On Saturday, the world lost the artist Alan Vega, better known as the lead singer of Suicide, the proto techno punk band that Bruce Springsteen loved and Belgians hated, and a consummate artist who helped to transform the definition of what constitutes a musical performance.
Vega was 78 when he died in his sleep over the weekend. But he managed to live much longer than many of his contemporaries, including all of the original Ramones. He was born Boruch Alan Bermowitz in Brooklyn in 1938 and was 32 when Suicide began in 1970. Inspired by Iggy and the Stooges, free jazz and Ghost Rider comics, Vega and his musical partner Martin Rev ("the instrument") created an unusual rockabilly-meets-primitive electronica sound. (At the time, people called it "punk music.")
Pushing the wild frontman persona
Challenged with prospect of performing live to dense musical landscapes bereft of catchy hooks and other pop tropes, Vega wanted to bring something new to the stage. Inspired by the stage antics of the young Iggy Pop, Vega took the wild frontman persona a step further and made himself one of the scariest men in punk to grab a mic.
There was never a smile on Vega's face when he took the stage; only a sneer. As he vocally aped Gene Vincent, punctuating songs about young men slaughtering their families with his blood-curdling screams, Vega stared at the audience with contempt, smashing his face with a microphone, and cutting himself with safety pins and other sharp objects.
His performances were not only confrontational, they were also weaponized -- he often had a motorcycle chain and he'd whip the stage with it. To quote New York Dolls bassist Arthur Kane (RIP) in the movie Punk Attitude:
Marty would start playing, and he'd sing a couple notes, then he'd start whipping the floor with this eight-foot bolt of this chain. This completely frightened people out of the room.
Isn't sending a crowd running out the door the last thing a band wants to do?
Out to destroy conventions
Suicide wasn't meant to be a popular group; they were out to destroy musical conventions. No guitars or drums, no flashy clothes, no choruses and only the occasional melody.
Yet Suicide was very influential. The band created the foundation of industrial music. Its brand of confrontational live performance would become a punk rock staple -- singers like James Chance and GG Allin would take fights with the audience to legendary levels. Suicide released five albums -- the second one recorded by Ric Ocasek of The Cars -- and the band's songs have been covered by a wide variety of artists, from Bruce Springsteen to Henry Rollins. Suicide's sound even made its way into the pop world, with the synth riff from "Ghost Rider" serving as the bed for M.I.A.'s 2010 single, "Born Free."
A nice guy?
Despite his savage stage persona, Vega was essentially a nice guy who loved art. And he always challenged others with his work, which went beyond his musical career with Suicide to include 10 solo albums and even a series of crude light sculptures .
But let's not remember Vega as a nice guy. Let's celebrate the artist who never shied away from looking straight into the eyes of a crowd to tell it, "F*CK YOU."