100 Miles Per Hour
An Oral History of Punk by Alan Vega, Suicide's Main Man
Photo courtesy of Angela Wieland.
Marty Rev and Alan Vega in Berlin in 1978. Photo by Bob Gruen.
Alan Vega: One night, in 1969, I was at home at two in the morning. There used to be this great show on the radio called Alison Steele, the Night Bird. At the time, I’d never heard of Iggy and the Stooges, but she was playing them on the radio, ya know, this great song, “Now I Wanna Be Your Dog.” What got me about it was Ron Asheton’s guitar, man, which was like this kind of wah-wah thing, and I thought, Somebody’s finally doing something with the guitar again!
It turned out they were playing the next night at the World's Fairgrounds in Queens. There was one building, the New York Pavilion, that was leftover from the 1964 World’s Fair. There was a huge park at one end of it. Ya know where Shea Stadium was? Where the train came in? And then you had to walk for miles when you got off at that subway station?
But you could hear the fucking music blasting from miles away. It really was about a two- or three-mile walk. As you got closer and closer there were fucking thousands upon thousands of people, all drugged up and parting, this huge tremendous scene, man!
When I got inside, they had this guy David Peel singing “Have a Marijuana.” Peel was the opening act, and the headliners were the MC5. This was at the time that their great second album, Back in the USA, came out. The MC5 had already done that first album with “Kick Out the Jams” on it, and then this other band, Iggy and the Stooges, was also playing, who I knew nothing about, except that I heard them on the radio the night before.
So David Peel does his boring thing, and then out comes this bunch of mean-looking guys. I see a guy behind an amp. He looks like a chick, ya know some girl with blond bangs? Kind of like Brian Jones, with the 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, the one with the lyrics that go “War across the USA!” 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, cause it was the greatest thing. Just the way Iggy walked out on stage, it was like, “What the fuck is this?” Then the music comes in, and it's total anarchy. They're fucking each other with their guitars! I mean, today it would be nothing, but this was 1969, right outta the 60s, when all that twangy peace-and-love music dominated pop music, and this was something new!
The Stooges’ set ended in 20 minutes and 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.
New York Dolls. Photo via Flickr user H. Michael Karshis.
THE NEW YORK DOLLS
The first time I saw the Dolls 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. They were trying to do an interview with this band called the White Witch, and the Dolls were sitting there. They were making a little commotion in NYC at this time, and they were all in their garb, ya know, with their platform shoes and everything.
It was David Johansen and Arthur Kane, and they were so funny. David was sitting there 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. These guys in platform boots with the hair and the 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, man, and I swear, people were like, What the fuck is this?
Some nights Suicide and the Dolls were actually playing simultaneously at the Mercer Arts Center. This was in, like, 1973. I can’t believe a band like Suicide coexisted with a band like the Dolls, way before punk. One time, after they finished a gig, they had to walk through the room where we were playing in, and they were kind of stand-offish, looking at us like we were from Mars, like they were afraid of us. Ya know, 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. 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, cause it was fun. Every gig was a party, and everybody was having a great time. Everybody who was anyone in New York in those days was at their gigs. I never saw Bowie at the shows. I heard he was around them, but I did see Alice Cooper there having a great time.
But musically, I felt they were coming out of the 1960s, and Marty and I had already made the transition to the future. We took the guitar and drums out of it, and started to make what eventually became known as techno.
We were playing 1990s or 2000s 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 'em off to shit. They went over to England, on that tour in 1973 when their drummer Billy Murcia died. David Bowie took their whole look from them right there. Ya know, the same way the Sex Pistols took everything off the Ramones when the Ramones went over on the Fourth of July 1976.
But the Dolls were so fucked up in their personal lives, who knows if they ever would’ve made it.
CBGB after CBGB. Photo via Flickr user Rob Bouden.
CBGB BEFORE CBGB
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 before the Mercer Arts Center. We actually played CBGB 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, and I became the custodian of the place, cause I had nowhere to live and I used to stay there. Other guys hung out there. We had every kinda crazy person that there ever was.
