I still vividly recall the first time I saw Suicide. I suspect everyone does.
For me it, the date was Friday Sept. 28, 1979. Ric Ocasek and The Cars were hosting and curating the “New Wave” episode of The Midnight Special. Suicide — the New York duo of vocalist Alan Vega and keyboardist Martin Rev — were among their guests. And they proceeded to blow my little mind with performances of Dream Baby Dream and Ghost Rider. Imagine a rockabilly singer on psychotropic drugs leaping onstage and commandeering the mic during a Kraftwerk gig and you’re in the vicinity of Vega’s yelping, intensely unhinged persona. Watch the clips on YouTube and see for yourself — while keeping in mind that the hits of the day were My Sharona by The Knack, Lonesome Loser by Little River Band and Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough by Michael Jackson. He was weird as hell then. Nearly four decades later in 2015, when this newly unearthed album was recorded, he hadn’t mellowed much. Backed by a combo including guitarist Ben Vaughn, Vega (who died a year later at 78) growls and howls and moans and mutters and generally jabbers his way through half a dozen low-rock improvisations with a maniacal fever-dream intensity that would still be too much for the late-night airwaves. Play it loud on your next midnight drive into the abyss.
THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE: “2021 is shaping up to be the year of Alan Vega. Every year should be but, this year is definitely it. We’ve already seen the opening of the Vega archives — which will be unleashing an untold amount of unreleased material dating back to 1971 — and the release of Mutator, a lost album from the mid-’90s. Now comes Alan Vega After Dark, which captures a late night rock ’n’ roll session with Alan backed by Ben Vaughn, Barb Dwyer and Palmyra Delran (all members of the incredible Pink Slip Daddy as well as countless other cool projects). This album serves as a reminder that Alan Vega was an incredible rock ’n’ roll/blues/rockabilly vocalist. He was one of the best.
Though his relationship to the mainstream was flirtatious but never a fully committed one, Vega’s sub rosa influence on a disparate but extensive list of punks, new wavers, industrial deconstructionists, garage rockers, and pop stars is clear. His admirers included Ric Ocasek of The Cars, a frequent collaborator, and Bruce Springsteen, whose 1982 album Nebraska, particularly the creeping song State Trooper, explored the same haunted backroads Vega sang about. “The bravery and passion he showed throughout his career was deeply influential to me,” Springsteen noted on his Facebook page, memorializing Vega. “There was simply no one else remotely like him.”
No one else like him. That was certainly the case in 2015, when Vega decamped to Renegade Studio in New York City’s West Village with Vaughn on guitar, bassist and keyboardist Dwyer, drummer Delran, and engineer Geoff Sanoff. Sporting sunglasses, a knit cap and long rider coat, Vega looked tough as nails in his 78th year, and as always he was dedicated to the moment, to capturing the ghosts for what would prove to be his final live band recording.
Years before, a stroke had slowed Vega down, but he’d recovered and continued making music, often remotely, vocalizing over pre-recorded tracks by electronic musicians. He wanted a different feel for this project, wanted “to feel connected,” Vaughn says, to the musicians in the room. Vega was obsessed with the enormity of any given moment, and to that end, he insisted the band be assembled with absolutely no preparation. They would be responsible for creating, ears tuned to each other and Vega’s incantations, a spontaneous space for his magical recitations. “It’s the only way I’ve ever worked with him,” Vaughn says. “We would start playing, and Alan would wait a little bit,” drawing in a notepad the entire time, working on his “zillions of sketches” — potential self-portraits, though he’d be loathe to indulge you asking if they were — or reading his copy of the New York Post. Eventually he’d rise to the microphone. “Some of the stuff he comes up with, it’s really unbelievable,” Vaughn says, citing the elementally profound lyrics for River of No Shame, delivered for the first time as the band churned on. “The animals are hunting, the animals are hunting/Making a break for the river/Making a break for the river/The river of no shame,” Vega riffs, over a motorik groove that’s somehow equal parts Neu! and John Lee Hooker. Says Vaughn: “Alan was writing from the future.”