Life and death of an underground legendA major and fascinating figure in the New York underground, Alan Vega, died on July 16th, 2016 in New York, marked the history of rock and roll deeply with his band Suicide, as a solo artist, as well as in the plastic arts with his light installations. From sculpture to sound experimentation, engaged political activity and horse racing, from Elvis to Jesus Christ, Spinoza and the topic of Jewishness, Alan Vega, Conversation with an Indian is an incursion into the work of prolific artist. A nomadic reading, urban, poetic and polyphonic, punctuated by the voices of Agnès b., Bob Gruen, Pascal Comelade, Dirty Beaches, Marc Hurtado, Perkin Barnes, Christophe, Martin Rev and many more.EXCERPTThe bastard son of Elvis, Alan Vega attracts mystery. A crossed out surname, date of birth uncertain. Vega: chosen name. By chance during a 1973 night on the sidewalks of downtown New York. The name of a star as close to the Earth as to the Sun, one of the brightest that is visible to the human eye. Vega, which belongs to the aptly-named constellation Lyra. Vega is also a Chevrolet, four-cylinder, ninety horse-power, launched by General Motors in 1968. An economic drain on the Detroit firm. The American myth at its most nightmarish. The glistening and the trash. Originally born Alan Boruch Bermowitz on June 23rd, 1938, son of a naturalized Russian immigrant father and an American mother, both Jewish. Alan only became Vega after first being Boruch Bermowitz Alan and later Alan Suicide - when he began exhibiting his installations at the Ok Harris gallery in the late 1960s, or even Nasty Cut for the first Suicide concerts with Martin Rev and Paul Liebegott. Whatever.A name and a birth with two bases. An artistic birth that replaces an original civil status, corrects it and erases it without hesitation “I’m tired of it now, I want a different name, but I can’t find it. Anyway, it’s too late. I’m Vega. I did it because I wanted to distance myself from the Suicide name. But that’s not the only reason. Suicide became an obstacle, as it was often censored just because of our name.”ABOUT THE AUTHORBorn in 1973, Alexandre Breton teaches philosophy in Paris and is a Radio France producer. He aired portraits of Archie Shepp, Christophe, Alan Vega and Jonas Mekas, among others. He is also the artistic director of the music festival City Sounds that takes place in Paris and is dedicated to current music.
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Conversation with an indian
Translated from french by
Alan Vega, conversation with an Indian is the first opus from the Fusion collection, which we shall enrich and add to, which covers artists who led richly creative lives — people such as Alan Vega, musician and artist; unique and avant-garde characters, pioneers, but before anything else those people who are inclined to break down barriers and redefine limits. That’s why as editors, we also have chosen a creative approach to the work which results in a new type of reading experience, a book that has been enriched by mixing text, sound and images.
Alan’s work is as bold and exploratory as anything Free Jazz players did in their time. Alan has always stayed true and outside. He is the real thing and his integrity is absolute.
They were a very pure minimalistic distilled version of rock n’ roll. Joe Foster got me into Suicide as he did a lot of great music. Creation was music fans trying to be a record company; me and Joe were fans that put out music...
I supported them in 89, I think at Dingwalls with Biff! Bang! Pow! They were great guys.
Alan Vega died on July 16th, 2016.
When he became famous on New York’s stages in the seventies, I was only a child and I didn’t listen to his music. Being first an iconic figure of the underground rock, and then an iconic figure for all musicians, Alan was a full artist. I was lucky enough to meet him and get to know him a bit in March 2013. It happened when we published Alan Vega, conversation with an Indian, first book on his music ever, after the excellent Mathieu Copeland’s work on his plastic arts.
I went to pick him up at his hotel, where he stayed with his wife Elisabeth Lamere and his son Dante, to escort them to the launching of the book at the Galerie Agnès b. in Quincampoix street in Paris. I was intimidated, unassured by my hesitant English, and impressed by the character, but I met in fact a charming man, very human, who, despite his uneven health, insisted on coming to the launching and dedications’ night we had organized.
The place was totally crowded, and hundreds of persons were pushing to see him. Alan shook so many hands, patiently took plenty of selfies and cosigned with Alexandre Breton many books throughout the night, writing on each one a kind word.
The first edition of Alan Vega, conversation with an Indian, first came out as a digital book, in a rich text format with interviews, pictures of his art works, and his discography. And it came out as a paper version later, in 2014.
This reissue is a tribute to this comprehensive artist, who went through influences and fashions without ever scarifying his art, nor his musicality neither his plastic arts works, without ever giving up for facility or fame, always preferring his vision to commercial success.
Rest in peace, Alan.
