Suicide’s music was unbearable enough for audience members to throw axes at them during concerts. Whose fault was it then, and whose fault is it now?
🐛CLEAN YOUR ROOM!🐛
The last time it appeared to me that self-destruction might not be the worst thing that could possibly happen, a loose constellation of about five fruit flies floated teasingly around the chipped contours of my laptop, and some few inches away, from the dust-covered diaphragm of an Alexa mini-speaker I had gotten two or so Christmases ago, the hideous music of a now-defunct 20th Century electronic music duo called “Suicide” was causing me to take its moniker-of-choice more seriously than I had bargained for. The bulb of my desk lamp—an architect lamp purchased, admittedly, more for its aesthetic promise than for its promise as a light source—had just given up the ghost, so I could only really see the fruit flies when they hovered between my face and my computer screen. They didn’t seem to have any issues seeing me, though, if not physically, then in some degrading, intrapersonal, you’re-rancid-and-you-know-it way. Or, I was decomposing, and they were here to devour my flesh. It was difficult to tell, and with my roommate gone for a funeral, there were few other humans in close enough range to corroborate either possibility. Myself and the insects would have to work through our issues alone, wordlessly, with nothing but flanged-out dystopian synth music to fill in the gaps of our existential warfare. It felt a little bit like I was battling the pesky minions of a final boss.
Though I did not know it at the time, there were, in fact, far more than just five fruit flies living by my desk. I had been throwing out fruit products in my dorm room for the better part of the semester, and in removing the cardboard boxes stacked atop my trash can one morning, was immediately greeted by generations of the insects—young and old!—that had been fucking each other on beds made of my leftovers for months on end. With the limited knowledge I had tonight, though, I could only offer violent swats at the light-brown specks floating in and out of eyesight in (naive) hopes that at some point, the last pair of mangled wings would be smushed against my laptop. In the background, with the flies still whirring past my head, the suicidal, please-kill-me-now music of an aptly-titled band continued to hammer away at my few remaining functional neurons—which had, upon trudging through three hours of astronomy, now been tasked with a grassroots extermination enterprise. At some point, with the laptop’s faint glow still casting its funereal glare onto my pre-corpse, I pushed my computer to the edge of the desk, took my glasses off—bespectacled-speak for “I quit”—and laid my head down in defeat. When I woke up in a puddle of my own saliva, the flies were slightly illuminated by early deep-blue daylight, and Suicide was still pounding away through my speaker, just as loudly and a tinge more disorientingly as before.
The album that soundtracked that strange encounter was Why Be Blue’s deluxe version, an 18-track, 1-hour-and-36-minute-long manifesto Suicide would originally release to little acclaim in 1992, before expanding and revamping it for a bulky 2005 reissue. Suicide—not to be confused with the act of killing oneself—was founded in New York City’s squalid 1970s underground by vocalist Alan Vega, technology genius Martin Rev, and guitarist Paul Liebegott, who opted to collaborate on obscure music of their own after Rev’s avant-jazz band fell apart prematurely. The first time I heard the group—I really wish I had something more interesting to say here—it was an uncharacteristically warm afternoon in October, and Spotify Discover had served me “Diamonds, Fur Coat, Champagne,” a bouncy, semi-popular dance track from the band’s artfully-titled sophomore LP The Second Album. Whether because I had just gotten news of a class being canceled, or the song was simply that good, hearing it thrust me into a regrettably all-out dance-walk, the kind that 50 year-old women do in antidepressant commercials after asking their doctors about said antidepressant. Strangely, every time I’ve attempted to play the song since, I haven’t been able to finish it. Its shuffly backbeats feel like heaven for the first few seconds, but when you realize that they aren’t changing, nor will they ever, there is no way to erase a feeling of incremental dread. The music becomes time, and you must now be cognizant of the fact that there are better ways to spend it—that is, of course, if it doesn’t run out by the time you decide how.
