©2022 By Legs McNeil
Photo © Bob Gruen
I was talking to photographer Bob Gruen the other day, and he told me he’d just come from visiting our old friend Alan Vega, the lead singer of the revolutionary electronic proto-punk band Suicide, in the hospital. I immediately thought, ‘Oh shit, not…
Old friends are dying off at such a rapid pace that I can barely grieve before news of another one’s passing surfaces on Facebook. Mick Rock, Arturo Vega, Ronnie Cutrone, Mick Farren, and Allen Lanier, and the list keeps growing. These names are familiar to a few, but not so famous as to merit headlines. Just some nice eulogies on the web and maybe a few postings of a YouTube video or two. I guess that’s what the modern world comes down to: a video obituary posted on a Facebook page with a funny quote written in the comment box.
The world is moving way too fast. It’s like, OK, you’re dead—NEXT! I thought I’d try to slow things down. Maybe stop them for just a minute or two. A moment to give me the time to catch my breath before the next awful event transpires.
Alan Vega died in his sleep on July 16 at age 78. If you don’t know about him for some reason, Alan’s a guy who revolutionized rock & roll, along with his long-time collaborator Martin Rev with their two-piece combo Suicide back in the 70s and 80s. The band was about 30 years ahead of its time. Like the Silver Apples and Kraftwerk, Suicide was the forerunner for all the techno-rock played in today’s trendy clubs and restaurants—that monotonous, endless drone without any guitars, humming so loudly it makes conversation obsolete.
Suicide was anything but boring. Far from it. This was dangerous, wildly unpredictable, chaotic performance art. They were really quite a spectacle and left anyone who stumbled into their concerts at CBGB or Max’s with their mouth open, thinking, What the hell is this? If you haven’t already, you might want to check out their first, self-titled record on Red Star Records. Trust me, you’ll love it.
Photo © Bob Gruen
Marty Rev: I didn’t listen to Iggy. I hadn’t heard Iggy, but Alan was totally into Iggy. Iggy’s actually what he said turned him into wanting to perform. He saw Iggy and changed his life; he wasn’t into performing until he saw Iggy.
Alan Vega: One night, in 1969, I was at home at two in the morning. There used to be this great show on the radio called Alison Steele, the Night Bird. At the time, I’d never heard of Iggy and the Stooges, but she was playing them on the radio, ya know, this great song, “Now I Wanna Be Your Dog.” What got me about it was Ron Asheton’s guitar, man, which was like this kind of wah-wah thing, and I thought, “Somebody’s finally doing something with the guitar again!”
It turned out they were playing the next night at the World’s Fairgrounds in Queens. There was one building, the New York Pavilion, that was left over from the 1964 World’s Fair. There was a huge park at one end of it. Ya know where Shea Stadium was? Where the train came in? And then you had to walk for miles when you got off at that subway station?
But you could hear the fucking music blasting from miles away. It really was about a two- or three-mile walk. As you got closer and closer there were fucking thousands upon thousands of people, all drugged up and parting, this huge tremendous scene, man!
When I got inside, they had this guy David Peel singing “Have a Marijuana.” Peel was the opening act, and the headliners were the MC5. This was at the time that their great second album, Back in the USA, came out. The MC5 had already done that first album with “Kick Out the Jams” on it, and then this other band, Iggy and the Stooges, was also playing, who I knew nothing about, except that I heard them on the radio the night before.
So David Peel does his boring thing, and then out comes this bunch of mean-looking guys. I see a guy behind an amp. He looks like a chick, ya know some girl with blond bangs? Kind of like Brian Jones, with the same kind of haircut.
This guy has no shirt on, torn dungarees and these ridiculous-looking loafers. So he comes out, and he’s just wild-looking, just staring at the crowd, before going, “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you!”
Then they launch into “I Wanna Be Your Dog” or “1969,” ya know, the one with the lyrics that go “War across the USA!” Iggy’s jumping in the audience and cutting himself up with a broken guitar. He just got crazier and crazier!
I was with a friend, and we were both standing there with our mouths open, cause it was the greatest thing. Just the way Iggy walked out on stage, it was like, “What the fuck is this?” Then the music comes in, and it’s total anarchy. They’re fucking each other with their guitars! I mean, today it would be nothing, but this was 1969, right outta the 60s, when all that twangy peace-and-love music dominated pop music, and this was something new!
The Stooges’ set ended in 20 minutes and someone had the fucking genius to play Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto” through the speaker system. The audience was throwing bottles and roses at him. I swear, it was beautiful. I’ll never forget it, man.
