Alan Vega (1938–2016)

Alan Vega, 1980. Photo: Ebet Roberts.

“Screams at:

“imagine just playing this , like casually like ppl would listen to Beyonce and shit”

—Comments on a YouTube video of Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop”

THERE WAS NOTHING CASUAL ABOUT ALAN VEGA, who died last summer at (what turned out to be) the age of seventy-eight. An artist, musician, provocateur, and all-around wild man, Vega was best known as the vocalist for the lightning-bolt-channeling Suicide, who in the late 1970s gave Frankenstein-life to the extraordinarily loud, harsh breed of synth punk that not only inspired others to take up the genre, but arguably spawned new wave, industrial, dance punk, and electroclash, and influenced countless diverse acts as well-known and beloved as Bruce Springsteen and as obscure and overlooked as Years on Earth.

The incandescent warmth of Vega’s unhinged-Elvis-style croon lent a soda-fountain sweetness to partner Martin Rev’s open-heart-surgery synths, most famously in the epic “Frankie Teardrop,” in which, over an electronic cicada-drone throb, and punctuating his whisper-spoken narrative with tortured shrieks, Vega starkly limns the travails of a not-yet-of-voting-age Vietnam veteran who shoots his family and himself over money woes. “We’re all Frankies,” Vega concludes. “We’re all lying in hell.”

Suicide, “Frankie Teardrop,” 1977.

In fact, having fought his way out of blue-collar Bensonhurst, the Brooklyn native spent little time reclining: Suicide put out five full-length studio albums, around and between which Vega built for himself a solo career. He collaborated with, among others, Alex Chilton (who would later be celebrated for his own undersung band, the power-poppy Big Star); Lydia Lunch, Genesis P-Orridge, and the Cars’ Ric Ocasek. Additionally, he continued to make artwork, as he had done before Suicide’s genesis, creating paintings, light sculptures, and works made from detritus he found in the street, much of it to more immediate acclaim than he initially received for his music, and none of it earning him an axe thrown in his face, as his work with Suicide reputedly had.

He continued to provoke to the very end. “Life is boring,” he told Noisey a few months before his death. “Right now, I want to get rich. That’s all.” When he died, the public learned that he’d shaved ten years off his age, presumably in an attempt to battle the still-dominant music-biz bias against anyone who’s needed the services of a razor for more than a decade. Consciously or not, Vega resisted the culture of infantilization that has increasingly infected American civilization in recent years; his work was consistently adult, marked by aggression and knowingness, not passivity and innocence. In creating something entirely new, he didn’t attempt to ignore the old; rather, he acknowledged it, then tore it apart, reassembling it into something at once glowing and ugly. Late-modern capitalism posits youth as simultaneously eternal and fleeting, a thing only just gone, that must be continually recaptured; Vega’s work looks only forward, evocative of that which can never be captured to begin with, only sought forever.

Polly Watson is a musician, editor, and writer based in New York.