Monday, February 10, 2020

Dream Baby Dream - Suicide - A New York Story by Kris Needs

Suicide was/is one of the most extraordinary groups to appear in the 70's - a minimalist duo consisting of keyboards'n'drum machine and an Iggy-esque singer, they literally terrified much of the NYC scene for the decade. They are now cited as the creators of multiple genres, although their own recognition has been eclipsed by those they influenced, while always remaining completely original.

Growing up in and around NYC in the 50's, both instrumentalist Marty Rev and singer Alan Vega were fans of the emerging musical scene, especially the epically NY sound known as doo-wop. Marty was also exposed to various political and racial views by his open-minded parents and cultivated a love for jazz piano, which helped to create the later Suicide oeuvre. He studied the new jazz that was evolving in the city while Alan was fascinated with the first 2 man electronica band, the Silver Apples. They were both involved in the visual art scene - Alan was creating multi-media pieces that included sound from debris found in the streets, which he would return to the streets after his show was completed - but pretty close to simultaneously decided that they wanted to do live music and mutual friends introduced them. There were a couple of different initial line-ups and some instrumental variations but the Suicide opus, while ever developing, was essentially there from the start.

The duo was calling their music punk back in the pre-glam days of 1970 and eventually made friends of the new, ascending combos like the New York Dolls, Wayne County and the Fast, expanding their venues from places like the Mercer Art Center and local art galleries to CBGB's and especially the artier Max's Kansas City. Funnily, Needs mentions a review that Thurston Moore did in Gizmos-related Gulcher fanzine back in the day that Alan still objects to! But, the band was, finally, getting some recognition, even while many still couldn't comprehend their sound - even among the punks. Oddly, to me anyway, Rev embraces disco (and later rap/hip-hop, etc.) as a viable, vibrant new musical style as opposed to the soulless, corporate genre that most musicians think of it, and its drum machine rhythms even influence his work as they prepared to finally cut their first album.

As with most radical artists, they went through some extreme highs and lows - sometimes within hours apart - until their fan Ric Ocasek of the Cars produced their "Dream Baby Dream" - a super slick, quite tame ballad that, while it had a basic Suicide sound, had none of the previous furious fire'n'ferocity. Their product has varied since then, with increasing polish clashing with furious intensity and each of their solo works have seen the variety of influences that have sparked their imaginations. Suicide has continued to perform even after Vega had a combined heart attack and stroke, with the men working to break boundaries and mutant their previous work.

Needs does a fine job with the tale, bringing plenty of detail without any lurid gossip, although leaving open some questions like how did they survive financially during their early years before they started to receive some notoriety and acclaim. In any case, it is an engaging tale of a duo of true artists who continue to expand perceptions of what music can be. A fine book about an incredible duo.