Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby
Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company
Alan Vega is half of the legendary New York proto-punk duo Suicide. Vega was the howling lovechild of Iggy Pop, an Elvis from hell. Martin Rev—Suicide’s keyboard player—made a throbbing, antagonistic wall of sound and great beats with a junk Farfisa organ and cheap effect boxes. Starting in the mid-’70s they dragged the attitude and energy of the New York streets onto the city’s stages. Vega whispered and cooed, shrieked and moaned through his lyrics. Coming after the demise of the Velvet Underground and before No Wave, no scene could contain or categorize them. Suicide was a nightmare. They were the best.
We saw Suicide as optimistic, life-affirming shit. Toward the end of high school—long before we formed A.R.E. Weapons—we got our hands on a copy of the first Suicide record. We’d sit around in the dark and force our friends to listen to “Frankie Teardrop.” From the twisted rockabilly and icy Americana of Jukebox Babe and Collision Drive to the bugged-out street poetry and future beats of Deuce Avenue and New Raceion, Vega’s solo records push his music to new places. His new record, Station, is a next level, and a box set of live Suicide material from 1977–1978 has just been released by Blast First.
Vega grew up a Brooklyn kid—a lone Yankee fan in a sea of Dodger blue. He has been showing sculptures pieced together from street junk, electronics, and crucifixes since before Suicide started. He writes. He draws. He’s a photographer. Most importantly, he’s the sweetest, coolest, humblest, most generous guy you could ever meet. In the fall of 2007, we all met about 20 minutes before we were scheduled to perform with him at Deitch Projects, Vega’s gallery in New York. We had talked briefly on the telephone about what to play: a couple of Suicide songs, an improvisation, a cover of “96 Tears.” He told us, “Baby, don’t worry, it’ll be great.” And it was. Since then we’ve been working together on music, talking sports, and becoming friends.
Brain McPeck Station, your latest album, is a new level, in my opinion. It’s like a sound collage almost, layer upon layer—this dense, mesmerizing thing. There’s also an element of drone in there, where you can get lost if you let yourself. What went into the making of it? Where do you continue to find sources of inspiration?
Alan Vega We’re talking about four years of working on it, so who the hell knows what went into it? Just a lot of time, and—I always say this when people ask me what I do—a lot of manipulating sounds. Over and over and over again, man. You just keep listening and listening and changing and changing and then, out of nowhere—very often in the last half hour of the night—the magic happens. After a whole night of getting nowhere.
Matt McAuley Is that how you’ve always worked? In your solo stuff from the early ’80s, were you sifting through sounds just as much?
AV Pretty much. Some of the earlier solo stuff was more rock and rollish—more guitars. On the last few records, I’ve just been trying to go wherever I’m going. I don’t exactly know where that is… . People never liked 2007, the record before Station.
MM I’m still dying to hear that. 2007 came out in what, ’99 or something?
AV Yeah, ironically 2007 came out in 1999 and it wasn’t until 2007 that I released the next album, Station. I think the last couple records were moving toward Station’s sound. What surprised me more than anything was Henry Rollins’s reaction to 2007. He just didn’t like it, period. Henry’s always loved everything I’ve done. Things like that used to bother me, especially when it’s someone whose opinion I greatly respect. But I’ve reached the point where I have to follow my path and not care so much about whether people will like it. Now you say, Who gives a shit anymore? It’s very freeing. But just recently Henry’s been emailing, and it turns out he loves Station. He’s been playing it on his radio show.
BM I feel like you’ve had decades of people not getting it and not caring. We get our share of that. We have such a bad reputation. People hear A.R.E. Weapons and hold their noses. And I bet they haven’t even heard our music … which kind of blows, but what can we do? We keep doing our thing. You’re the king of “doing his thing.” I think that’s the most important thing for an artist.
AV When I was making Station I had a feeling it was going to be a long-term thing. But working on the song “13 Crosses 16 Blazin’ Skulls” was a breakthrough. I remember saying, I’m not stopping. I didn’t want to wait five years. Who the hell has five years anymore?
BM Having a breakthrough like that can be the best feeling. You can tell from your new songs you’ve been playing us that some kind of floodgate has opened for you. I think the three of us might be on the verge of one ourselves.