THE NEW YORK DOLLS
Photo © Bob Gruen
Marty Rev: The funny thing about Suicide was by our third or fourth gig, we started calling it punk music by Suicide. I remember we had a gig; we’d print up our own posters or flyers, paste em up and give em out or whatever, and by the fourth one or so, we were calling it Punk Music by Suicide, and that was early 1970s.
Alan Vega: The first time I saw the Dolls was probably at the Mercer Arts Center. Ironically, the first time I met them was on the David Susskind show, a TV-interview show on a local New York station. They were trying to do an interview with this band called the White Witch, and the Dolls were sitting there. They were making a little commotion in NYC at this time, and they were all in their garb, ya know, with their platform shoes and everything.
It was David Johansen and Arthur Kane, and they were so funny. David was sitting there backstage in the green room, and he finds a picture of David Cassidy in a magazine and decides he wants the picture, so he rips it out of the magazine. David Susskind wasn’t there, but his fancy assistant was just freaking out.
I walked behind them after they left the studio, and they must have stopped every car in the fucking street. These guys in platform boots with the hair and the glitter at two in the afternoon on Madison Avenue in midtown Manhattan. It was wild! I was walking behind them watching the reaction they were getting, man, and I swear, people were like, What the fuck is this?
Marty Rev: All of a sudden, the Mercer Arts Center opened up, and I went in there, I heard there was something, so I walked in, I see The New York Dolls play for the first time. I wasn’t blown away musically, but the visual thing was cool because here was an American group looking real British, and we had never seen that before. It was Johnny Thunders and David Johansen and Syl Sylvain and everybody, in their total regalia– the pants, the shoes, the high heels, the hair, the whole thing, it was so colorful, and there were so many chicks! I mean that was really the thing that blew everybody away in those days, I mean it was just such a scene, such a party scene that it definitely had an effect.
Alan Vega: Some nights Suicide and the Dolls were actually playing simultaneously at the Mercer Arts Center. This was in, like, 1973. I can’t believe a band like Suicide coexisted with a band like the Dolls, way before punk. One time, after they finished a gig, they had to walk through the room where we were playing in, and they were kind of stand-offish, looking at us like we were from Mars, like they were afraid of us. Ya know, we wore chains and knives and shit. Marty would stand there and play one note. One night he just sat there and played one note through the entire gig. I was out there, running around like a lunatic, getting bottles thrown at me. The Dolls used to be a little scared of us, ya know?
Marty Rev: I mean we had a very confrontational thing going on purpose, I mean Alan would go into the audience, and I would even do things from the stage. I was content to deal with the sound, and Alan used to say that the intensity of the feedback and the kind of sound would make– that we’d create a confrontational kind of thing so that we’d become magnified.
Alan Vega: I really liked the Dolls’ stuff, though I thought they were more of a party band. I really loved the gigs, cause it was fun. Every gig was a party, and everybody was having a great time. Everybody who was anyone in New York in those days was at their gigs. I never saw Bowie at the shows. I heard he was around them, but I did see Alice Cooper there having a great time. But musically, I felt they were coming out of the 1960s, and Marty and I had already made the transition to the future. We took the guitar and drums out of it, and started to make what eventually became known as techno.
We were playing 1990s or 2000s music in 1973, and the Dolls were just going along with this blues-based thing. That’s why I thought they were ill-fated. I mean, I didn’t wish them bad or anything, but I just had a feeling that they didn’t have enough of a new thing going on—almost as if they were playing reactionary music.
Marty Rev: At the Mercer Arts Center, we’d be doing one of these fucking crazy shows of ours, and people would be coming out of The Dolls show, and to get out of the theatre, they had to come through the blue room where we were playing, and they didn’t know what the fuck to make us. They literally had to walk in front of our stage, and they’d come from the Doll show, and there would be all these great looking people in frilly shirts with the big high heels, walking past us, trying to get out of there as fast as they could. It was like two cult scenes happening at the same time.
Alan Vega: Of course, David Bowie ripped the Dolls off to shit. They went over to England, on that tour in 1973 when their drummer Billy Murcia died. David Bowie took their whole look from them right there. Ya know, the same way the Sex Pistols took everything off the Ramones when the Ramones went over on the Fourth of July 1976.
But the Dolls were so fucked up in their personal lives, who knows if they ever would’ve made it.
