Ghost Rider on Collision Drive

Alan Vega is one-half of Suicide. Suicide, in case you are not familiar, is a band that formed in the early 70s and influenced many later disco-punk dreamers to weave beautiful messes of music. Together, Alan Vega and Martin Rev preceded and helped foster the CBGB's scene that included the Ramones, Dead Boys, Richard Hell, Blondie and the New York Dolls, just to name a few. They carved out a musical genre that was harsher and weirder than anything that came before or after, with the possible exception of the Velvet Underground. Their chain and leather get-ups, apocalyptic stage presence, and off-the-wall experimental sound -- repetitious metal music created by using only a drum machine and a couple of synthesizers -- incited riots wherever they went. With Alan Vega's howling and cooing providing the foreground, Suicide's style was unheard of back then. The band paid the price for being insanely ahead of their time.

Suicide met at a downtown art space in 1971 when Martin Rev was fronting a jazz band and Vega was making sculptures. Vega (aka Alan Suicide) has long been an artist, so it is no shocker that an exhibit of his light sculptures is on now at Jeffrey Deitch Projects (Jan. 12 through Feb. 23). The show is titled Collision Drive, the same name as his 1981 LP. Alan says the concept came to him sometime in August of last year. "I was already thinking about putting together a show in Williamsburg," he recalls. "Somehow the word got around and Jeffrey contacted me. The funny thing is I met Jeffrey in 1975 when he first moved to New York. I was sitting at Max's Kansas City with a couple of girls. He sat down. We were introduced. And I never saw him again until now."

When I met Alan at the gallery for this interview, he was marveling that he'd just sold a piece to some important French collectors. "I went to Washington Square Park with my kid and saw all these World Trade Center memorials on the walls. Flowers and messages all vertically aligned. I said, 'Holy shit, they look like my sculptures, man!'" He lives down in the Wall Street area so I ask him if he had to evacuate his apartment because of September 11th. "No, but it was like East Berlin before the wall came down with all these checkpoints everywhere. It was scary the day it happened. I was at home. My kid wasn't going to school that day so I was actually sleeping. It was 9 a.m. Have you heard of Rick Ocasek from the Cars? He's my best friend. Anyway, he calls and goes, 'Check out the TV!' I mean we've talked at 4 a.m., but nine o'clock! 'What the hell are you doing up, Rick?' Then I got another call from my other best friend. And suddenly it was like a solar eclipse and everything came down."

We agree that whatever the current interest is in Suicide, the band isn't experiencing a revival. They've had a constant accumulation of fans since 1971. "I think it's beautiful, man, the name Suicide," says Alan. I agree. Suicide is a cool band name no matter what year you live in. "Suicide is doing ok financially. We made a nice piece of money on that film, The Crow. Henry Rollins covered "Ghost Rider" and sold six million copies. Some alternative band from California did a version of "Girl" and it's going to be used on The Sopranos. And Tia Maria, this drink in Europe, used one of the outtakes from 1975 in a commercial." To Alan, it's one of the worst sounding vocals he's ever done. But they got a lot of money from it.

Around 1981 they stopped working on Suicide and Alan made a number of solo records. Some weren't very well received. Jukebox Babe was a hit in Europe but Alan didn't know because he had no management at the time. He collected publishing money eventually. "It's been nine years since the last Suicide record. But it doesn't matter." He's happy it took that long. Otherwise, they wouldn't have done the record they just did. They needed that time to grow.

"We had two or three arguments -- two or three screaming sessions with basically me doing the screaming," he says, "because Marty can infuriate sometimes in little ways. He's very quiet. He's the sweetest man you'll ever want to meet but when we get up on stage sometimes, it's like, 'What the fuck is he doing?' Marty would venture off into his own little world regardless of what was going on on stage. But in a way I loved it too. Because it gave me an opportunity to do my theater thing. Again, I got pushed into places no other musicians would ever push me. He's like the mayor of the East Village now. Everyone knows him down there. He's a lovely man. He's like my brother. We're getting along better than ever!"

"Do you like the shows now where you get the respect and worship vibe, or do you prefer the olden days of riots?" I ask.

"The olden days were more like, 'Am I gonna come out of here alive?' I got hurt seriously a couple of times. In England the skinheads jumped us. I've had everything you can imagine thrown at me, including an axe and panes of glass. It was scary. At least now I know I'll come out alive unless I have a heart attack or stroke, which could always happen too. Suicide would just go on stage and start a riot. We opened for the Cars in '78. We came out and the crowd started to boo and threw thousands of sneakers at us. The stage was littered with Adidas. There's an article about me in some magazine and it starts off with a description of me doing all these things that I know I never did. That article said I was having casual sex on stage totally naked. I never did that. Yes, I did cut myself on stage, but some of the other things they describe me doing are like 'No way, Jose!'"

Alan's now 54 years-old. He and his wife have been together for 15 years and they have a three-and-a-half year-old adopted son. He's been around long enough to see his music emulated, so I ask him about the new breed of downtown musicians who borrow a lot from Suicide. "I don't know them personally," he replies. "I heard about A.R.E. Weapons. I haven't seen or heard them yet. I don't go out much ever since I became a father. It's amazing. I shouldn't be alive. I shouldn't be here talking considering the kind of life I was living. A lot of my friends are not here now. Joey Ramone's gone. All the Dolls are gone except for David. Johnny Thunders is gone, all the people I used to know. But age doesn't matter. My music is further out there now than it ever was. So I've been busy between this [Deitch show] and making albums and watching over a kid." He sounds grateful.

Collision Drive is on now at Deitch Projects, 76 Grand St., (212) 343-7300. Jan. 12-Feb. 23. Tues.-Sat., 12-6 p.m. Free. Performance by Suicide, Friday Feb. 22, 10 p.m.

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