AV I’ve been talking to people a lot about A.R.E. Weapons and I’m always saying, Man, if nothing else they’re great fucking musicians. Forget the fact that you’re totally smart, know your shit, know every kind of music and where it came out of. And all they see is these spoiled rich kids. I want to say, What? Are you out of your mind? I try to tell them how Matt would get in fights and learned to stitch himself up, gave himself 13 stitches on his own. I tried to tell them the town you came out of and what you came out of. How do these people think they have an idea of who you are?
MM It’s just connections to other people. We don’t try to distance ourselves from our friends, whoever they are.
AV It’s funny how long our thing took to unfold. Paul Smith from Blast First wanted us all to do a version of “War,” that ’70s song.
BM And we come in with all our gear and all these ideas, but it didn’t just happen immediately; I think in part because we were figuring out how to work together. I think we’re getting it. The newest thing we did, “See the Light,” came together much easier and it sounds sick.
AV We still haven’t quite finished the Springsteen cover, “State Trooper,” that we were working on. You guys have got to keep going—for yourselves. Remember when we were trying to do that stupid rockabilly thing that was just going nowhere? If you’re going to build a road, you’ve got to dig it out and hammer and saw and labor.
MM With your visual artwork, do you have more of an idea ahead of time and then just execute it?
AV No, it never comes out the way I see it initially. So sometimes I don’t even bother seeing it initially; I just get shit together. I go through various stages of my life: sometimes I get really on a musical thing, and I’m hearing all kinds of shit and then my whole visual thing is blank. Then one day I’ll wake up and I’m looking around and I’m walking down the same streets I’ve walked down a hundred times and I’m noticing things that I never saw before. Then I get into gear and I’m drawing like crazy and collecting things from the streets. There’s one area of my house that’s like a garbage dump, filled with stuff I drag in. It’s like another planet—planet Garbage Pluto or something. (laughter) When the junk builds up to the point where I can barely move through the space, my wife Liz asks me if I can sort through it and get rid of some of the shit and I tell her that things I picked up five years ago are some day going to be the key piece in something. I had to do this big piece for a biennial in Busan, South Korea, and I said, What am I gonna do? Suddenly I pulled out a section of a bigger piece I was working on. It was a hard piece; it was never working. There was a smaller section of it that was really cool. I pulled that out and started adding to it, and it worked out beautifully. It’s one of the best pieces I’ve ever done, actually.
I’m working on new things, too—images of boxers and stuff. Have you ever seen the after-fight when they’ve got their cronies, their cigars, their managers? There’s this great picture I took of this boxer: he had on a black robe. He looked like a bleeding monk. There’s a guy behind him with a big fucking fat cigar. You know, the old school cronies, man. And the mother came up and was touching him on his side. I called it Pietá. I put it on a square canvas and nailed it in there with all kinds of wires and stuff and then I connected it to a little Christ figurine I got at some junk shop and painted red.
MM I’ve only seen the sculptures. Is the process similar with your drawings as with the sculptures?
AV They’re done very immediately. I do them when I’m coming back from the old Blarney Stone late at night. The light clicks, I’m feeling good, and I just start drawing. They all look different but they’re all basically me and facets of my personality. I’ve always drawn old men, even when I was a young kid. I used to go out to the Bowery and draw these old guys. Always done while I’m blitzed. Never touch them straight. I write like that, too. Some things come out of me that would never come out of me straight. Never. The sculptures I would never do any other way but straight. That’s dangerous shit, man.
MM Then you can go back when you’re straight and see what was good.
AV Yeah, out of a thousand words, you’re lucky if you can find three! But those three are amazing things that you’d never get any other way. Because when you’re straight you’re too self-conscious. I use the same size paper for drawing and writing. If you look at them visually, some of the writing is my best drawings … It feels real quiet tonight.
BM Because your son, Dante, and Liz are out of town?
AV Yeah, Dante has been out of school for the summer, so I’ve had him almost every day. We’ve been buddying up; it’s nice. He watched an entire ballgame on his own last night and was able to give me all the information. I feel like I’ve got a younger brother now. He’s so smart, man. I taught him the game, and now he beats the shit out of me. I can’t move an inch. I’m stuck back here and he’s got all these fucking pawns … I don’t force him into anything. He plays the keyboard. If he wants to go into music he’s got an amazing ear.
BM You played some trumpet in the early days of Suicide. How did you start playing?
AV I was fooling around with Marty, doing a lot of rehearsals. He loved Miles Davis. He loved all these greats: Ornette, Coltrane … Anyway, there was a trumpet laying around. Maybe somebody left it and never came back for it. Marty said to me one day, “I bet if you blow through it you aren’t going to get a sound at all.” All right Marty, sure Marty, yeah Marty. I blew through it and whoosh! Nothing. I was so pissed off.