CBGB’s BEFORE CBGB’s
Alan Vega: When we started to gig around, there were no New York Dolls, no Ramones, and no place to play. We were the only fucking band that was doing anything for God’s sake. There was only the Mercer Arts Center, but that place collapsed; it just caved in one day. Hilly Kristal actually started something at CBGB before the Mercer Arts Center. We actually played CBGB in 1971 or 1972 when Hilly tried to start live music there.
Marty Rev: There was a new generation of kids hanging out at Max’s, who weren’t part of the old Warhol generation. Kids who just rock & rollers and were starting to get going, make a living and be independent, and they hung out at Max’s. Bands like the Fast, Wayne County, the Miami’s, and Eric Emerson and the Magic Tramps. We got a few gigs at Max’s when Terry Ork was booking the bands, and then, actually, we did do a couple of things at CBGB’s, before CB’s got going, which The Fast actually brought us in, for some reason.
Alan Vega: Then CBGB’s died until 1975 when Patti Smith literally opened it up for Hilly Krystal, the owner of CB’s, and brought in the whole art scene.
See, I’d met Marty Rev at the Project of the Living Artist. That’s where we started hanging out. I mean, I was just hanging out there all the time, and I became the custodian of the place, cause I had nowhere to live and I used to stay there. Other guys hung out there. We had every kinda crazy person that there ever was.
Photo © Bob Gruen
There was a fucking riot at every concert we did, which wasn’t too many in those days, about two or three a year. People would get so upset and scream, “Where’s the drums? Where’s the bass?” It was unreal, people getting so angry because we weren’t a traditional rock band. That’s what I loved about Suicide: It came out of each of us searching for something. Like I was trying to find the art in the music, ya know? Visual art didn’t cut it for me anymore, and I found that in performing music, I could get closer to what I was searching for. I don’t know if I ever found it, but I got close a few times.
See, Marty started out with this jazz band called Reverend Heat, and it was the greatest fucking band I’d ever seen. He had like three trumpets, two sets of drums, and four clarinet players, and it went on all night. The musicians would change every so often. At one point there’d be three guys in the band. A little while later, there’d be 12 guys in the band.
Marty Rev: At the time I was into listening to whatever was coming out of the jazz world, and a lot of exciting stuff was coming out of American Music scene that was fresh and new. I mean, Coltrane was constantly putting out new records, and it seemed like a natural extension of the mind thing.
Alan Vega: And I’d walk in and start banging a tambourine, ya know, shit like that. But the key to Marty was that he’s the first person I saw play an electric keyboard in a jazz band. He was only 20 or 21 at the time, but he’d already gotten kicked out of NYU Music School for being too something or other. And when I was jamming with some other band, Marty would come in and grab some pencils, sit down on the floor, and start tapping along with these pencils. We had no music in a sense, man, everything was chaos, but we just jammed.
I was playing trumpet in those days, and Marty was playing these great drums. Nobody knows this man. We’d just do things together all night long. Our first gig was at this place, and we didn’t know where to begin—so we just began with a sound, and that’s how the whole thing developed. Eventually a song came out of it, maybe two years later.
Marty Rev: Alan was playing trumpet, he was just blowing trumpet, he’d never really played trumpet before, but he had great energy, he played trumpet, this other guy played the guitar, so I came into it, and they were both coming from the art scene, from a visual place, and I was coming from the sound place, that’s really what our orientation was, so I said, “Okay, let’s do this.”
Alan Vega: What happened was, the guitar player decided, after about three or four gigs, that he’d be committing suicide by continuing with us, so he left the band. Marty knew a lot of musicians, and we talked about maybe getting a drummer—but Marty’s idea was they had to be committed to the band. We believed in it so much that the idea of somebody leaving was just so wrong. Marty felt that we would never find somebody else that’d be committed in the same way we were—so why bother?
I agreed with him, that’s when miraculously, I don’t know what prompted him, but Marty brought in this drum machine, some metal thing that looked really weird, ya know, that they played at Bar Mitzvahs and weddings.
Marty Rev: I was mainly using an electric keyboards and drums—and the drum machine actually came in when we started Suicide. I was getting called in for different kinds of gigs where I was like organizing gigs that were like, supposed to be like, like they were like free rocking, that’s the only way I can explain, cause in a way, in one sense it was like free jazz, everybody blowing, at the same time, but it was definitely rock & roll, it wasn’t a fusion thing, and we were smoking pot, or whatever that day, and the groove would get very solid.
I started playing rock & roll when I was like 15, did my first gig, actual gig, and at some point, I’d feel I kind of had that down, you know? I’m a rocker, that’s my roots, I mean I come from the rock & roll generation, so that’s always been the thread.
