An Oral History of Punk By Alan Vega – as told to Legs McNeil & Gillian McCain
Old friends are dying off at such a rapid pace that I can barely grieve before news of another one’s passing surfaces on Facebook. Arturo Vega, Ronnie Cutrone, Mick Farren, Alan Lanier and Alan Vega, names that are familiar to a few, but not so famous as to merit headlines. Just some nice eulogies on the web and maybe a few postings of a Youtube video or two. I guess that’s what the modern world comes down to, a video obituary posted on a Facebook page with a funny quote written in the box that asks, “What’s on your mind?”
The world is moving way too fast. It’s like, “Okay, you’re dead. NEXT!”
So I thought I’d try to slow things down. Maybe stop them for just a minute or two, and give me time to catch my breath before the next awful event transpires.
Quite simply, Alan Vega revolutionized rock & roll. Along with his long-time collaborator, Marty Rev, their two-piece combo, Suicide was a band about thirty years ahead of their time. Like the Silver Apples and Kraftwerk, Suicide was a forerunner of the techno-rock revolution now played in every trendy club and restaurant, monotonously droning so loudly it makes conversation obsolete.
But Suicide was anything but monotonous. Far from it. They were a dangerous, wildly unpredictable, chaotic performance art group combined with sharp, catchy, dark organ riffs. They were really quite a spectacle, leaving anyone who stumbled into their concerts at CBGB’s or Max’s with open mouths, thinking, “What the hell is this?” If you haven’t already, you might want to check out their first record, “Suicide,” on Red Star Records. Trust me, you’ll love it.
Alan passed away almost a year ago now on July 16, 2016 at the age of 78. Instead of fretting over who’s going to be next, I thought I’d share with you Alan’s thoughts on different topics, including some of the people who created the music you are listening to today, and who created all the great stuff that continues to influence art, music and culture. Here’s what Alan told us about Iggy Pop, the New York Dolls, CBGBs, Chrissie Hynde, and more. – Legs McNeil
One night in 1969, I was at home at 2:00 AM, listening to a great radio show on WNEW-FM called “Alison Steele, The Night Bird,” right? She was playing Iggy and the Stooges. Now I’d never heard of the Stooges, but she was playing this great song, “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” What grabbed me about the song was Ron Asheton’s guitar, that kind of wha-wha thing! I thought, “Somebody’s finally doing something with the guitar again!”
A friend a mine called me up right away, he was also listening to the same show – everybody listened to that show in those days. I said to my friend, “Man, did you hear that fucking Stooges band?”
It turns out they were playing the next night at the World’s Fairgrounds in Queens. There was one building, The New York Pavilion, left over from the 1964 World’s Fair with a huge park at one end.
You could hear the music blasting from miles away. It was about a two or three mile walk from the subway. As you got closer, there was thousands upon thousands of people, all drugged up and partying, this huge tremendous scene, man!
When I got inside, David Peel was singing his “Have a Marijuana” song. He was the opening act, then Iggy and the Stooges and then the headliners, the MC5.
So David Peel does his thing. BORING! Then out comes this bunch of mean-looking guys, and I see a guy behind an amp. He looks like a chick, ya know some girl with blond bangs? Kind of like Brian Jones, same kind of haircut.
This guy has no shirt on, torn dungarees and these ridiculous looking loafers. So he comes out and he’s just wild looking, just staring at the crowd, before going, “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you!”
Then they launch into, “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” or “1969,” ya know? “War across the USA!” And Iggy’s jumping in the audience and cutting himself up with a broken guitar! He just got crazier and crazier!
I was with a friend and we were both standing there with our mouths open. It was the greatest thing, just the way Iggy walked out on stage. It was like, “What the fuck is this?” And then the music comes in and it’s total anarchy! I mean, today it would be nothing, but this was 1969, the end of the Sixties when all that twangy Peace and Love music dominated pop music. This was something NEW!
1969 was the turning point, man, of everything, it was the KEYEST year!
The Stooges set ended in twenty minutes. Someone had the fucking genius to play Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto through the speaker system. The audience was throwing bottles and roses at him. I swear; it was beautiful. I’ll never forget it man.
