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Milestones in Music History #3: Suicide, and How Bravery Paid Off

Noise Music; Barret; Suicide; Velvet Underground; Desert Rock; the history of music is a perilous and yet appeasing path to walk. It has been, since the very origin of times, this powerful gift, and music is possibly the most evolving and sophisticated form of art, which affected culture, lifestyle, society, the history itself. Here the purpose is to delight you with some of the pivotal moments in music, some acts, facts, and records that delineated and shaped the music for years to come (actually, for as far as this series could go on). I have selected a few, based on my personal path through music culture, and based on the fact that I firmly believe these moments radically changed... everything.
In today's episode, I would like to take you through a musical revolution. I will tell you the deeds of one of the most controversial and avant-garde bands in the history of music—the no wave duo Suicide.

Alan Bermowitz a.k.a. Alan Vega, Jewish-born and raised in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, was an obscure figure. He claimed to be Puerto Rican, Catholic, and born in 1948, although the release of his "70th birthday release of his recordings" in 2008 seemed to contradict this—and Vega himself later admitted to having lied about his background to "fuel the myth." 

He had the fortune to study both physics and fine art at Brooklyn College under the guidance of two real masters: Ad Reinhardt (an abstract painter active in New York at the time and member of the American Abstract Artists, AAA) and Kurt Seligmann (a Swiss-American Surrealist painter and engraver, known for his representations of Medieval knights and troubadours in macabre rituals). After graduating in 1960, Alan Vega became involved with the Art Workers' Coalition, a group of radical artists that used to assault and occupy museums. These riots gave birth, in 1969, to MUSEUM: A Project of Living Artists, an artist-run 24-hour multimedia gallery in Soho, Manhattan. It is in this context that he met and befriended Martin Reverby, initially a member of the avant-garde jazz musical scene, who would go down in history as Martin Rev. 

The Stooges concert at New York State Pavilion in 1969 marked a turn point in Alan’s life. He decided to begin, together with Martin, experimentation with electronic music. The first formation of the band also saw the participation of another member, Paul Liebgott, who left the band two years after, in 1971. Alan Bermowitz first appeared publicly under the name Nasty Cuts, on some flyers where he defined his music as punk music or punk music mass. Martin and Alan as Suicide played a couple of times at MUSEUM, then at OK Harris Gallery.

But many of the early shows were at Mercer Arts Center, the cradle of the early New York glam punk scene: bands such Eric Emerson and the Magic Tramps or New York Dolls (performing twice a week in the Oscar Wilde Room) play here. It is also here that they started to be known by the band name Suicide. The name was inspired by Ghost Rider, Alan Vega’s favorite comic book, which was very popular in New York in the seventies. The story narrates of a stunt motorcyclist, Johnny Blaze, who gives his soul to Satan in order to save his father’s life. The band’s name was inspired in particular by the episode "Satan’s Suicide."

Later, Alan Vega would explain that the name refers specifically to the suicide of society, especially the American society, and to the fact that New York was in decay, and the Vietnam war going on. The name Suicide represents dissatisfaction with the current socio-political situation, but somehow recalls the sense of rebirth, of change.

They gained a particular reputation in the scene, because their first shows were very confrontational, instigating violence. In some shows, Martin and Alan dressed up as artsy street thugs, and Vega became infamous for brandishing a length of motorcycle drive chain onstage. Their look and their performance altogether were not well-received by the audience, who often booed them from the get-go. Martin Rev compared the feeling of stepping onto the stage to war, as if they were going into the trenches. That takes some bravery.

There are several testimonies of episodes of riot and violence during the band's performances. One riot in particular is witnessed in 23 Minutes Over Brussels, a recording of a Suicide concert (which appears as bonus material in the reissue of their first album made in 1978) that ended up in violence. The title witnesses how long the gig lasted before the riot broke out.

The band's first album, Suicide, got released in 1977 (after four days of recording at Ultima Sound Studios in New York), by the independent label Red Star Records. Even though it was initially not so well received in the US, it gained favorable reviews in the UK and is nowadays considered the band's most important work. Some people would define their genre as synth-punk, proto-punk, post-punk, or industrial rock, while others include them in the no wave genre. No wave was an artistic movement that developed from the late seventies to the early eighties in New York and found its expressive apex in contemporary art, underground music, video art, performance art, and cinema. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to categorize the record, as well as the sound of the band, as they sway from looping electronic rhythms to distorted guitars, creating a striking and surprising sound.  

Suicide is a complex and irreverent album: Martin Rev plays compulsively, obsessively, on his drum machine, which makes a consistent and repetitive background to the shrill and teasing keyboards and to Alan Vega’s theatrical, sexy, provocative, and deliberately unnerving voice. The music is the background to stories of people of the streets, miserable characters who live their daily misfortune, their littleness: "Frankie Teardrop", "Johnny", "Cheree." In "Frankie Teardrop," Alan Vega improvisingly narrates the story of a factory worker who, after losing his job, commits the extreme act of killing his wife and child and finally commits suicide. The text is inspired by a true story reported by some local newspapers. "Cheree," by contrast, is about one of Martin Rev's girlfriends.

The whole disc is pervaded by a dark atmosphere, where music and singing materialize fears and anxieties. Alan's voice is thick and deliberately clumsy and heartbreaking. Shouts, changes of tone, murmurs, whispers—this is all part of the image that is created in front of the listener, who can share the same feelings as the artist, the same discomfort. It is a brave experiment, and one that changed the history of music forever.

After the closing of the Mercer Arts Center, the band continued to perform in two other historic New York clubs, Max's Kansas City and CBGB. The band subsequently released four other studio albums, all between 1980 and 2002. The other works definitely appear to be more moderate and more conventional than their first magnificent and lashing masterpiece, but Martin’s experimentation and Alan’s hypnotic voice are still the mark of the band.

After 2002, Alan and Martin focused on solo careers. Until 2007, Alan released ten solo studio albums, and Martin Rev recorded the last of nine solo works, Demolition, in 2017. Since 2005, Martin has been collaborating with video artist Stefan Roloff and contributing to other bands’ records.

Alan Vega died in his sleep on July 16, 2016. The posthumous album IT was released in 2017.

Even Suicide as a duo did not last very long, they mark a breaking point with the music of the '60s and '70s and opened the doors to the music of the future. Their bravery guaranteed a freeway to many future experimentations and controversial musical acts. Many artists have openly admitted to being influenced by them: The Jesus and Mary Chain, Bruce Springsteen, Thurston Moore, Nick Cave, and New Order, to name a few.

The next episode will deal with the history and the excesses of the New York band par excellence who combined music, visual art, theater, and literature: The Velvet Underground.

Do you think punk and experimental music have changed contemporary music–and if so, how? Do you think bravery is a necessity in art? Leave us your opinion in the comments below!

Tagy Suicide Alan Vega Martin Rev Milestones in Music History Marco Alampi 42 No Wave

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I am a musician and music journalist based in Prague. 42 is also the name of my project founded in 2008, experimental Dada music with a touch of noise. My latest album,…