Alan Vega and Martin Rev, as Suicide, were the first NYC performers to use the word ‘punk’ as connected to their music, which was noisy, relentless and confrontational. Hernán Muleiro, a devotee of “unofficial” recordings, recently unearthed two live samples of Suicide at their most confrontational. One is from a May 1977 benefit for Punk Magazine, and the other is from 1980. They will only be aired ONCE on Dec. 11 at 7 p.m. EST. A sample from the latter show is available anytime on YouTube, when Suicide opened for the Cars (Ric Ocasek was one of their greatest allies). Hernán shared the recordings, and their back stories, with PKM.
“Dejaré esto por aquí” , a radio show focused on unearthed shows will feature Suicide live at CBGB, May 4, 1977, the Punk Magazine benefit, and Suicide live, opening for The Cars, November 13, 1980, Hartford Civic Center, Conn. The transmission will air on Radio Cósmica libre, with the authorization of Martin Rev and Alan Vega´s estate, December 11, Saturday at 19hs gmt-5.
I have always liked bootlegs, unofficial recordings, pirate releases; call them what you will, they provided me with the opportunity to listen to what a show was like, before having had the opportunity to attend them. The ones recorded by members of the audience offered bits of dialogue, and for many of us they were the first field recordings we listened to. As I grew older, my respect for bootlegs did not diminish: they not only tell the tale of how a group sounded, they are also a document of how music is preserved by individuals, people not connected to cultural institutions or record labels, but people who conserve the material over the years.
It was not a very big jump from searching for unearthed live material of music I like to dedicating some time looking specifically for recordings by Suicide. That´s because all of Suicide’s versions are so unique and different from one another. To get them, I investigated and found the help of people like Toronto show promoter Gary Topp. You can´t get anywhere searching for these types of recordings without people perceiving your honest interest in them. I also don´t think you can get them without the persistent belief that there is more music out there than is known. And you definitely can´t get them without an above-average interest, so I guess the recipe would be: part investigation, part honest interest, part persistence and part dumb luck.
The silence that comes right after the ending of these legendary renditions can sometimes sound more tense than the occasional outspoken negative reactions Suicide encountered from perplexed audience members reacting to Rev and Vega´s sonic attack.
Punk Magazine benefit, May 4, 1977, CBGB
David Johansen as an MC, introducing Suicide: “Ride along with the evening program, we wanna thank Hilly Kristal, the manager of CBGB for letting Punk Magazine do their thing here this evening, for a very good cause and we should get the next issue before the new year. I would like to say a few words about Marcel Duchamp, and the effect of minimalism here in New York City (crowd cheers). Uhm, here in New York we are cultivating a certain style of music, that various people took to various levels as we all know. I’d like to introduce you to two people that have taken this as far as it can go, as far as I am concerned, minimally: Alan and Marty, Suicide.”
A couple of persistent screams fill the void as the duo sets up onstage, someone says “the police are coming” and some laughter follows. Rev´s synthetic kick drum sounds like a sharp knife cutting through the audience until a whisper from Vega starts “Ghost Rider”. What can be heard after that lives up to Johansen’s praises. “Shut the fuck up man, alright, 1965”. The Suicide version of “96 Tears” is phantasmal, even if Question Mark as well as the Mysterians were alive in 1977, the rendition is closer to invocation than a tribute.
Editor and founder of Punk Magazine, John Holmstrom: “Joey Ramone was always telling us how great Suicide was, they didn’t appear much in 1976 but every show they did made a ‘scene,’ a lot of people hated the band (the same people who hated the Ramones and punk rock).To me, Suicide was the first and greatest punk band that never enjoyed commercial success, but that wasn’t their goal. They were still able to be so obnoxious that they could empty a room by performing. ‘Frankie Teardrop’ is still one of the most challenging songs to listen to.”