THE NEW YORK DOLLS
The first time I saw the New York Dolls perform was probably at the Mercer Arts Center. Ironically, the first time I met them was on the David Susskind show, a TV interview show on a local New York station. Susskind was trying to do an interview with this band called The White Witch, and the Dolls were sitting there in all in their garb, ya know? Platform shoes and everything.
It was David Johansen and Arthur Kane and they were so funny. David was sitting backstage in the Green Room and he finds a picture of David Cassidy in a magazine and decides he wants the picture, so he rips it out of the magazine. David Susskind wasn’t there, but his fancy assistant was just freaking out.
I walked behind them after they left the studio, and they must have stopped every car in the fucking street just by how they looked! These guys in platform boots with wild hair and glitter — at two in the afternoon on Madison Avenue in midtown Manhattan! It was wild! I was walking behind them watching the reaction they were getting. I swear people were like, “What the fuck is this?”
Some nights Suicide and the Dolls actually played simultaneously at The Mercer Arts Center. This was in 1973. I can’t believe a band like Suicide coexisted with a band like the Dolls, ya know, way before punk. One time, after they finished a gig, they had to walk through the room where we were playing. They were kind of standoffish, looking at us like we were from Mars, or like they were afraid of us – we wore chains and knives and shit. Marty would stand there and play one note. One night, he just sat there and played one note through the entire gig. I was out there, running around like a lunatic, getting bottles thrown at me, so the Dolls used to be a little scared of us, ya know?
But I really liked the Dolls stuff, though I thought they were more of a party band. I really loved the gigs. Every gig was a party and everybody was having a great time. And everybody who was anyone in New York in those days was at their gigs.
But musically, I felt they were coming out of the 1960s, while I felt Marty and I had made the transition to the future already. The fact we took the guitar out of it, the drums out of it, and started to make what eventually became known as “techno.”
We were playing 1990’s or 2000’s music in 1973 and the Dolls were just going along with this blues-based thing. That’s why I thought they were ill-fated. I mean, I didn’t wish them bad or anything, but I just had a feeling that they didn’t have enough of a new thing going on, almost as if they were playing reactionary music.
Of course David Bowie ripped them off! The Dolls went over to England, that tour in 1973 when Billy Mercier, their drummer, died. David Bowie took their whole look from them right there – the same way The Sex Pistols took everything off the Ramones when the Ramones went over there on the 4th of July, 1976.
CBGB’S BEFORE CBGB’S
When we started to gig around, there were no New York Dolls, no Ramones and no place to play. We were the only fucking band that was doing anything, for God’s sake!
There was only the Mercer Arts Center, but that place collapsed. It just caved in one day. Hilly Kristal actually started something at CBGB’s before the Mercer Arts Center. We actually played CBGB’s in 1971 or 1972 when Hilly tried to start live music there, but it died, until 1975 when Patti Smith literally opened it up for him and brought in the whole art scene.
See, I’d met Marty Rev at the “Project of the Living Artist.” That’s where we started hanging out. I mean I was just hanging out there all the time. I became the custodian of the place because I had nowhere to live and I used to stay there. Other guys hung out there, too. We had every kind of crazy person that there ever was!
At every concert we played, which wasn’t too many in those days, there was a fucking riot. People would get so upset and scream, “Where’s the drums? Where’s the bass?”
It was unreal! People got so angry because we weren’t the traditional rock band. Our first gig, Marty played keyboards and I played trumpet. Oh, that was a riot. Everything was a riot!
That’s what I loved about Suicide. It came out of each of us searching for something. I was trying to find the art in the music, ya know? Visual art didn’t cut it for me anymore, and I found that in performing music, I could get closer to what I was searching for.
I don’t know if I ever found it, but I got close a few times.
Marty started out with this jazz band called Reverend Heat and it was the greatest fucking band I’d ever seen. He had three trumpets, two sets of drums, four clarinet players, and they played all night. The musicians would change every so often. At one point there’d be three guys in the band, a little while later, there’d be twelve guys in the band.
And I’d walk in and start banging a tambourine, ya know, shit like that. But the key to Marty was that he’s the first person I saw play an electric keyboard in a jazz band. He was only 20 or 21 at the time, but he already had gotten kicked out of NYU Music School. And when I was jamming with some other band, Marty would come in and grab some pencils, sit down on the floor and start tapping along with these pencils. Everything was chaos, but we just jammed.