MM There’s something about trumpet, and about sax. It’s like another voice. It comes directly from inside you. We used to have a free jazz band, Ayler’s Angels, ’cause we love Albert Ayler. We couldn’t really play technical jazz at all—we’d get up there and blow our brains out. Brain would be killing his drum set and I’d be ready to pass out from not breathing right. I think we got a certain feeling across, though. Which is what it’s all about.
AV It was the best thing, to learn how to play that thing. People ask me how I learned to sing and protect my voice. I tell them by blowing a brass instrument. It’s the same mechanism. One day I got that high note I was striving for. Miles got that very high thing that nobody ever achieved, and I did too one day. I almost passed out. And I said, That’s it!
BM That story you told us about how you got rid of the trumpet was pretty hilarious.
AV One night I did a show. I think it was at OK Harris, the art gallery. A very weird night. You get these art audiences, and they turn out to be the worst sometimes. So highfalutin. They just fucking hated Suicide. That night I was so fucking drugged out; I was taking this yellow hashish that was like speed and I think I might have done acid. Marty was cranked on something. I got depressed and fed up. I left the gallery and just threw the trumpet in the city garbage and went back to where I lived on Greene Street. At about 2:00 AM I cooled out a little and realized what a stupid thing I’d done. I still like the idea of getting a pocket trumpet.
MM Don Cherry-style.
AV Don Cherry, absolutely. I think Marty might have a pocket trumpet. He’s a big Don Cherry fan.
AV Marty knew all those guys cause his wife knew Charlie Mingus. Through Charlie, Marty got to know everybody. Mingus was a cool guy. I had some cool talks with him. Tough motherfucker. He held a shotgun out of the window. They came to evict this guy. What are you, out of your mind? He’s fucking Mr. New York! He’s Mr. World. And they’re trying to kick this guy out.
BM Well, that’s what America does to its geniuses … chucks them out on the street.
AV Unbelievable. He was defiant. He’s like this big guy, but really soft-spoken. We spent hours talking together. And he didn’t have any problem with the name Suicide. I love the attitude of the jazz guys. They used to laugh at rockers: “They can’t play shit.” And it’s probably true.
MM Oh, it’s true.
AV These guys had the chops. One night Marty took me to the Village Vanguard, and I was standing in the kitchen. The kitchen was a dressing room and I swear everybody was fucking in there. I was starstruck.
MM You guys didn’t play together back in those days … they kept to their side and you to yours, right?
AV Well, Marty somehow managed. He knew the owner of the Vanguard, of all places, this old guy. Max something. He gave us a Sunday afternoon gig. Suicide, man. The place was packed. We blew everybody out. It was a total separation. One night I did a jam session with all these jazz guys. There must have been 30, 40 guys. I brought my trumpet, Marty was playing keyboard. We all got together in some basement. I don’t even know how this originated. Nobody knew where to begin, and then somebody blew a sound and then we all came in and just kept blowing for a half hour or an hour. And then all the sudden it stopped, but on a dime. It wasn’t like one guy or three guys kept blowing. It was just—man!—one of those great things that happened in this life, you know?
MM And there’s no way of knowing when that’s going to happen.
AV It’s never happened again. It was some part of musical transcendence.
MM Did people used to freak out about the name Suicide? You talked about the jacket you had, with SUICIDE in studs across the back.
AV People totally freaked out. They’d throw beer bottles, spit on me as I was standing on the sidewalk …
MM Would it be like, “How dare you? My cousin committed suicide!”
AV Nah, it would be like “Go fuck yourself, you piece of shit.” (laughter) Whatever. But here’s the funniest thing … One day out of fucking nowhere, someone comes down to where I’m squatting and says, “Allen Ginsberg would like to see you.” I said, “Holy shit! I’m coming up in the world! I’m getting an invite from Ginsberg!” So I go up to his place and we talk a little, and then all of a sudden he goes into a tirade. ‘How could you use that word suicide?’” Mr. fucking Beatnik himself.
MM Did he have a problem because it was negative?
AV Yeah, he was like, “How can you have such negativity?” I was in such a state of shock I can’t remember everything he was saying, but it lasted about 15 minutes. When he started talking, I didn’t believe it at first. I thought he was joking around with me. I got the fuck out of there after that.
