Alan Vega, Suicide Singer and Punk Icon, Dead at 78
"Alan was not only relentlessly creative, writing music and painting until the end, he was also startlingly unique," protopunk pioneer's family writes
By Daniel Kreps
Alan Vega, singer in the influential protopunk duo Suicide, died peacefully in his sleep Saturday. He was 78.
Henry Rollins first reported news of Vega's death, sharing a statement from Vega's family. "With profound sadness and a stillness that only news like this can bring, we regret to inform you that the great artist and creative force, Alan Vega has passed away," Vega's family wrote.
"Alan was not only relentlessly creative, writing music and painting until the end, he was also startlingly unique. Along with Martin Rev, in the early 1970's, they formed the two person avant band known as Suicide. Almost immediately, their incredible and unclassifiable music went against every possible grain. Their confrontational live performances, light-years before Punk Rock, are the stuff of legend. Their first, self-titled album is one of the single most challenging and noteworthy achievements in American music. Alan Vega was the quintessential artist on every imaginable level. His entire life was devoted to outputting what his vision commanded of him."
Vega had previously suffered a stroke in 2012.
Vega and friend Martin Rev formed the duo Suicide in the early Seventies after witnessing a Stooges concert in 1969. One of the early progenitors of "punk," Suicide named after an issue in the Marvel comic book Ghost Rider presented the genre in a minimalist, eerie and pioneering form, with Vega's echoing vocals backed by a hypnotic swirl of Rev's pulsing, rudimentary synthesizer and cheap drum machines.
After developing their sound over the course of intense, often confrontational live shows in venues like CBGB and Max's Kansas City, the duo released their influential self-titled debut in 1977. Suicide, one of Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, housed the early punk anthems "Ghost Rider," "Cheree," "Che" and the frightening epic "Frankie Teardrop."
There's no shortage of artists inspired by Suicide's first LP, with Bruce Springsteen chief among those who have long championed Vega and Rev. "They had that two-piece synthesizer-voice thing," Springsteen told Rolling Stone in 1984. "They had one of the most amazing songs I ever heard called 'Frankie Teardrop'. That's one of the most amazing records I think I ever heard."
Springsteen borrowed the band's musical style for his Nebraska track "State Trooper," a Suicide sound-alike that fooled even Vega, who thought he recorded it when he first heard it. Suicide's 1979 single "Dream Baby Dream" also became a live staple at Springsteen gigs, with the rocker eventually recording a studio cover for 2014's High Hopes. Springsteen added that "[Suicide] are underground masters," and that "they should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame."
Following Suicide and the "Dream Baby Dream" single, Vega and Rev released their second studio album, the Ric Ocasek-produced Suicide: Alan Vega and Martin Rev, in 1980. That year, Vega also issued his first eponymous solo album.
Vega would go on to release three more albums under his own name, 1981's Collision Drive, 1983's Saturn Strip and 1985's Just a Million Dreams each deviating further away from Suicide's distinctive sound towards a more rockabilly style before he reunited with Rev for 1988's A Way of Life. The duo would release two more albums, 1992's Why Be Blue and 2002's American Supreme. Over his career, Vega would also collaborate with artists like Ocasek, Ministry's Al Jourgensen, Lydia Lunch, Genesis P-Orridge and Vega's wife Liz Lamere.
In 1994, Vega worked with Big Star's Alex Chilton and singer-songwriter Ben Vaughn for an LP titled Cubist Blues, which was initially released on Henry Rollins' 2.13.61 label in 1996 but reissued in 2015.
Speaking to Rolling Stone in 2015, Vega reminisced about meeting Rollins for the first time. "I said, 'What does this skinhead Nazi want from me?' I thought that's what he was," Vega said. "He comes to the door and he's got a book about John Coltrane and all of a sudden to me, he's a changed man, like a college professor."
Rollins wrote on his site that he would dedicate his Sunday spot on Los Angeles' KCRW to celebrate Vega's work.
Outside of music, Vega also enjoyed a long career as a visual artist. "One of the greatest aspects of Alan Vega was his unflinching adherence to the demands of his art. He only did what he wanted," Vega's family continued in their statement. "Simply put, he lived to create. After decades of constant output, the world seemed to catch up with Alan and he was acknowledged as the groundbreaking creative individual he had been from the very start.
"Alan's life is a lesson of what it is to truly live for art. The work, the incredible amount of time required, the courage to keep seeing it and the strength to bring it forththis was Alan Vega."