Alan Vega: When Marty brought in the drum machine something started emerging from the music. I mean, a guitar player never contributed anything anyways. So we used to rehearse for three or four hours. Those were the days of acid, and we’d be so exhausted after our rehearsals, but that’s how committed we were.
That’s when we looked at each other and said, “We don’t need anyone else!
It was a great rock & roll machine man, that’s how “Ghost Rider” came about, and all those first great songs we did, because of that “bub-a-boom” drum machine.
ELVIS COSTELLO & THE CLASH
Alan Vega: I never knew people knew about Suicide, you know what I’m saying, man? But I was shocked that Elvis Costello wanted us to open for his European tour, but not that much, I could understand it. Cause I actually ran into Elvis Costello about a year earlier when we both did an interview on BCN in Boston, he was there a little early, that’s when I knew he knew about us, but we were more surprised about The Clash. We knew something was happening over in Europe, and we would go over there once in a while, do a weekend here and there, and in 1978, when I went over in England for the first time, Time Out, which was their big magazine– there’s my puss on the front cover, man!
Photo © Bob Gruen
But I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know what that magazine was. I didn’t know, I mean, no one’s walking in to tell me that’s something’s happening there, but I guess things had been developing through the years that our reputation, and not only Suicide’s, but the whole New York scene had been growing.
Marty Rev: We did that first really long tour, the European tour, when we opened up for Elvis Costello, and then the Clash. I think we did a couple of months for Elvis, and a month with the Clash, and then we did about three weeks of our own dates, so we opened up, it was the first time I had toured.
Elvis Costello was very popular, and the Clash were very popular too, but they were closer to our kind of popularity, they were more like outcasts. The Clash couldn’t work in any regular club, they had to work in airplane hangars or navy base hangers, and things like that, because they had a reputation for screwing up, because their audience was so heavy.
When we opened up for Elvis Costello, the word came down it was okay with him, and he wanted us to open up for him, but we had riots every night.
Alan Vega: First we opened up for Elvis Costello in Europe and there were riots every fucking night! Elvis was on like a nine-month tour, and they’re band was crazed, the road crew was crazed, I mean they were speeding out of their minds, and every night we’d have a riot, and Elvis used to come to me and say, “Gimme another riot because the band can’t last, they’re exhausted!”
Marty Rev: We would open up the show and the crowd just went nuts, and they were tearing down the places, and apparently Elvis liked it.
Alan Vega: One night Elvis didn’t play at all, because in Belgium the place was such a mess; the police came in and smashed everything, with full scale tear gas, swinging batons, and destroying everything; it was like a war. So we didn’t get to play, and Elvis kept calling and saying, “Do another one for us tomorrow night, man?” They were so wasted– nine months of travelling the world, man, anyway we left from there for England, and we went from the frying pan into the fire…
Marty Rev: The Clash’s audience were hard-drinking, safety pinned kids in ripped t shirts! They were like twelve years old with Mohawks, but the funny thing was man, when we did that first gig with The Clash in some hanger, or something, this guy came up to me after the show. It was a great show, like they were screaming and throwing things, and this guy says to me, “That must have been a bad night for you guys, you’ll probably be better tomorrow night, huh? You had an off night, huh, that’s why they’re yelling at you…”
Photo © Bob Gruen
I said, “No that’s what we do, that’s what it is, you know?”
Alan Vega: The Clash tour was right in the middle of the punk era, there were all these spitting and screaming skinheads, who threw things at us and jumped the stage! I was just expecting shit to start; I was so paranoid in those days…
Marty Rev: The Clash got their audience, and we got an incredible amount of spitting, and we got an incredible number of objects thrown at us, to the point where very dangerous objects would be found on stage, you know, like hatchets in the drums, things like that. I had to literally fight one guy off me while I was playing! This guy’s attacking me and I’m throwing lefts and rights, while I’m cranking the music out cause this guy was ready to kill me.
Alan Vega: They had this fucking Nazi party in England, the National Liberation Front, and they almost came into my dressing room one night, I was alone and they wanted to kill the shit out of me. Yeah, it, was it in Portsmouth or Plymouth, and a bunch of them came for me because they came to the gig and they hated us. The dressing room was to the back of the stage, and Marty was still playing, and about five of em came in, and they were ready to kill, and they had chains and Swastikas! They hated my fucking guts, and I was in the corner going, “Oh shit!” Fortunately, Marty stopped playing, and everybody rushed in and that was it, there were too many people, so the Nazi’s were just kicked out, everyone told em to get the fuck out. But it was one of those moments I thought that was it.