MM He just went off on you?
AV He went off on me! I’m going to Mecca to get kicked out of the Garden of Eden, snakes and everything, and the apple with it, man.
MM Had he even heard you guys or did he just know that you were called Suicide?
AV I don’t know to this day. Five or ten years later, I got an invite to go to Andy Warhol’s Factory, and at that point I said “No way, man.” An invite to hell. (laughter)
BM It’s like getting sent to the principal’s office.
AV Yeah, but Ginsberg threw me. I was really excited; I liked his work and everything. It really stuck in my craw. Should’ve rubbed off, but it didn’t. But in some ways it was kind of cool; we even got Ginsberg pissed off.
MM There’s something about the generational gap there. Even though you guys were coming up in those days, the difference between what was going on in the ’60s and what was going on in the ’70s, or the ’50s …
AV Even these guys, as cool as they are, they get old. Mentally old. You get stuck at “Howl,” and Suicide was a real howl, maybe even more real than his howl. Maybe that’s what pissed him off.
BM I mean, what can you do about what people think about you?
AV It was just hard back when nobody was digging us at all. But he always took second place to Kerouac, anyway. Kerouac was my man. Kerouac was street.
MM And that’s kind of the difference between Suicide and bands who came out of Suicide. It’s like the difference between theory and reality.
BM Kerouac was a Masshole, wasn’t he?
MM Yeah, he’s from Massachusetts. Lowell.
AV That’s what I’m saying! Kerouac really hit me here. (points to chest) On the Road changed my life. Ginsberg didn’t change me that way. You ponder his work. Kerouac is like getting hit over the head with a fucking hammer. It was like seeing Iggy for the first time.
MM For me, it was the first time hearing you guys. There are things you see in bands and think, That’s what I want to be; that thing is inside me.
AV The first time I saw Iggy I was with another friend with an incredible mind when it came to rock and roll, just ahead of everybody. He recognized everything immediately. Two seconds of Velvet Underground: great. Two seconds of Iggy: great. All of us lunatics living in New York were connected through the radio. My friend was living in Brooklyn far away from me, and he called to tell me to turn on the radio and it was “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” I knew nothing about Iggy, but I heard that wah-wah guitar, which I love. It turned out the next night they were playing in Flushing Meadows Park. This was 1969.
MM They were playing out in Queens?
AV Yeah, right by the Shea Stadium. It was the most incredible scene I’ve ever been to in terms of the crowd. I didn’t go to Woodstock, but this had to be close. The place could hold maybe 2,000, it was a circular thing with no roof. Outside there had to be 50,000, 60,000 people in the whole park. The cops were trying to break up the pot smoking, the drugs. People were pulling the cops around; they had no control. MC5 was actually the headliner. I had just gotten to know them; I loved Kick Out the Jams. This group The Stooges was opening for them. They were all part of the Michigan scene. Someone else was on before Iggy, a band extolling the virtues of pot.
MM David Peel & the Lower East Side?
AV Yeah, that was it!
MM Yeah, half their songs are about weed.
AV The Stooges looked like crazy fuckers—all Detroit. And there was some guy standing behind an amp. I thought it was a chick. He had a pageboy haircut going on, and you could only see up to here on his bare chest. But then this thing walks out from behind these tall bass amps, he’s got no shirt on, so I realize it’s a guy. He was so androgynous. Perfect build on him, man. Cutoff jeans up to here, and then he’s wearing these stupid penny loafers. I’m going, What the fuck? That was crazy enough. And then he launched into “1969” and “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” The drums are going crazy, so there are broken drumsticks flying everywhere. Iggy picks up the drumsticks and starts cutting his fucking chest with the sticks. The bass player is trying to fuck the guitar player up the ass with his bass. The sound is cacophonous. And then Iggy dives into the audience. Cement fucking floor. He dives in, landing in people, and the place is going nuts. He gets back up, he’s bleeding, the music is going nuts, this guy is fucking this guy, and in 20 minutes its over. It was like, What the fuck was that?
BM You had never really thought about having a band before that, right?
AV I was doing my art and fooling around with electronic music. Static. My friend had a two-track tape recorder and I was totally into that shit in the late ’60s. Performing was the last thing I ever thought I’d do. I already had a career in the art world showing with Ivan Karp, and I was on that road in life where you get to Road A and Road B, and you know if you take Road B then you’re just going to continue what you’ve been doing. Everything was saying, “Alan, you have go down road A.” I said, What do I know about getting a band together? I can’t fucking sing. I had no idea I’d become the lunatic I became.