“When people face their creation, something must die—and Suicide’s detractors were more willing to turn their guns (and axes, and wrenches, and insults) towards their reflections than towards themselves.”
Rolling Stone no longer has an official artist page active for Suicide, but when it did, the closing sentence of the band’s brief bio read that “Some found Suicide fascinating; others thought them brilliant and important; more seemed to enjoy them as some sort of joke; and most simply hated them.” Electronic pioneers boasting a precursive punk ethos, the group’s sound—innovative and utterly boring all at once—hinged on the trippy amalgamation of Rev’s effects-drenched synthesizers and Vega’s slurred, quasi-Elvis vocals. It’s somewhat symbolic that they wound up getting rid of Liebegott within months: if the electric guitar represented their sole bridge to a familiar brand of rock credibility, they were much more intent on burning it down for fun than crossing it for security. It’s a nihilism reflected not only by the duo’s fuck-everything moniker, but the pessimistic social sentiments that lay behind it. “We were talking about society’s suicide, especially American society,” Vega told the legendary music journalist Simon Reynolds, then writing for the Village Voice, in 2002. Vega and Rev had gotten a kick out of the metaphysical comic book series Ghost Rider, and become fixated upon “Satan’s Suicide,” one of its issue’s titles, as a potential band name. “New York City was collapsing. The Vietnam War was going on. The name Suicide said it all to us.” This was also, as was a trend for the duo, yet another instance of safety sacrificed for experimentation’s sake: “It was the worst choice we could have made […]. It held us back a lot and kept us off the radio. Thirty years later, it’s a little better—there’s all these bands with worse names!”
Suicide—much like the Germs on the West Coast—were a loose flock of scenesters before they were a recording act, and by the time the group released their eponymous debut project in 1977, their “performances” were arguably just as much an extension of the unforgiving streets that forged them. When Suicide began, Vega and Rev had been living within the confines of the Project of Living Artists, a grassroots creative sanctuary bordering NYU that sought to provide a shared workspace for nomadic creators, but also wound up attracting homeless people and thieves. Vega, though a founding member of the Project, quickly found himself illegally using its space for housing, living off of $1 tuna sandwiches and vodka while surviving harsh winters on the merits of a friend’s borrowed sleeping bag. Rev met Vega upon his being kicked out of NYU—Rev had, in keeping with Suicide’s fun-over-safety spirit, played a Beethoven composition “his way” at a recital—and the two brought to Manhattan’s underground concert circuit a weird mixture of experimentation and punk rock that was as violent as it was mysterious. Their sets, for one, were completely drumless, and consisted solely of a leather-clad Rev hunched over a drum machine, and a too-cool Vega slurring his words into a microphone. Confusion, as it often did in early punk shows, led to physical manifestations, and the process wasted little time playing itself out at Suicide concerts: among incidents that Vega recounted to Reynolds were a group pounding at the hands of a 100-strong skinhead gang, a bloody encounter wherein he was struck in the head with a large wrench, and a near-miss with an ax that had been chucked at his face by an audience member.
What made Suicide great then, and perhaps what made them as hated as they were, boils down to endurance—something they had, and their audiences did not. They stuffed music best consumed in moderation into unbearably laborious packaging, whether via live sets long (and confusing) enough to breed fistfights, or deluxe albums long (and confusing) enough to induce neuronic self-destruction. While their unwilling consumers could not endure the source of their disorientation, Suicide could surely endure their hatred, and did, for over three decades. But something has to give when willing art is faced with an unwilling crowd—and whenever it does, it often says just as much about the latter than the former.
Sucide trudged through an era in which questions of information overload, be it in the excesses of early-80s materialism or the dread of Y2K theories, began slowly outlining a man-made monster no one could see, but everyone was afraid of. Their music was made up exclusively of the monster’s innards: monotony, the distant promise of the future, and placebic innovations that made it feel like it was happening right now. When people face their creation, something must die, though—and Suicide’s detractors were more willing to turn their guns (and axes, and wrenches, and insults) towards their reflections than towards themselves.
