emo’s. It was packed with Mexicans, cowboys, you name it. Generally, we’ll play for 45 minutes to an hour. Tops we’ll do an hour and 15 [minutes]. They kept asking for song after song. We were out there for two and a half hours, and nothing was thrown at us. In fuckin’ Texas, man! I was sure we would have gotten the arrows there. After years and years of being booed unmercifully and every object in the world has been thrown at us–you name it, it’s been thrown at us–we’re getting applause all the time. That’s the way it is. We’re still trying to be confrontational with our music, but nobody’s buying it. People are loving it. I listen to what my kid is listening to. He’s gonna turn 10, and it’s unbelievable the shit he’s getting.
He goes through phases. It was the White Stripes for a while, which drove me completely crazy because I don’t like the band that much. I like what they’re doing intellectually, but to listen to it over and over again, can’t he graduate to something else? Now it’s Disturbed. And that goes on for months. I have to listen for months. “Shut it off already! You’re driving me crazy.”
What does punk mean today?
I don’t know what it means anymore. The first time we used that word was in 1971. We did this show in a gallery. Of course, we couldn’t get anywhere else to play. I was showing my art, my sculptures at this pretty big gallery. I asked if we could do a show there, and they agreed, which blew me away because no one else was giving us a show. We billed it as a “punk music mass.” Up until then, that word had never been used except in an article in ’69 by Lester Bangs. He did a thing in Creem magazine when Creem was basically the greatest fucking rock magazine around. He did a big piece on Iggy Pop, and the word punk was used for the first time that I’d seen it.
Where I grew up in Brooklyn, man, a punk was like a wuss, the guy who ran away from the fight. “You’re a punk. You’re a weasel. You’re nothing.” Now it has this connotation of being the tough guy thing. The revolution? Are you kidding? So I liked the word and used the term “punk music mass,” maybe inadvertently trying to turn it into something else. One day I wake up and there’s the word punk all over the place. That’s when it became meaningless to me. Somebody said that Suicide had to be the ultimate punk band because even the punks hated us. I think that hits it right on the head. I never really saw us as a punk band. They called us glitter. We’ve been called everything. It’s like country-Eastern music or New York blues music. But they did hate us. “You’re supposed to be punks, and you’re hating Suicide?”
“People who are living in New York now, I don’t even know who they are. Sometimes I literally start crying when I walk through the streets.”
This question is from Beth Ruder, one of our readers from St. Louis: When you sing, do the noises you make live inside you, or do you make them to cancel out something else?
Out of myself, or out of the music?
I’m assuming she means out of life or what’s around you.
I assume it does, yeah. People always used to ask me why I was so angry. I never thought of myself as being angry. But maybe I was. I don’t know. I grew up pretty much on the streets of Brooklyn. I never had a dime to my name. Everything was a struggle. Just looking around–I guess I’m a political guy in some ways–in those days it was the Vietnam War, and Nixon was in power, and Marty was a very political guy, too. We were both very upset. New York City was crumbling.
Is there anything you miss about New York in the ’70s?
I miss everything about New York in the ’70s. I’m a stranger in a strange land right now. It’s been gentrified up the asshole. Everything’s a new building all over the place. Prices are skyrocketing. People who are living in New York now, I don’t even know who they are. Sometimes I literally start crying when I walk through the streets where I used to live. I’ll start crying sometimes because I see the ghosts of all the people on the streets I used to hang out in. It was so great. Everybody knew each other. We knew the jazz guys, the rock guys, helping out if we could. If somebody got a pad, we’d all crash at one place, but you know, the cops wouldn’t bother you. That didn’t matter. Crime was rampant, which was cool. Where’s the crime now? They cleaned it up so much. Which is great for my kid.
Three of the discs in the box set focus on shows in New York City. Did you have a favorite venue to play here?
I loved the crowd at Max’s. It was more of a working man’s crowd. We actually got to be liked over there. It was a Queens tunnel crowd, a Brooklyn crowd, and aside from a few isolated cases where they tried to kill me, you know… They were waiting outside for me with guns. The police had to come. They kept me locked inside Max’s one night because the people with guns wanted to kill me.