With a line-up that included Richard Hell, Blondie and the Dead Boys on the first day, it seems natural to ask Holmstrom how he got them all together: “The first person we needed to nail down was Patti Smith. She was recovering from a stage accident and was wearing a neck brace, I think this was her first appearance and it was also one of the first shows with CBGB’s new, improved stage. Once she agreed to appear, everyone wanted to get involved, and with her on the bill we were guaranteed to get an audience. The musicians took over the event and just had some fun performing stuff that wasn’t a part of their usual band sets. For instance, I remember Blondie covering the Rolling Stones’ ‘Little Red Rooster’.”
Looking for testimonies for this article, I got the distinct impression that at the time, many punk bands around the CBGB scene did not distinguish the true genius of Suicide, even if they respected them.
Former Black Flag singer, author and music archivist Henry Rollins said, “I think Vega and Rev had to accept the fact they didn’t sound like anything else happening in New York City at the time and to survive, had to make some alliances that on their face might seem odd. Perhaps the most open-minded scene back then would have been the one engendered by Max’s Kansas City/CBGB and the general against-the-grain of Punk music. If you check listings at the time, Suicide shared the bill with some interesting bands. Suicide had to walk a fine line and in order to maintain their singularity, endured a lot of gut punches that would have made a lot of other bands fold. Suicide never backed off.”
Alan Vega´s craft, as one-half of Suicide, is clear from these recordings. Part of it seems theatrical, the other part as real as a slap in the face. “This is a song about another ‘60s hero,” he says as the intro from ‘Che’ starts, a song where he perhaps foresaw Guevara´s place as a pop icon. And all the time, while this guitar-less duo played, there was a tacit faith in music as an art form capable of affecting a human´s brain beyond recognition.
Civic Center, Hartford, Conn., November 13, 1980
Many of the elements that Suicide seemed to reject in culture became magnified in the ‘80s. This show in Connecticut, opening for The Cars, could be Suicide´s own Metallic K.O., with the duo playing before a very angry and large crowd that hates them. Suicide provoked a giant happening, all by themselves.
Suicide, opening for The Cars, Hartford Civic Center, 1980:
The audience’s screaming becomes booing before the first minute. Between the first and second song, the general discontent can be heard. At the end of another extraordinary rendition of “Ghost Rider” the verdict is: “You suck, you queers.” “We love it” answers Vega on a deadpan tone as “Keep Your Dreams” starts; on it they transform a lyric that sounds similar to a greeting card, into a transcendent message.
Suicide looked like they came from a future that the Cars fans did not care about. A couple minutes later, the audience sounds like they are prepared to tear down the venue if Suicide doesn´t leave; instead, Suicide launches into “Rocket USA”, “Oh, no” “Why?” is the reply from the people who filled the first rows. “Doomsday, doomsday”, the song carries on, as Suicide adapt to the pleasure of being rejected by such a large crowd.
A YouTube video of 1 minute 39 seconds of Suicide, shot in the Boston Garden one year after the Hartford Civic Center gig, shows a similar situation like the above: while the audience chants “you suck” there is not a palpable change in Rev’s expression and Vega dares them to come onstage. Anybody would say that the crowd´s discontent mixed with Suicide’s perseverance is an example of standing up in the face of adversity, but in front of an artistic proposal that fed itself on the rejection of others such an easy conclusion is not part of the equation. One thing is to read about how Ric Ocasek went out of his way to help Suicide, as well as other misunderstood groups like the Bad Brains, but to hear this raw document where you can hear the response from his fans is another thing altogether.
Henry Rollins said, “It is important to note that Ric was an early and enthusiastic supporter of Suicide. Not only did he produce their second album, he continued to work with Vega and Rev over the decades going forward as a producer and tireless ally. His belief and dedication to what Suicide was doing is unimpeachable. Vega and Rev were lucky to have Ric on their side. It’s obvious Ric saw what Vega and Rev were doing was unique and worth supporting. This is completely impressive and illustrative of how cool and switched-on Ric was.”
Until the end and no matter how others reacted, Suicide did it like a Julius Caesar slogan on the pack of cigarettes: Veni, vidi, vici.