Remembering Alan Vega's Screams
John Fell Ryan, of New York experimentalists Excepter, reflects on how the late Suicide frontman's yowls soundtracked his life's best and worst moments.
The cover of Alan Vega's self-titled solo album.
Alan Vega passed away in his sleep early on the morning of Saturday July 16, but even to his last days, he never gave up on the radical music he'd dedicated his life to making. The frontman of the wildly influential proto-punk band Suicide was—at 78 years old—still playing shows, still doing interviews, still working. It still doesn't really feel like he's gone, and it probably won't as long as people with a taste for pulverized electronics and the other violent, strange, and absurd sounds that he pioneered have a place in New York's music scene.
One such experimenter is John Fell Ryan of the noisy, genre-hopping New York band Excepter. Though their music can be far removed from Suicide's unrelenting squalls, there's no doubt that they draw insporation from the outré realms that Vega and his bandmate Martin Rev explored over the years. They were labelmates once, both releasing on Blast First Petite, and though they never met, Ryan's life has been profoundly affected by the music Vega put out over the years. Today, Ryan has written an impressionistic reflection on the ways that Suicide's music has intertwined with his life's best and worst moments—and why Vega's screams are still ringing in his ears.—Colin Joyce
John Fell Ryan: The first time I saw Suicide live was October 1998 at Coney Island High on St. Marks Place. Pan Sonic opened up so the PA was primed. It was one of the loudest, most intense sonic experiences of my life. I got back home at like two or three in the morning and the phone rang. It was my father, calling to say that my mother had brain cancer. She got on the line and could barely speak. The sound of Alan Vega's voice was still ringing in my ears, and I was having one of the last conversations I would ever have with my mother. You'd think it'd be a big deal—Suicide's soundtracking of the traumatic event—but I just filed it in the subconscious, to be released at a later time.
I was already a huge fan of the band, but I heard about Suicide before I heard them. You had to in the pre-dawn of The Internet. Print the legends: "Alan Vega was crazy, man," "He would attack the audience with a chain," "People would barricade themselves against the band," "The music was the most unbelievable wall of sound anyone ever heard." With those expectations, when you heard "Cheree" on a mix, with its gentle, romantic, spacey sound, you'd wonder, "Is this the same Suicide everyone was afraid of in the 70s? Take one listen to their first album and the answer's yes.
It's funny how the 77 record has come to be called "The First Album," as if albums hadn't existed before—and in a way, they hadn't. This was music that sounded like it sprung out of the ground fully formed, or that had been hermetically sealed in a bottle since the dawn of time. The beat was so fast it was almost still, like you had come in on the middle of something that started long before. It's a strangely familiar sound, like the sound of the body from inside. Not just the heartbeat, but the hissing of oxygen through the bloodstream. And then song after song, it was all the same. The rock & roll greats often took this Ur-Song approach—the Ramones, the Stooges, the Seeds, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry.
To me, Suicide 77 is a perfect record, perfect art. After I first heard it, I went out and bought an old Sears transistor organ and a drum machine at a pawn shop. I smashed my bass apart on stage and renounced stringed instruments completely. I was a zealot.
Did I recognize at the time that Suicide functioning as a herald of doom in my life? I do now
The songs were great, too, and we got to play them live, at a Suicide tribute set at a benefit for our bandmate Clare Amory who was sick and dying of cancer. Did I recognize at the time that Suicide functioned as a herald of doom in my life? I do now. People die in Suicide songs. Alan Vega is an apocalyptic visionary. His dreams are burning, man—on fire. He envisions a hallucinatory city with dead children in the sewer, one where "There ain't no more music."
Then there's the shock of that scream. Twice as loud as the loudest thing ever. It's an alarm, like police sirens on 9-11. It's the sound of real life panic and terror—experiencing a punch in the face, physical, and emotional. Will your neighbors think someone is being murdered in your room?
You would hear this scream again in your life. I heard it just last week, that scream, in my third ear, in a hospital hallway, visiting a loved one about to be taken off life support. I offer calm strength and quiet assurance on the outside, but on the inside, Alan Vega is blowing the PA speakers out in my mind. Alan Vega isn't having it. His scream is the war cry. Vega screams to warn us of danger, to watch out for what's "Coming over here, over there, coming for you!" They warn us to avoid the Sweet White Lady: "She's DEATH."
Alan Vega sings about angels, too, and they're real. Live in New York City long enough, and you will see them: Cheree, Shadazz, Johnny, Ghost Rider. These were all real people. Alan Vega's a real human, too—and by all accounts, a cool dude. We were labelmates, but I never got a chance to meet him. It's ok. I know the real him—it's all there on the records. Ice Drummer. I Believe. Dream Baby Dream. Surrender.
Alan Vega is a father. I wonder if he experienced what I experienced when my son was born, covered in blood, screaming, screaming with the ultimate message: I AM ALIVE.
Alan Vega may be dead, but you can still hear him. Believe me, Alan Vega is alive.