I was playing trumpet in those days, and Marty was playing these great drums. Our first gig was at this place, and we didn’t know where to begin, so we just began with a sound, and that’s how the whole thing developed, man. Eventually a song came out of it, maybe two years later, ha, ha, ha!
Out of all the fucking bands that I see now, maybe there’s one that might’ve had a truly authentic moment on stage. We’ve entered into the “Era of the Un-Authentic”
What happened was, the guitar player decided after about three or four gigs, that he’d be committing suicide by continuing with us, so he left the band. Marty knew a lot of musicians and we talked about maybe getting a drummer, but Marty’s idea was they had to be committed to the band. We believed it so much that the idea of somebody leaving was just so wrong. Marty felt that we would never find somebody else that’d be committed in the same way we were, so why bother?
I agreed with him. Then Marty brought in this drum machine, some metal thing that looked really weird, ya know, that they played at Bar Mitzvahs and weddings, hahaha!
When Marty brought in the drum machine, something started emerging from the music. I mean, a guitar player never contributed anything anyways, ha, ha, ha! So we used to rehearse for three or four hours, intense shit man. Those were the days of acid and we’d be so exhausted after our rehearsals, but that’s how committed we were.
And that’s when we looked at each other and said, “We don’t need anyone else!”
It was a great rock & roll machine man. That’s how “Ghost Rider” came about, and all those first songs we did, because of that “bub-a-boom” drum machine.
That’s all it was man, and it was genius!
We would go over to England and do a weekend here and there. It was no big deal, ya know? Then in 1978, when I went over to England, I picked up a copy of Time Out, their big entertainment magazine, and there’s my face on the cover.
But I didn’t know what being on a magazine cover meant. I guess things had been developing, our reputation, and the whole New York Punk thing had been growing in Europe.
So Suicide started getting kind of successful and some kind of recognition and in 1978, we were invited to open for Elvis Costello in Europe. It was a nine-month tour. Elvis and his band were so crazed from touring. They were speeding out of their minds and every night we’d have a riot.
Elvis used to say to us, “Gimme another riot tonight because we’re too exhausted to play!”
One night in Belgium, we didn’t play at all. The place erupted in such chaos, the police came in and smashed everything, ya know, full-scale tear gas and the cops swinging their billy clubs, like they were at war. Just madness!
And Elvis kept calling us and saying, “Do another one for us tomorrow night, man!”
They were just so wasted from nine months of travelling the world.
Then we went from the frying pan into the fire when we opened for the Clash right after the Elvis Costello tour. It was right in the middle of the punk era, with all that spitting and anger and skinheads jumping on stage every night. The Clash tour was more of the same, riots every night.
The Clash audiences were vicious. They were divided into three camps: the skins, the punks and the teddies. The punks wouldn’t let anybody near the stage. They really liked Suicide and were ready to applaud us and give us our thing, but they were afraid the fucking skins would beat the shit out of ‘em, ha-ha-ha!
And then you had the teddy boys in the back, too afraid to come up to the stage and get beat up. Those teddy boys were doing the same thing their parents did back in the Fifties, It was amazing to see those kids man.
If that wasn’t enough of a mix, they also had the fucking Nazi party, the National Liberation Front, who came into my dressing room one night, and wanted to kill me.
The Nazis hated Suicide.
I was in the corner going, “Oh shit!” Fortunately, Marty stopped playing and rushed in, and then everybody rushed in, and told them to get the fuck out. It was one of those moments I thought, “This is it!”
The Clash almost became the next Rolling Stones. I toured with them, saw them every night and they were a great band, but they just didn’t have that certain “something,” ya know?
They were a funny band, but I’ll tell you, they weren’t as punky as everybody thought. Joe Strummer was alright, but the bass player, Paul Simonon was a joke. He couldn’t play the bass. He was the most arrogant asshole you ever wanna meet. But I loved the drummer, Topper Headon. He was a lunatic! He was the only working class kid in the band and the only one at gigs who would fly off, man! He just went wild! I heard he landed up in jail, for drugs, what else?