💀 💀 💀
“Those that are silent will, much like the music, likely remain so forever—whether because they’re dead, or because making noise no longer makes a difference.”
Among the most memorable passages in A Year With Swollen Appendages, the legendary British self-proclaimed “non-musician” Brian Eno’s 1996 essay collection, is a brief section where he contemplates modes of excess. “Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium,” he muses, “will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit – all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. It’s the sound of failure: so much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart.” What complicates Eno’s concept is that, somewhere in the coexistence of new mediums and soon-to-be-cherished blemishes, there exists an unavoidable Catch-22: whenever there is a new form to be made sense of, more or less, everything about it must be, by definition, somewhat weird, ugly, uncomfortable, and nasty. It’s a prerequisite for being “new”—if nothing about something is remotely discomforting, you’ve probably seen it before. The newness of a thing, then, may well lie solely in its ability to make you squirm, cringe, or clench your teeth. But then again, it isn’t as if we’ve never been freshly introduced to something, or someone, or someplace, that did the opposite of make us sick. Where do we draw the line between revolutionary innovations and repulsive ones?
It’s more of a personal question than one for the masses, but when it came to Suicide, the vast majority of their angry-eyed, axe-wielding, oft-unwilling consumer base seemed to collectively etch their boundary at monotony. And as much as it would be beautiful to be able to write that, four-plus decades after their founding, time has vindicated the duo’s elusive genius, I, too, have also drawn the same line, on the same terms. What made me dread the first few tracks of Why Be Blue at on that fruit-fly-infested morning, and what makes me skip over “Diamonds, Fur Coat, Champagne” every time it comes up on shuffle, is not that the music lacks difference, but that it does too little with the things that are different about it. If time has done anything across the decades it spent not vindicating Suicide’s genius, it did, at the very least, do a job of generational table-turning: whereas the strange pair’s 20th-Century naysayers hated them for being too different, their 21st-Century naysayers might hate them for not being different enough. Effects-drenched drones of computer-generated chord progressions drove listeners to throw axes at Alan Vega, because they were unprecedented. Effects-drenched drones of computer-generated chord progressions—though they haven’t made me murderous (yet)—drove me insane because they weren’t anything beyond that.
Perhaps the problem with Suicide’s listeners is also a matter of information overload. For a band whose moniker was inspired by the war-laden, angst-scorched late 20th-Century suicide of Western Civilization, it may not be so surprising that an audience yearning for life reacted with hostility to a soundtrack for imminent death. In my case, when I first attempted to listen to Why Be Blue, I was drowning in overdue astronomy problems I couldn’t decrypt, the news of my grandmother’s death, lingering malaise that had caused me to miss several days’ worth of mandatory classes, and the impending doom of piled-up assignments—and unexcused absences—threatening to erase a successful start to my semester from the records. As much as intellectuals love to say that good art must speak to, or be a direct product of its time, it can also just be good art. Contexts change from person to person, and both of the narratives represented in this story, whether via my post-midnight struggles or a generation’s late-century ones, emerge from circumstances not so much beautified, but made unbearable by effects-drenched existentialism. There did exist, if Rolling Stone’s aforementioned now-removed artist bio for the duo was true, smaller (or quieter) subsections that found Suicide “fascinating,” “brilliant and important,” or enjoyed them “as some sort of joke.” But at the end of the day, when the decades have passed and the droning drum machine has traded its janky chords in for ghostly reverberations, those that are silent will, much like the music, likely remain so forever—whether because they’re dead, or because making noise no longer makes a difference.
At some point in his interview with Reynolds, Vega pondered a spiritual experience he had with a disappearing book. “One day I did have this religious experience—I was staying in this brilliant art critic’s home for three months, and I found a 90-page pamphlet on infinity written by this college professor and started reading it,” he said. “I wasn’t stoned or anything, but I suddenly saw those two parallel lines that start out at infinity and meet. I got a picture of the universe and understood what infinity was for one-tenth of a second. And then it was gone.” If anything can corroborate the nonexistence of infinity, it’s Suicide—both the band, and whatever may lead someone to consider the act.
