Suicide keyboardist Marty Rev produced a wall of sound from behind a bank of keyboards and other crude electronics while Alan Vega psychologically tortured audiences at the Mercer Arts Center, Max’s Kansas City, CBGB, and other downtown venues.
Alan Vega spent the first three years of his life on the Lower East Side before his family moved to a more middle-class area of Brooklyn (his father was a renowned diamond setter). At the age of sixteen, he got involved with a collective named the Art Workers’ Coalition, then started working with the Project of Living Artists. “It was basically this group of about a half dozen people that got money from the New York state government,” Vega said. “With that money we got a huge loft, a big open space, by Broadway, where anyone could wander in off the street. I was basically the janitor there.” This job allowed him to pursue a career as a visual artist and sculptor, creating large light paintings with colored fluorescent tubes. “I incorporated some glass things later on,” Vega said, “and also TV sets, subway lights, electrical equipment, and anything, really, I could get my hands on.” His interest turned toward music after seeing the Stooges in 1969, when Iggy Pop enthralled him with his confrontational theatrics. Vega had never considered going onstage, but he wanted a challenge. “I wanted to evolve as an artist, because what I saw Iggy do was so futuristic and so new,” he said. “If I stayed a sculptor, a visual artist, I would have stagnated.” Vega had already been experimenting with electronic sounds, and after he saw Marty Rev play at the Project of Living Artists, the two formed Suicide.
From Chapter 27 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
One of Suicide’s earliest shows was in 1970 at OK Harris, one of the first galleries to open in SoHo. It was owned by Ivan Karp, an art dealer who played an early role in promoting Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Robert Rauschenberg. “I told him Suicide should play at his gallery,” Vega said, “and to our surprise he said yes, and they printed up postcards and everything saying Punk Music by Suicide. It was a pretty intense show, but we got invited back, even though we freaked everyone out.” The OK Harris show flyer contained the first use of the word “punk” by a band, one of the many ways in which Suicide was truly cutting edge. “I remember seeing Alan Vega around the scene very early on,” said Chris Stein. “Suicide was so groundbreaking, it’s hard to convey how far ahead they were in relation to what was going on at the time.” Debbie Harry added, “As a performer, Alan was sometimes a baffling struggle of danger, drama, pathos, and comedy. He held nothing back from us, and the interaction with audience hecklers was fundamental.” Not only was their music radically different from the New York Dolls, so was their look. “We were street guys, we took what we could get, sometimes from the garbage,” Vega said. “I remember Marty [Rev] went through the trash and other thrift store or Salvation Army type stuff, mainly out of necessity. We didn’t have any money, so what became the punk look was born out of necessity. I cut holes in socks so that my fingers went through and I stretched the socks up to my elbows and had a cutoff pink jacket. That was really something, man! Basically, I just wore what I could afford. I’m not sure really what the fuck I was thinking.”
“At the Dolls shows at Mercer’s,” Paul Zone said, “there would be opening act Eric Emerson and the Magic Tramps, and Patti Smith would be doing poetry, and Suicide would be in one of the other rooms.” Suicide keyboardist Marty Rev and frontman Alan Vega eschewed the traditional rock group lineup by forgoing bass, drums, and guitars altogether—opting instead for synths, drum machines, and vocals. “We weren’t interested in rehashing the same rock ’n’ roll,” Vega said. “We wanted something new, and we weren’t even necessarily thinking musically, but theatrically.” Suicide tried to bring Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty into music by breaking down the boundaries between performer and audience. As he physically and psychologically terrorized the audience, a rigid Rev produced a wall of sound from behind a bank of primitive keyboards and other crude electronics. “As you were leaving Mercer’s, you would hear something,” Zone recalled. “You would open the door and it would be Suicide, with no one in there, and of course we would go in. Alan would be in silver makeup and wearing a blond wig.” Vega wasn’t that crazy about the New York Dolls’ songs, which to him sounded like backward-looking 1960s party music. “The Dolls’ audience definitely didn’t like what we were doing,” Vega said, “but when we played the Blue Room their audience had to walk through it when they exited, because it was like a central corridor. If the Dolls’ room was like a party, our room was like a scene of carnage. Sometimes I would block the exit if people tried to leave. People thought I was fucking insane, and I guess I was, but I never, ever tried to hurt people. Myself, yes, I hurt myself. I would cut myself with a switchblade. I would always do it so that I got the most amount of blood with the least amount of pain.”