I was fifteen when I first heard the Suicide’s music, and it was a real shock. Their sound was unlike anything else that was around at that time, as much because of Alan Vega’s voice as for the apocalyptic music of Martin Rev. I was already working with sound at the time, manipulating tapes that I had recorded outside that I would mix with diverse objects and makeshift instruments. I would bang and bash around all of these guitars, plates of iron, doors and bottles with real pleasure, and mix them with noises from factories or howls from nature. I obviously had no idea how to even play a single note of music but I just let my whole body and spirit be delivered to the incandescent flesh of sound. My approach to sound has always been very hands-on: I grab, knead, cut and model them like a sculptor, and it seemed to me, having listened to the first Suicide album, that Martin Rev and Alan Vega built their music with the very same “artisanal” method.
I formed the group Étant-Donnés with my brother Eric in 1977 when I realized that I was not the only one making this kind of violent manipulation of sound. Discovering Suicide, and on top of that Throbbing Gristle, Mars, DNA, Chrome and NON, was evidence of the need to take sound experimentation by oneself to the next natural step. A truly international sound revolution broke out at that time, although it was still very underground. We never saw any images of the groups we were listening to on stage; record sleeves were the only visual elements that allowed us to feed our imagination concerning these groups, and the sleeves were often very mysterious and abstract. So we basically just had the band’s sound. Regarding Suicide, their sound was more mysterious, wild, fine and violent than anything else that was around at the time. I’d never heard anything more beautiful nor extreme as Alan Vega’s screams in “Frankie Teardrop’.
Alan Vega made light sculptures, using objects collected in the streets from garbage; “sanctifying” them by giving them a new life thanks to light. His sculptures diffuse light and uses that light illuminate his sculptures. He tries to take this invisible matter and make it palpable, or alive. Sound is equally invisible and elusive, it comes from all directions just like light and, when trying to sculpt and control it, we can feel it coming out of our fingers in the form of wave vibrations, free sounds that we rarely consider the existence of. What defines Alan Vega’s work; his music, lyrics and sculptures, is the word freedom. There’s no place for the word compromise. This same freedom that always guided me in sound, performance, poetry, painting and film. And within this landscape, it is Alan Vega and Martin Rev that are the artists to whom I feel the closest. Their approach convinced me to go further with sound and image, beyond everything else, and to have a totally free and independent approach, without any compromise.
Alan Vega evolved over the years to sound even freer; more violent and more chaotic. When we recorded Re-Up with him in New York in 1998, the sounds that I played to him were very similar to his own solo album’s sound. Our approach is very similar, his sound structures describe the city in which he always lived, New York. You can almost hear the fire truck sirens, car horns and subway sounds in his music. They’re as violent as the city itself; we find the same seething madness that emanates from the volcanic energy of New York. Alan Vega describes not just a city or a society but a space that is created from all of its sounds and light; he reconstructed the outside on the inside.
Whether it’s on stage, on a record or in my films, my relationship with Alan Vega is totally magical because it’s what we can call a true collaboration. I never repeated a concert, the same goes for my records, films and painting, everything must be done within the feeling of the moment, the most important thing being to always move forward but never know exactly where you’re going. This is what connects me, I think, intensely to Alan Vega: moving forward blindly in order to try to see clearly. It’s when we close our eyes that we see the most incredible movies and hear the most beautiful music. When the inside becomes a microcosm of the outside, and the outside becomes a projection of our inside.
The sound of blood is the blood of sound.
Montpellier, September 2012
“Nature is always mocking us: the thoughts that arise in us do so of their own accord, but we are forced to believe unworthily that it is we who draw them from the nothingness - like the photographer Ekdal in Ibsen’s play believes that he gains something by learning of his wife’s dishonor. We throw ideas about left, right and center; haphazardly hoping that something will stick ... but determining that ‘something’ is not within our power, never completely; a little bit sometimes, but usually we do not see a thing - a ridiculous blind groping at something which, again, we can’t attain because of the very fact that we are trying - that’s the sublime thought from which our vanity arises! Reflection consists of endless rebuffs, defeats and failures, but, as if nothing had happened, we return to it again and again with an amazing tenacity and the patience of a mule, we, whom only one small failure leaves numb with despair, we are perfectly fine with the fact that our life is reduced to an insane pushing of Sisyphus’ rock; but if we so happen to stub our little toe along the way, we’re unhappy. We are not spoiled children of nature, far from it; we are slaves trained by it to endure forced labor in which we find a masochistic pleasure, although everyone is comfortable apart from with themselves. Our thought is so terribly superficial, half-reasoned, half-baked, incomplete and painfully uncertain that slightest hint of honesty would not survive it for a second - we are therefore suspended above an abyss, we deceive ourselves into believing that we have both feet on the ground; but the stupidity of others always triumphs over us - and the wise man and the fool are one and the same; yet we have imprudence to always believe that we are right! Yet we are foolish enough to feed our convictions! The world looks like a farce designed to distract an unknown power - and if that is the case, mankind is one of the most grotesque puppets...”
The World as Consciousness and Nothing,
Paris, Winter. We’re crossing the place du Palais Royal. In the back of the taxi, Alan Vega, a black and red hat over jet-black hair, Ray-Bans, a zipped-up crewneck jacket: “I hate talking about my past... the past is the past.”
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