Blazing Bagels: The Alan Vega Story Thinkbabymusic Collective

Blazing Bagels: The Alan Vega Story
Words: Major Tom Alexopoulos
Photography © The Deitch Projects

Thinkbabymusic © In—Print Issue #04, 2016

Alan Vega (June 23, 1938—July 16, 2016) was an American singer/songwriter and visual artist, primarily known for his work with his electronic proto—punk duo Suicide. To fuel the myth, Alan studied physics and fine arts in collage and later joined the Art Workers’ Coalition. This radical group pressured politicians to fund the co-op MUSEUM: A Project of Living Artists. It was an artist-run, 24-hour multimedia gallery in Manhattan, open to all artists and musicians for free. That’s where Alan and Martin Reverby, later Rev, met and hooked up. Alan played trumpet, and Martin played the drums. They also worked as salaried janitors there.

Alan was calling himself Alan Suicide, and moved on from painting, to creating light sculptures, constructed with electronic debris. He was given gallery residencies in SoHo, where he continued to show his work well into the 1980's. But everything was about to change in the summer of ’69. Alan saw Iggy Pop and the Stooges perform a 20 minute live opening show for the MC5. Vega totally lost it, he had an epiphany. Martin had a shoddy farfisa organ lying around, one with many preset buttons but every the sound were the same. The boys began buying and hooking up used, $10 dollar effects pedals, just to get different sounds out it. Eventually, they bought a drum machine for $30 from a family whose daughter had just committed suicide a few weeks prior. The FX chain was now complete. They found their sound, began experimenting, wrote music, and formed the band Suicide.

The group played at the MUSEUM, moved on to the OK Harris Gallery, and then performed at the Mercer Arts Center, Max’s Kansas City, and CBGB’s. Easy, right? Wrong. They were hated. Suicide a band? Two schmucks and no drummer, no guitars? Marty did the noise/beats/music while Alan did his Iggy/James Brown thing, got in people’s faces, jumped on tables, knocked over drinks, prompted fights. David Johansen of the New York Dolls was into it right away. Most of the other New York bands hated Suicide, as did most of the venues’ patrons. Fights broke out at almost every show. The hip - alternative US press ignored them for the most part. The hipsters of the time just didn’t get it. And those that did, couldn’t explain it. Suicide waited almost 6 years to get signed and record in a real studio. When their first album was finally released in the US, there was almost no reaction. The rest of the world dug it. American corporate FM radio didn’t want to touch it.

At first, Rolling Stone Magazine pissed on Alan and Martin’s album. Today, it lists ‘Suicide’ among their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. The Clash set up their UK tour, and didn’t want an opening act that sounded or resembled them. Mick Jones liked Suicide’s first album and so, Suicide ended up opening for both the Clash and Elvis Costello. But once again, all hell broke out at almost every show. The skinheads in the crowd threw bottles at them, an axe narrowly missed Alan’s head in Glasgow. A wrench connected. It was as much confrontational performance art, as it was a music performance. There were no art fans in the crowds that came to see the headliners on this tour, these angry people were horrifying. One could not mistake these Clash fans for being anything close to artsy, and it would be difficult to pick any single one as the most frightening. It’s almost impossible to imagine anyone lecturing these crowds about not stage-diving. The bouncers held back crowds rushing the stage. Sometimes it worked. Often, it didn’t.

Soaked in sweat, and scared shitless, Alan had a flashback, and initiated his Iggy Pop moves. He broke a bottle, picked up a piece of glass, walked to the front of the stage, cut his cheek, and the few drops of blood that oozed out, mixed with the ounces of perspiration, and spread out like a gallon of gore. The crowd backed off. This became a ritual for staying alive. After all, they hated him for defiling their Rock and Roll religion. The support tours soon came to a close. Finally, at a solo show Edinburgh, Suicide is performing and the lights go out. Alan sees shadows moving around, and he thinks they are about to be rushed by the crowd, in yet another attempt to sacrifice the ‘synth-yank-wanks’ on the alter of the gods of Rock. Alan has his chain ready.

Ultimately though, Thanatos looked at his Rolex and saw it was time to collect. The artist formerly known as Boruch Alan Bermowitz died in his sleep at the age of 78. His death was announced by musician and radio host Henry Rollins. Alan and Martin drew the blueprints for proto—punk, analogue synth, funk, pop, rock, psychobilly, whatever. They finally achieved the international recognition they so richly deserved, both with Suicide and as solo artists. They hungered for it. They fought for it, and they bled for it.

(Major) Tom Alexopoulos is a Greek, American journalist, producer, and radio presenter, also known for his residency at AIR 104.4 FM, Athens, as well as his long—standing editorship at Thinkbabymusic. Alan Vega: Dream Baby Dream, hosted at The Deitch Projects, 2017. Featuring video projections of Suicide performances, selected light sculptures, and works on paper from the 1970's onward.