2016 has been a bumper crop, soul reaping year for thanatos. The latest name on his list was Boruch Alan Bermowitz, a.k.a. Alan Vega. (June 23 1938 – July 16 2016). Vega was an American singer/songwriter, and visual artist, primarily known for his work with his electronic proto-punk duo Suicide. To "fuel the myth", Vega claimed to be half-Catholic, due to his mother's Puerto Rican ancestry. (when in Rome). Themes of Catholicism were abundant in his lyrics and visual art over the years. Nothing like Sinead O’Connor, mind you. Her songs cut through the lies, as she confronted and outed (on live, US nation-wide TV), the Catholic Church’s predatory global child sex abuse epidemic, over two decades before it was even whispered on the front page news. She continues to pay the price for her courage.
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. (Fast forward): That’s where Alan and Martin later met and hooked up. Alan played trumpet, and Martin played the drums. They also worked as salaried janitors there.
Rewind: On the art side of things, Alan was calling himself Alan Suicide, and moved on from painting, to creating light sculptures, constructed with electronic debris. The price was right. He was given gallery residencies in SoHo, where he continued to show his work well into the 80s. 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 - and then, he had an epiphany.
In 1970, he met and befriended drummer Martin Reverby at the MUSEUM. Marty also had a crappy Farfisa organ lying around. You know, the one with lots of pre-set buttons, but all the sounds are all the same. So, the boys began buying and hooking up used, $10 dollar effects pedals, just to get different sounds out of the damn thing. Eventually, they bought a drum machine, from a family whose daughter had just committed suicide a few weeks prior, for $30 bucks. The FX chain was now complete. They found their sound, began experimenting, wrote music, and formed the band Suicide. Easy, right? Wrong.
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, CBGB’s. Easy, right? Wrong.
There was a problem. They were hated. Suicide? A band? Two schmucks, 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. The two youds waited almost 6 years to get signed and record in a real studio. When the first Suicide 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.
Bruce Springsteen was in the next studio recording the River album. He took a break, and came by while Alan and Martin were laying down ‘Dream Baby Dream’. In fact, the album was done in real time –live! Not only did he love the song then, he performs it now. The prostitutes at Rolling Stone Magazine pissed on Alan and Martin’s album. Today, it lists ‘Suicide’ among their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Didn’t Frank Zappa write a song about assholes?
The Clash set up a UK tour, and didn’t want an opening act that sounded or resembled them. Mick Jones liked Suicide’s first album, so, Suicide opened for the Clash, and Elvis Costello. But, once again, all hell broke out at almost every show. The skinheads in the crowd threw bottles and shit at them. An ax narrowly missed Alan’s head in Glasgow. A wrench connected. It was as much confrontational performance art, as it was a music performance. Easy, right? Wrong.
Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.
There were no artsy-fartsy's 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 came to a close. But, the card of justice was about to be dealt to our dynamic duo. 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.
Alan explains in his classic Brooklyn accent: ‘Suddenly, these spotlights hit this mirror disco ball hanging from the ceiling’, and he sees the reflections swirl around the walls of the venue and the crowd is dancing to their music.
His WTF reaction was (Brooklyn accent, please): 'It was like the Big Bang, all the right gasses came together, and I’m like, Fuck! We’re finished! We’re no longer street artists. We’re Goddamn entertainers!' -which is the last thing on his list of what he wanted to do with his life. Mel Brooks could make a documentary of Suicide’s story, and not have to stretch the truth one bit. He would call it, ‘Blazing Bagels’. Who said Lucifer doesn’t have a sense of humor? The bottom line is this: Alan and Marty drew the blueprints for proto punk, analogue synth, funk, pop, rock, psychobilly, or 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. They bled for it.
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. When asked about God, Alan stated: 'I distrust the name 'God', but yes, I do believe in a higher power. God is in all of us. There is an immense power. There has to be.'
Shalom, Alan Vega. May you rest in peace.