Marty Rev: I said to Alan one night, “Listen this is the reaction we should expect because this is what we’ve been doing to the audiences for so long, they’re just giving it back, they just learned all this from a performance, so now they’re spitting at the performers, they’re throwing things, they figure that’s the punk aesthetic you know?”
Alan Vega: We had our own tour, after the Clash tour, you know, a small Suicide tour. The first night, we played Glasgow, Scotland, and it was a little club, a small little stage, about a thousand people out there, it was all dark out there…
Marty Rev: Glasgow was supposed to be a place where you really took your life in your hands if you performed there…
Alan Vega: So we go out to play, and again, I was just expecting shit to start, but it was okay, we were going along, and nothing’s really happening, and then they put on these little disco lights on– and I look out and I go, “Fuck it, they’re dancing! They’re fucking dancing to this shit, a thousand people dancing, they’re not throwing bottles, they’re not charging me, they’re not spitting on me, they’re fucking dancing!” So I walked back to the keyboards and I go, “Marty, they’re dancing! What are we gonna do now?”
Alan Vega: I was just finishing Collision Drive, my second solo album, in 1983. I was sitting in my record-company office, and all of a sudden I get a phone call asking me to open for the fucking Pretenders in America.
I thought, What? Where did this one come from, man?
Photo © Bob Gruen
Of all people, Chrissie Hynde turned out to be a tour from fucking hell, because the band was nuts, and the roadies were nuts. They’d been going through some really bad times. See, it was a tour that had originally been cancelled because their drummer had put his hand through a window, the drummer who eventually died. The only decent person in that band was the guitar player, the sweetest guy that came from Texas, but he died too from a cocaine overdose.
But on that tour Chrissie was driving me fucking insane.
First of all she wanted me to fuck her, and I didn’t want to. That’s why she got Iggy to tour with her later on.
She didn’t realize at the time she was pregnant with Ray Davies’ kid. So after my set, every fucking night, Chrissie was running around saying, “I don’t know if I’m on my period or not!”
She was always talking about her fucking period, and what do I care about her period? I hardly knew her. I mean, what’s she talking about her period for? I thought she was just trying to get me into the sack or something, but she was actually pregnant. She was only a month or two into her pregnancy. That’s why she was screaming all the time.
And the band was having all kinds of trouble. They were such fuckers, lines of coke a yard long on the side of the stage, and they’d just go over there and snort ’em up. It was bad.
I was getting booed every night, because I would go out and just give attitude to everybody. I was nasty. I used to walk out, and everybody in the audience would gimme the finger before I even started. We nicknamed it the “Fuck You Tour,” and word got around. I guess people talked about it, so it became a thing to do. We were doing all these universities and colleges in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, all those great states where everyone gives you the finger.
Actually, I thought the audience enjoyed it. I thought the kids were having a great time, ya know, cause I used to see people laughing and jumping up and down and getting all nasty. So I thought they were really digging on it, ya know?
Chrissie’s management wanted me off the tour. They took it the wrong way, all those people giving me the finger, but I said, “No, I’m sticking!
At the start of the tour, the roadies were kicking my amps and shit, just being assholes, but after a month or two on the road with them, they actually turned out to be nice guys. They stopped doing sound checks for the Pretenders, and when they would set up the equipment, instead of playing Chrissie, they would be playing my songs.
So one day Chrissie’s manager came in unexpectedly and heard the roadies and everybody playing my songs, man, and he just flipped out! He freaked!
I think that’s why he wanted me off the tour, cause we were getting really friendly with the guys, but it was really funny to hear those guys talk about what a “bad influence” I was.
Alan Vega: There’s no danger anymore. Every band makes the same moves, the same gestures—and they’re all too clean. Today I was walking behind a bunch of musicians carrying their axes, trying to be so cool. They look like these fucking yuppies, too clean, ya know? They look like they just walked out of the shower, they had nice clothes… I mean, they look like they just got outta college!
Out of all the fucking bands that I see now, maybe there’s one that might’ve had a truly authentic moment on stage.
Everybody’s acting like what they think they’re supposed to be doing instead of actually feeling something and communicating that to the audience. We’ve entered into the “Era of the Inauthentic,” and nobody seems to have noticed. Like, Jesus God, fuck me now!
Marty Rev: Now things are in such a rut, things have really gone back to like the middle of the road, it’s like, “What the Hell?”