But that was an occasional thing. CBGB’s was alright. But it was more of an artistic crowd. We weren’t liked at all at CB’s. The artists hated us–all the painters and sculptors–and I was a sculptor, showing at a big gallery. Still hating me. So the Max’s crowd was more of the kids, the tougher bunch.
The first time I listened to “Frankie Teardrop,” I had nightmares. What scares you?
It started out as something else. Remember that scream on that thing? Well, I almost passed out when I did it. Almost. I blacked out. I was starting to go down. Yeah. I don’t listen to my music very much, but I listened about ten years ago, and that is when I really discovered what I’d done. I can’t hear when I’m making an album because it’s too close. I remember one night listening to “Frankie” and, like you, I heard the scream, and I got scared. I did. I got scared by my own song.
Did you have reservations about putting out something so disturbing?
None whatsoever. It started off on another theme. I don’t know how it changed. I read about this guy. It’s a true story. What I had before was OK, but when I read this story, I knew I had to do this. I had to write a story about this guy. It came out like that. Maybe I felt some empathy with this guy. It hit home. That scream, I don’t know where… It was a scream from hell. Like I say, it scares me now when I hear it myself.
What role did that song serve for you? Why create it?
Oooh, that’s hard. I really don’t know. The funny story is that Lou Reed said he wishes he did that song. So that made me feel good, too. Plus, I was very much into the Velvets and Iggy and the Stooges. I love those guys. Iggy’s song “L.A. Blues” on his second album. In that context, I always wanted to do something like that, and “Frankie Teardrop” really did it for me. It just came, man. The whole record was like that. We did a 7-inch, and we’d already been out there for seven years doing the same stuff. The song just developed for seven years, kind of like a jazz thing. We never did a song the same way twice. So “Frankie” was the last thing we did for that album, and Marty had some great keyboard shit going, and I went into the booth and just did it. Sometimes I’m like that. I’m pretty good at doing things the first time. That’s the way it was done. Never touched. I never redid the lyrics. That’s it. And everyone went, “Uh huh, yeah.” We all knew it.
What do you know now that you wish you had known at the beginning of your career?
Uh, mistakes were made along the way [laughs]. I’m not perfect. “Ghost Rider” got on The Crow soundtrack. It sold like six million records. Henry Rollins did the [cover] song. He said, “Man, if I knew that thing was gonna be this big, I would have done one of my own songs.” So for once we had this nice big paycheck. And there are a couple things we could have done better. I think we waited too long to do the second Suicide record. But I don’t think that’s all our fault. It had to do with record companies and financing. Knowing what I know now, I would have manufactured the vinyl myself and scratched the record to get the sound out. I would have wanted that record to come out right after the first Suicide.
What music do you listen to today?
When I am listening, I’m listening to hip-hop. I watch a lot of movies, and I get more interested in the soundtracks than I do anything else these days. I’ll re-listen to stuff. I’ve been listening to Dylan again, Mozart. I go through phases.
Hip-hop is a bit of a surprise.
It’s great. I’m back into listening to Tupac Shakur. That man had a voice. Tupac had a fuckin’ unique voice as I’ve ever heard from any rapper. I didn’t discover that until recently.
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What are you listening to?
Yeah, the Makavelli album.
That’s fucking amazing, man.
What would you be doing today if you’d never met Martin?
Something in the arts. I was already starting a career with my sculpture thing. I had already been fooling around with electronic music in the late ’60s on my own. It’s great meeting Marty. It was a miracle, like Jagger meeting Richards. It’s always a two-man thing.
Can we expect any new music?
Oh, yeah. You know about the last album that just came out [2007’s Station, a Vega solo disc]. And I’m working on something now that’s further out than anything I’ve done.
What’s it like?
It’s really heavy with crazy beats and electronics. Crazy sounds. It’s gonna be more mystical.
A Suicide album?
No, it’s an Alan Vega album. We’ll be doing some more Suicide. I’ve also been working with a lot of people, putting in vocals. Have voice. Will travel.