I never wanted to meet Alan Vega. In fact, I went out of my way to avoid meeting him for as long as I could. And it wasn’t because I didn’t like his music. It was because he scared the hell out of me.
It started with Frankie Teardrop from the first Suicide album. It was a winter night in 1977 and a college radio station in Philly was playing the song. It was possibly the strangest piece of music I ever heard. Midway through the song, the deejay came on the air and said that someone had called the station and begged him to take the record off. And since the person sounded sincerely disturbed, he did. The next day I went to a record store and bought the album.
The first Suicide LP might be the best debut album ever. It still sounds ahead of its time. With just drum machine, keyboard and vocals it was electronic but wasn’t German or European sounding. It was American rock ‘n roll with Alan singing like a haunted Elvis or Gene Vincent. Ghost Rider, the lead-off track, is now considered a classic. I saw the Gories perform it in L.A. the other night, and I imagine bands all over the world are playing it every night—kind of like Johnny B. Goode.
Not too long after I bought that first album I went to see them perform at a club and they cleared the room. It was insane. They were the loudest act I’d ever seen (even without guitars or drums!) and Alan was attacking members of the audience with the microphone stand. He looked totally possessed—like a Puerto Rican Charles Bronson in a surreal punk rock musical version of Death Wish. It was truly frightening. When the show was over a friend who worked at the club asked if I wanted to go backstage and meet the band and I said, “No! Not now! Not ever!”
A few years later a friend dragged me by the collar and introduced me to Alan at a club in New York and he was really nice—a total surprise. He asked what I did and I told him I wrote songs and he scribbled down his address on a bar napkin and told me to send him a cassette. I did and he called me at home and told me he thought the songs were great and that I should quit my day job. From that point on he became a great mentor. He even tried to convince Ric Ocasek to produce me at one point.
Juke Box Baby is a modern rockabilly song Alan released as the first cut on his first solo record in 1980. It’s a classic recording and was huge in Europe. Still is, actually. When I first met Alex Chilton we bonded over our mutual love for that song. He couldn’t believe I knew Alan personally. He was practically star struck.
Alan and I stayed in contact through the years and I always told him I thought we should cut a late night blues album at some point. He loved the idea and finally in 1994 we booked time at a studio in NYC to do just that. That was the first time I saw Alan’s creative process up close. It took some adjusting!
Immediacy was all he was interested in. I tried to discuss the project with him but he would refuse and say “I don’t want to know.” He didn’t want to know what musicians I was bringing in or what songs we were going to do. I mentioned this to Alex and he thought that was great and asked if he could be part of it. I said sure but I didn’t tell Alan until the last minute because I thought it might create expectations and Alan was insisting we have zero expectations.
When the three of us started recording, Alan began singing off the top of his head and the stuff that came out was incredible. The barrage of improvised lyrics was astounding. You could pick through them and every third line was an entire thought you could think about for the rest of your life. Amazing stuff. You knew you were in the midst of the art of the possible with Alan and that something was going to happen but you didn’t know what it was. You could never anticipate what was around the bend with that guy.
Alex and I had a ball trying to keep up with him and playing along to his singing was a completely unique experience. His voice was like a saxophone or a trumpet. His popularity in Europe was based on that, because a lot of music fans over there don’t speak English and that had never been an obstacle for him. His voice had its own sound and they loved him for that.
The result of those sessions was Cubist Blues, which came out two years later and was recently reissued on Light In The Attic Records. We did just two concerts together after the album, first at New York’s Mercury Lounge, where Alan tore into the material and sang a whole new set of lyrics, and then in France, where he was truly famous. Alex and I weren’t aware that Alan and the French music writers had a long history of hating each other, and after that performance it was completely on at the press conference, which was its own performance. At one point a journalist stood up and asked: “How does it feel to be the father of techno?” to which Alan said, “I demand a blood test!”
He accused the French press of not understanding Suicide’s music. “You think it’s all based on one chord but it’s not. It’s based on one note. And it’s not even a note!”
He was a true original. I know people use that term a lot when they eulogize an artist but Alan Vega really was. Two Alan Vegas would have been too many. There was more than enough going on in that one guy and he was the only guy who had it, that particular thing that he had.
He was a classic New York artist and the link between Warhol and the hippies and punk rock. He was older than everybody else in the New York punk scene by 15 or 20 years (he was nearly 40 when Suicide’s first album came out) and was kind of a beatnik—a veteran artist, one who lived through many chapters of American bohemia. He was sort of like John Cassvettes in that the risks he took in order to remain real and authentic caused him to have a cult popularity as opposed to a mainstream popularity. He couldn’t have cared less. He was all about the process.
I was very lucky to have had the chance to be close to him and his energy. He was like a feral cat and I’m proud that he trusted me as a record producer. When the heat was on, he stayed close and didn’t back off.
The latest recordings I did with Alan happened in NYC a little over a year ago and I couldn’t believe how much fire he had in him in his late 70s. He conjured up lyrics and sounds quicker than we could keep up. He was thrilled with what we cut and excited about getting the music out there; I regret he won’t be there for the release of these sessions.
Someone once said (I think it was Leonard Cohen), “Art is not a choice. It’s a life sentence.” If that’s true, then Alan lived out his sentence and then some.
It was great collaborating with him and being his friend was even better. To say that I will miss him is an understatement.