So finally we got our own little Suicide tour, for about two weeks in England. The first night we played Edinburgh, Scotland, in this little club, with a small little stage and there’s about a thousand people there. The club was dark. We go out to play, and I’m expecting shit to start.
I was so paranoid from touring with Elvis and the Clash. I just expected shit to start like it had every night playing with those guys. But then the lights came up and everybody was dancing!
I went, “Fuck it, they’re dancing! They’re fucking dancing to this shit! A thousand people dancing! They’re not throwing bottles, they’re not charging me, they’re not spitting on me… they’re fucking dancing!”
I walked back to Marty and said, “What we gonna do now? We can’t antagonize them, they’re digging this shit! What am I gonna do? I’m gone! I’m finished man!”
I was shocked after spending a month with Elvis and the Clash. I mean, I was bleeding and sick of being hit with bottles and spit, and they’re DANCING!
I couldn’t believe it, man!
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I was just finishing my second solo album, “Collision Drive” in 1983 and I was sitting in the office of my record company. All of a sudden, I get a phone call asking me to open for the Pretenders in America.
I go, “What? Where did this come from, man?”
Of all people, Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders turned out to be a tour from fucking hell. The band was nuts, the roadies were nuts – and they were going through some really bad times. The original tour had been cancelled because their drummer put his hand through a window. That was the same drummer who eventually died. The only decent person in that band was the guitar player. He was from Texas and was the sweetest guy, but he died too, from a cocaine overdose.
On that particular tour, Chrissie was driving me fucking insane. First of all she wanted me to fuck her, and I didn’t want to. That’s why she got Iggy to tour with her later on, ha-ha-ha!
She didn’t realize at the time she was pregnant with Ray Davies’ kid. So after my set, every fucking night, Chrissie was running round saying, “I don’t know if I’m on my period or not.” She was always talking about her fucking period, and I was like, “What do I give a shit about your period?” I hardly knew her. I mean, what’s she talking about her period for? I thought she was just trying to get me into the sack or something, but she was actually pregnant. She was only a month or two into her pregnancy, that’s why she was screaming all the time.
And the band was having all kinds of trouble. They were such fuckers. They had lines of coke a yard long on the side of the stage, and they would just go over there and snort them up. It was bad.
And I was getting booed every night, because I would go out and just give attitude to everybody. I was nasty. I used to walk out and everybody in the audience, two thousand people or so would give me the finger before I even started! Before I even got one word out.
We nicknamed it the “Fuck You Tour” and the name spread. I guess people talked about it, so it became a thing to do. We were playing all these universities and colleges in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, all those great states where everyone gives you the finger.
Actually, I thought the audiences enjoyed it. I thought the kids were having a great time, you know? I used to see people laughing and jumping up and down and getting all nasty, and giving attitude back to me.
So I thought they were really digging on it, you know? But Chrissie’s management wanted to get me off the tour. They took it the wrong way, all those people giving me the finger. I said, “No, I’m sticking around!”
At the start of the tour, the roadies were kicking my amps, just being assholes. But after a month or two on the road with them, they actually turned to be nice guys. They stopped doing sound checks for the Pretenders and when they would set up the equipment, instead of playing Chrissie, they would be playing my songs, ha, ha, ha!
One day, Chrissie’s manager came in unexpectedly and heard the roadies playing my songs man, and he just flipped out! He freaked! I think that’s why he wanted me off the tour. We were getting too friendly with the road crew. It was really funny to hear those guys talk about what a “bad influence” I was.
There’s no danger anymore. Every band makes the same moves, the same gestures and they’re all too clean.
It’s funny when I was coming up here I was walking behind a bunch of musicians carrying their axes, trying to be so cool. They look like fucking yuppies, too clean, ya know? They look like they just walked out of a shower, they had nice clothes; I mean, they look like they just got out of college!
Out of all the fucking bands that I see now, maybe there’s one that might’ve had a truly authentic moment on stage. Everybody’s acting how they think they’re supposed to be acting, instead of actually feeling something and communicating that to the audience. We’ve entered into the “Era of the Un-Authentic,” and nobody seems to have noticed, ha, ha, ha! Jesus God, fuck me now!