It is very telling about the way Alan Vega lived his life that up until the release of a 2008 deluxe reissue of his work, everyone believed he was ten years younger than he actually was. There can be no more perfect epitome of how the renegade of the demimonde defied red tape and remained ahead of the times than that. He was a man who didn’t seem born anyhow, in so much as he just seemed to crawl up from some New York gutter and crack on with the business of living remaining a reprobate maverick forevermore.
His first introduction to the idea of the art world was via the radical NYC collective known as the Art Workers’ Coalition. The goal of the group was mainly to pressure the city’s museums into reform. Essentially their goal on this front was to make the art world more open and inclusive and in order to achieve this, they barricaded the Museum of Modern Art.
It was during this time that he met his friend, Martin ‘Rev’ Reverby, and the pair would continue on in this creative iconoclastic vain thereafter. In August 1969, they witnessed The Stooges and life would never be the same for them again. As Vega himself once said, “It was when I saw Iggy Pop, that’s what did it for me. That changed my life pretty much.”
With the Promethean force of The Stooges still rattling in their skulls and high on the zeitgeist of snuffing out the flowery dream of the sixties in a dirge of industrialised realism, Vega and Rev began to seek out an artistic niche of their own. Suicide were formed and they would capture the hearts of many in the budding CBGB New York boom. The band’s mantra was a million miles away from those of a decade ago: “I always said I was never gonna be an entertainer. Suicide was never supposed to be about entertainment.”
Their visionary ways, however, meant that the mainstream avoided them, (and yes that reads avoided as opposed to evaded). They were gnarled and unapologetically New York in the extreme. Alongside his work with Suicide, Vega tirelessly worked on solo projects fueled by an insatiable appetite for creativity. We’ll be looking at the six songs that define him best from this expansive oeuvre below.
The six definitive songs of Alan Vega:
‘Frankie Teardrop’ (with Suicide)
If any testimony was needed to define the band’s assertion that they were not entertainers then a ten-minute eerie hellscape that describes the tale of a young factory working father driven to delusion by destitution should do the trick.
It is the track that Lou Reed said he wish he wrote, Bruce Springsteen said it was instrumental to his Nebraska album and the author Nick Hornby said you would listen “only once.” Like mad scientists depicting political depravity, they draw on the DNA of William S. Burroughs, tap into the cinematic scope of Taxi Driver and hand the sickly creation over to David Cronenberg to direct. Like pulling nose hairs for fun, it’s certainly not entertaining, but there’s an undeniably perverse reward.
Alan Vega’s career was so prolific that he amassed a slew of unreleased records which would be housed in something known as the Vega Vault. As is often the case with people who endlessly create for the fun of it, genre is an open field.
In ‘Jukebox Babe’ from his first solo record in 1980, he pairs the half-arsed vocal styling of punk with a jam that could’ve been lifted right out of Elvis Presley’s back catalogue. While the crisp tones of rockabilly might seem a million miles away from the eerie atmosphere of Suicide, when he’s out on his own he conjures up the experience of being on valium in a diner. Simply put, it’s Elvis with a hangover and it’s a very interesting listen.
‘Every 1’s a Winner’
Alan Vega’s take on Errol Brown’s classic disco floor-filler is like completely Chernobyl-ing an item clothing on a hot wash, trying it on and finding that it somehow fits better. With his Lou Reed doing an Elvis impression vocal back in full swing, and a guitar played through what sounds like a broken amp, the whole thing is a damned mess of the best order.
Like all of his work, with and without Suicide, this track is not to everybody’s taste. The rattling guitar and almost Nintendo-Esque synth could be maddening for some but catch it in the right mood and it’s… well, it’s certainly something.
‘Surrender’ (with Suicide)
When listening to latter-day Suicide, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks always springs to mind and not only because the band propagated a similar synth sound to ‘Floating Into the Night’. There is something ineffably liminal about the weird dreaminess of the glossy soundscape with the drawled out vocal take.
‘Surrender’ was actually a moderate hit for the band, and the band no doubt couldn’t have cared less about that.
‘Dream Baby Dream’ (with Suicide)
Every act, no matter successful in either cult terms or otherwise, has a biggest hit. For Suicide, it is undoubtedly ‘Dream Baby Dream’. Their 1979 single defined their sound and created a legacy of influence from Bruce Springsteen, who famously covered the track, to the likes of MGMT who used the atmospheric potential of synths to create soundscapes of swirling depth.
The song has featured endlessly in the arts from HyperNormalisation to Brendan and Cory for its unrivalled potential to harness a sense of strange dissociation from reality without ever venturing too far into the surreal.
‘Fat City’ (with Alex Chilton and Ben Vaughan)
Cubist Blues is Vega’s 1996 collaborative record with Alex Chilton and Ben Vaughan and it the same melee of New York under the microscope as everything Vega touched regardless of who he was working with. Sounding once more like Jim Morrison has had one too many tokes, he mumbles his way throughout this weird splurge of street-side atmosphere.
The guitar somehow sounds like passing traffic and the rambling lyrics have something akin to literary prose. In short, it typifies what Vega was all about: creating spaces, not songs and painting pictures as opposed to dictating stories. His work sounds like the sonic equivalent of an out of print author scribbling a masterpiece on a nightclub toilet door.