There was a fucking riot at every concert we did, which wasn't too many in those days, about two or three a year. People would get so upset and scream, “Where's the drums? Where's the bass?” It was unreal, people getting so angry because we weren’t a traditional rock band.
That's what I loved about Suicide: It came out of each of us searching for something. Like 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.
See, Marty started out with this jazz band called Reverend Heat, and it was the greatest fucking band I’d ever seen. He had like three trumpets, two sets of drums, and four clarinet players, and it went on 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 12 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’d already gotten kicked out of NYU Music School for being too something or other. 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. We had no music in a sense, man, everything was chaos, but we just jammed.
I was playing trumpet in those days, and Marty was playing these great drums. Nobody knows this man. We'd just do things together all night long. 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. Eventually a song came out of it, maybe two years later.
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 in 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, that's when miraculously, I don't know what prompted him, but Marty brought in this drum machine, some metal thing that looked really weird, ya know, that they played at Bar Mitzvahs and weddings.
When Marty brought in the drum machine something started emerging from the music. I mean, a guitar player never contributed anything anyways. So we used to rehearse for three or four hours. Those were the days of acid, and we’d be so exhausted after our rehearsals, but that’s how committed we were.
That’s when we looked at each other and said, “We don't need anyone else!
It was a great rock ’n’ roll machine man, that's how “Ghost Rider” came about, and all those first great songs we did, because of that “bub-a-boom” drum machine.
Illustration by Aeneastudio.
I was just finishing Collision Drive, my second solo album, in 1983. I was sitting in my record-company office, and all of a sudden I get a phone call asking me to open for the fucking Pretenders in America.
I thought, What? Where did this one come from, man?
Of all people, Chrissie Hynde turned out to be a tour from fucking hell, because the band was nuts, and the roadies were nuts. They’d been going through some really bad times. See, it was a tour that had originally been cancelled because their drummer had put his hand through a window, the drummer who eventually died. The only decent person in that band was the guitar player, the sweetest guy that came from Texas, but he died too from a cocaine overdose.
But on that 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.
She didn't realize at the time she was pregnant with Ray Davies' kid. So after my set, every fucking night, Chrissie was running around saying, “I don't know if I’m on my period or not!”
She was always talking about her fucking period, and what do I care about her 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, lines of coke a yard long on the side of the stage, and they’d just go over there and snort 'em up. It was bad.
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 would gimme the finger before I even started. We nicknamed it the “Fuck You Tour,” and word got around. I guess people talked about it, so it became a thing to do. We were doing all these universities and colleges in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, all those great states where everyone gives you the finger.
Actually, I thought the audience enjoyed it. I thought the kids were having a great time, ya know, cause I used to see people laughing and jumping up and down and getting all nasty. So I thought they were really digging on it, ya know?
Chrissie’s management wanted me off the tour. They took it the wrong way, all those people giving me the finger, but I said, “No, I’m sticking!
At the start of the tour, the roadies were kicking my amps and shit, just being assholes, but after a month or two on the road with them, they actually turned out 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.
So one day Chrissie’s manager came in unexpectedly and heard the roadies and everybody playing my songs, man, and he just flipped out! He freaked!
I think that's why he wanted me off the tour, cause we were getting really friendly with the guys, but 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. Today I was walking behind a bunch of musicians carrying their axes, trying to be so cool. They look like these fucking yuppies, too clean, ya know? They look like they just walked out of the shower, they had nice clothes… I mean, they look like they just got outta 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 like what they think they’re supposed to be doing instead of actually feeling something and communicating that to the audience. We’ve entered into the “Era of the Inauthentic,” and nobody seems to have noticed. Like, Jesus God, fuck me now!<
Back in 1975, Legs McNeil co-founded Punk Magazine, which is part of the reason you know even know what that word means. He also wrote Please Kill Me, which basically makes him the Studs Terkel of punk rock. In addition to his work as a columnist for VICE, he continues to write for his personal blog, pleasekillme.com.
You should also follow him on Twitter - @Legs__McNeil
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