“Their songs are interesting as singular case studies, like the construction workers or the old woman or the young skateboarders, but jam them all together in an album like those characters are jammed together in their city, and you might find yourself bored enough to die.”
That leaves the music. A matter of weeks after I died, whether figuratively or literally, in a haze of fruit flies and flanger-drenched wannabe-Elvis songs, I boarded a flight back to New York for Thanksgiving break. In the intervening time, much of the information overload that drove me crazy on the first go-around was beginning to ease itself—I had begun waking up for my classes again, I was at peace with the 43% I got on a recent Astronomy midterm exam, I was going to get to see my family for a week—and, for one of the first times in what had been months, there was some slight optimism to be excavated from school’s lingering unease. At some point between connecting to the plane’s shoddy free wi-fi network and taking off, I followed a cheery impulse, and decided that my brightening circumstances warranted giving Suicide another try. I pressed shuffle on A Way of Life, their 1988 follow-up to The Second Album—I recognized its artwork from countless Rate Your Music lists generated from obscure genre mash-ups—and, upon hearing “Sufferin’ in Vain,” quickly decided that playing any more of it would mean living up to the song’s title. The track, like nearly all of Suicide’s music, is doubly monotonous and prenatural, riding the stagnant buoys of an unchanging effects-loop and Vega’s bridge-troll vocals on a pothole-covered highway to nowhere, let alone Hell. It is interesting until you realize that there are more interesting things.
But not everything is the most interesting thing in the world, and suffering through the monotony of the less-cool things on Earth might just be necessary for appreciating the cooler ones. Anthropology classes love to harp on the portion of C.G. Jung’s famed adage that says “nothing can exist without its opposite,” while conveniently ignoring its second half, which asserts that “the two were one in the beginning and will be one again in the end.” Freshness and monotony exist on the same spectrum, and one of few things they have in common is the innovation they each often appear in: innovation is inherently an exciting thing, but when it’s sprouting up from every corner and crevice, you’d be surprised at how boring it can quickly become. A walk through the New York City Vega and Rev navigated, even decades removed from its squalid dark days, will reveal a never-ending series of works in progress—hard-hatted men scaling unfinished skyscrapers in elevation systems strung with shoddy pulleys, wiry old women toting litter-picker-uppers in futile park cleanup quests that will take them to their graves, scrawny young skaters stumbling through their first shaky attempts to do tricks in the street. At the same time that it’s all new and revolutionary—that architectural project will one day be a skyscraper, that park really just might one day be relatively cleaner, those skaters will someday either have given it up and matriculated into the adult world, or stuck with it and cultivated their own lasting scene—it’s also incredibly, nerve-wrackingly boring when you have seen it every day for the past forty years. All the same with Suicide: their songs are interesting as singular case studies, like the construction workers or the old woman or the young skateboarders, but jam them all together in an album like those characters are jammed together in their city, and you might find yourself bored enough to die.
The radical boredom of Suicide’s early listeners did result in an appetite for death—chiefly that of the band’s members—but the group was more or less unfazed. Asked whether he was hurt by fans’ booing in a 2008 interview, Vega bluntly told a journalist that he “used to aspire to it.” “They’d yell,” he continued, “And I’d say ‘I can’t hear you.’ When they were throwing shit all over, I knew things were going pretty good. I knew we were agitating somebody, which is what Suicide was supposed to be. (…) We were out of the frying pan and into the fire.”
In an era where “fire” is a compliment in the streets and a threat at the altar, the decision between frying pan and open flame is, perhaps, more difficult to make than it was in Suicide’s heyday. All chances to take out our confusion on the strange duo are long gone, now—it is only us and the inferno that remain.