BM Yeah, it’s like, why would you do that to yourself? (laughter)
AV Why would I want to do that to myself? To cut myself up? Although I gotta tell you, I had done that already in real life. Sometimes with the pressure of my life, I’d be standing on the streets going chhh chhh, (slicing noises) not knowing why. So something there was loose already.
BM You could have skipped that show, never seen Iggy, and who knows?
AV We wouldn’t be sitting here talking.
MM For better or worse, you might be a millionaire artist or something.
AV I’m getting all the shows now that I should have gotten then if I had been concentrating on art. I could have been showing and making zillions of bucks.
MM Well, the world would be less enriched.
AV I’m certainly less enriched. (laughter) This guy last night asked me and Marty if we’d rather reach millions of people as opposed to being a cult band. I thought he was going to say the cult thing, but Marty said “Bring ‘em on, man! Bring on those millions of kids!” I was sitting there laughing, but I actually agree with him.
MM People have asked us that question, too. Not about making that choice, but about what we want to do. You always want to reach the most amount of people, but if you’re turned on by things that are different than what most people are—if you can’t stand the Beatles, but can’t live without Ayler and Coltrane—well, that’s who you are. We can’t all be pop stars. Some of us like it dark and weird. Is it even possible to do it your way and win them over to your side? It doesn’t seem like it.
AV I’ve been very lucky to know some people who have made it big time. I know Bruce Springsteen. I know Billy Idol. I was Ric Ocasek’s Best Man at his wedding. I did two nights in a row in Hartford and then Providence in 1979 with the Cars, playing in front of 18,000 people. Can you imagine that kind of feeling? One night, me and Ric were driving to Boston to stay at his house. I had left my jacket behind and I didn’t have anything to wear for the next nights. When we got to his massive house he said, “You need a jacket?” He opens up a fucking door at least as long as this whole thing and there’s a closet with nothing but jackets. He says, “Take whatever you want.” I said, “Ric, what are you talking about?” There must have been 50 jackets, and they were probably all handmade. The funny thing was I tried on two of them and they fit me perfectly. They couldn’t have fit Ric. The sleeve would have been up to here on him.
MM He’s a big, tall dude.
AV Right, and I’m a little guy, you know? He kept insisting, so I took a black and white leather one. And then he had this red and white thing with fringes that was fucking unbelievable, man. It fit me pluperfectly. I had to take it. (laughter) It was like my country western thing, my rockabilly thing. Paulina, Ric’s wife, said it right once: Ric’s got all the money and wants to be this creative nut you are, and you’re the creative one who wants all the money. She hit it on the head.
MM They say the grass is always greener … and it’s true.
AV I remember when Henry Rollins did The Crow soundtrack he would always say, “Man, if I knew it was going to sell that many records I would have used one of my own songs.” (laughter) Henry covered Suicide’s “Ghost Rider” on that record. But I think Henry was very happy for us, because Marty and I made significant cash for the first times in our lives. I don’t give a shit about cars; I don’t drive. I don’t have any clothes and I don’t care. But what I care about is having money for art; being able to buy what I need when I’m thinking about it. I see a lot of artists and I don’t even know where they get the money from. Do they have rich parents or what?
MM I wonder the same shit, too. I thought the show we played at Deitch Projects was beautiful, but the first thing I always think when I see something like Michel Gondry’s stuff that was there is, Where did you get the money for that?
AV I created art out of necessity. I loved the Arte Povera artists. They had no money, so they made art of anything they could. That’s what I did with my art. I had a show at OK Harris and couldn’t afford light bulbs, so I went and pulled them out of the train station. Next day I walked down and it was a dark station. (laughter)
MM That’s why Suicide used a keyboard, right?
AV We bought a Japanese keyboard for ten dollars and couldn’t get a sound out of it, so we found all these little boxes, electrical harmonics, just to get it to make a sound. We needed to boost it. Out of that came Suicide—that was the Suicide sound. My sculptures are the same thing.
Originally published in
Featuring interviews with Claire Fontaine, Nayland Blake and Rachel Harrison, Roman Signer and Armin Senser, John Giorno, Kelly Reichardt and Gus Van Sant, Alan Vega and Matt McAuley and Brain McPeck, Richard Maxwell and John Kelsey, Chris Lipomi and Kathryn Andrews, and Peter Cole.
Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby