Alan Vega IT

[FADER; 2017]

Styles: noise, industrial, spoken
Others: Suicide

The infamous early performances of Suicide are understood to be foundational events that set the bar for shock-punk extremity. As Henry Rollins stated a year ago in the official public announcement of Alan Vega’s death, “[Suicide’s] confrontational live performances, light-years before Punk Rock, are the stuff of legend.” These performances (along with the preceding efforts of The Stooges) ushered in a lineage of shock-rock egos purporting hypotheses for experimentation with violent confrontation, social sculpture, hierarchical relations, and rock & roll as their interests.

These now tired and problematized theses have had their moments: Suicide’s eventual colleague James Chance physically confronted apathetic audiences just before harsh noise pioneers Hanatarash and Hijokaidan brought threat levels to a peak with explosives, projectiles, bulldozers, and urination. These theses may have met maximum attention in the mid-80s when artists like GG Allin and The Mentors regularly appeared on daytime talkshows to gleefully debate their violence with angry and bewildered parents. At their worst, these experiments in shock rock were backed by a familiar argument: an artist inflicting violence for the sake of truth.

“Twentieth century art movements were veritably obsessed with diagnosing injustice and alienation, and prescribing various ‘shock and awe’ treatments to cure us of them — a method Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke usefully, if revoltingly described in a 2007 interview as ‘raping the viewer into independence,’” notes writer Maggie Nelson in The Art of Cruelty. Nelson argues that performative cruelty is generally only more irritating when its actors propose it is for their viewer’s good. When such a harbinger appears, he implies that he not only knows what is wrong with his audience, but also what will cure them.

It is with this attitude that GG Allin appropriated the punk ethos of anti-consumerism and anti-puritanism and proposed that his concoction of irreverence and violence was the pill to solve it all. A similar attitude carries Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek through his own verbal abuse. He once advised to Guardian journalist Laura Snapes, “Listen to your elders. I’m 48 and I have wisdom. I’ve seen girls laid out on the street with an ambulance picking them up because they are crossing the street with those stupid headphones on.” This already demeaning piece of advice came before he publicly called out its recipient by name in front of an audience of 1,900 (of which she was not a part). Kozelek finds himself consistently bemoaning journalists, reporters, and commentators for the simple reportage and speculation upon his own speech. The irony of his (as well as many others’) grumblings about the truth is that he won’t have it fed back to him. Of course, such an attitude is nothing new; Nelson quotes painter Francis Bacon stating in 1966, “people tend to be offended by facts, or what used to be called truth.”

Here tells the 79-year-old Vega — in anticipation of his own death, writing, recording, and performing in spite of it — “the truth is dead… the saint is dead… the motorcycle explodes.” Vega doesn’t beat around the bush. Within the dark cityscape of IT, there are eight different proclamations of death spoken with the same structure: “the [creature/man/brotherhood/skull/ghost/truth/saint/blaze] is dead.” This is not to mention the provocation that introduces the album, delivered with the nonchalance of Drake letting loose an acronym (e.g. “YOLO,” “HYFR”), Vega snickers, “DTM. Dead To Me.” It is this very nonchalance that carries Vega through the drama of IT without the faintest pretension. Listening to the album, I never had the feeling that a promise of horror went undelivered. Instead, the album’s mild horror lurched from a presence, as if to say, “it is what it is.”

Vega’s stake on truth is an effect of his adherence to simple sentences and present tense. The album’s title track, for example, screams, “It has a gun/ It is ready/ To kill somebody/ The killer is close/ You can smell it/ The weapon is loaded.” These disaffected proclamations meet some of the harshest yet most vibrant instrumentals to support Vega’s voice to date (production is credited to Vega and his wife/frequent collaborator Elizabeth Lamere). Exempting a few moments of punctuation — the sudden drop and spattering that occurs five minutes into album-opener “DTM;” the butchering edits that close “IT” before Vega’s voice is lost to a vacuum — the music enables Vega’s voice as his best accompanists have: providing the expository setting and minimalistic bedding necessary for Vega to project his scene upon and float above. His delivery will sound strange to those unfamiliar, but it will be oddly cozy to those who have known it all along.

Vega is at his most animated and affected on “Motorcycle Explodes,” a song that represents, if not Vega’s own death, the death of his image. It begins with a dry howl that effectively carries the horror of his trademark “Frankie Teardrop” shrieks. The song’s subject can be none other than Ghost Rider, the figure that opened Suicide’s discography four decades ago and provided the band its name. “[T]he ghost is dead, the truth is dead/ At rocket speed, subhuman,” Vega shouts, imagining the rider killed by his ride, his only point of relation to his surroundings. This represents Vega’s point of simultaneous reflection and collapse, a marker at which the relationship between his art and his life can maintain conversation no longer (Rollins: “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 forth — this was Alan Vega.”)

The album’s coda — “Prayer,” “Prophecy,” and “Stars” — is both cruel and forgiving. More or less a kick in the ass. “Prophecy” begins as a direct reflection, “Been kicked hard/ Friggin punched out/ Pushed into cement walls/ Got a bloody head/ Blood is dripping down my face.” Then he hands off his experience, “I’m bruised everywhere/ It’s happened before/ In the street/ On the stage/ And it will/ Happen again/ Yeah tremendous over/ And over and over and over/ Again/ It’s my prophecy.” Vega universalizes his defiance. “Over and over and over and over again” cannot be contained within one life. The care with which he delivers these lines, the lack of audacity, allows their recipient inclusion. “I will get up/ I will survive,” he continues, “I will go on and on and on/ So fuck you killers/ Fuck you/ I stand/ It’s my prophecy.” With that, Vega hands off his spirit and his legacy. The next words we are gracefully given, “It’s yours, It’s your life/ It’s your given hand.”


G.G. Allin once threatened to the audience of The Jane Whitney daytime talk show, “your kids are my kids.” When he said this, he was suggesting a battle over ideology. He felt the very real power an artist may have to stake a claim over another’s subject formation. IT, in all of its auditory abuse and bleak imagery, shows no such ambition. The burden Vega bestows is the act of engaging with the world as he has: experimental in art as in life, such that the two converge. Vega’s interest in cruelty arose from an interest in how a social space could be transformed by a single action that none before had thought possible. In Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, he recalls seeing The Stooges: “[Iggy] went to sing and he just pukes all over, man. He’s running through the audience and shit … staring at the crowd and going ‘Fuck you! Fuck you!’… It was one of the greatest shows I ever saw in my life. It changed my life, because it made me realize everything I was doing was bullshit.”

Of course, venue violence is no longer interesting. Beyond that, it is increasingly a very real threat. Perhaps it is no coincidence that IT’s cover appears to be an EXIT sign severed by the camera, marking Vega’s exit with a material affirmation. This simple transformation echoes the legend that Vega, at Suicide’s early performances, used to cause himself to bleed amidst Martin Rev’s cacophony, only to block the rear exits so audiences could not flee. Amidst the fires, shootings, and bombings that have unfortunately become a familiar part of our musical landscape, such a stunt is no longer respectable. On the other side of four decade’s growth sits IT with its intentions intensified and redirected. The sign half-visible on the cover does not obfuscate the way out. Transformed, it encourages consciousness, directness, and presence — nothing more.

Eureka!

Some releases are so incredible we just can’t help but exclaim EUREKA! While many of our picks here defy categorization and explore the constructed boundaries between ‘music’ and ‘noise,’ others complement, continue, or rupture traditions that provide new forms and ways of listening. Not all of our favorites will be listed here, but we think each EUREKA! album is worthy of careful consideration. This section is a work-in-progress, so expect its definition to be in perpetual flux.

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