Alan Vega of Suicide Dies at 78

Peter Noble/Redferns
Alan Vega photographed in 1982. 

The trailblazing electronic duo was scheduled to headline California's Desert Daze festival in October.

Alan Vega of the influential band Suicide died in his sleep on July 16. The singer was 78 years old. 

Henry Rollins broke the news on his website with a statement from the Vega family. 

Born Boruch Alan Bermowitz in Brooklyn in 1938, Vega formed Suicide, the trailblazing electronic duo, with multi-instrumentalist Martin Rev in 1970. Inspired by a Stooges concert in New York in the early 1970s, Vega -- who had worked as an artist and sculptor for several years -- incorporated Iggy Pop's confrontational, audience-baiting tactics into the group's act. "I would often yell at the crowd,” Vega told the New York Post in 2014. “I had a bike chain which I would swing around. Sometimes I cut my face with a broken bottle. One time we were playing at the Mercer Arts Center [in Greenwich Village], and I stood in front of the doors so people couldn’t leave!” The group found an audience in New York's punk-rock scene of the mid-1970s, performing at CBGB and Max's Kansas City alongside artists like the Ramones and Blondie, yet Vega and Rev were outliers even in that intentionally outsider milieu: an electronic duo amid an army of guitar-based rock bands. 

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The band's 1977 self-titled debut is widely considering one of the seminal albums of electronic music, released during what was only a nascent scene at the time. Hailed by such writers as Lester Bangs and, later, Nick Hornby, the album's place in punk rock history was cemented early on, as Suicide was among the earliest users of synthesizers and drum machines, ushering in a new sound that would evolve and endure for decades. Indeed, the group's impact didn't begin to be felt until several years later, when British new wave groups like Soft Cell -- many of them singer-and-synthesizer-based duos -- cited them as a formative influence; several years later, Spacemen 3 covered the group's songs and forged a sound based heavily on Suicide's 1977 song "Cheree"; a few years after that, Trent Reznor's Nine Inch Nails developed the influence into yet another new shape. As recently as 2010, M.I.A. sampled the song "Ghost Rider" from Suicide's first album in her single, "Born Free."

But less expected was the reverent fandom of Bruce Springsteen: A longtime supporter, he spent time with the group in 1980; he incorporated the group's doomy atmosphere and some Vega-esque yelps and shrieks into songs from his spartan 1982 album Nebraska. Later, he closed his 2005 concerts with a solo rendition of the group's Roy Orbison-esque 1979 single "Dream Baby Dream," which he later used to close his 2014 album High Hopes. The song was also covered by Savages and Neneh Cherry. 

While Suicide released five studio albums over a quarter century and Vega and Rev released several solo albums, they are best known for Suicide's early work. 

Listen to a live performance of "Ghost Rider" from the late 1970s below:

Despite its confrontational nature, the duo grew comfortable with its elder-statesmen status and performed regularly over the years, playing its first album in its entirety at shows in 2010. Suicide was among the headliners announced for California's Desert Daze festival, taking place October 14-16 in Joshua Tree. They shared the bill with such acts as Television, Primus and Washed Out. The festival posted the following message on its Facebook page: "We are shocked and heartbroken by the passing of the great Alan Vega: a man who inspired so many of us, an innovator and pioneer, one of the warriors who taught us to never compromise, a boundary breaking ghost rider of the unknown who paved the way for so many of us. It goes without saying that we were excited and honored to host Suicide at this year's festival."

Read the Vega family statement below: 

With profound sadness and a stillness that only news like this can bring, we regret to inform you that the great artist and creative force, Alan Vega has passed away.

Alan passed peacefully in his sleep last night, July 16. He was 78 years of age.

Alan was not only relentlessly creative, writing music and painting until the end, he was also startlingly unique. Along with Martin Rev, in the early 1970’s, they formed the two person avant band known as Suicide. Almost immediately, their incredible and unclassifiable music went against every possible grain. Their confrontational live performances, light-years before Punk Rock, are the stuff of legend. Their first, self-titled album is one of the single most challenging and noteworthy achievements in American music.

Alan Vega was the quintessential artist on every imaginable level. His entire life was devoted to outputting what his vision commanded of him.

One of the greatest aspects of Alan Vega was his unflinching adherence to the demands of his art. He only did what he wanted. Simply put, he lived to create. After decades of constant output, the world seemed to catch up with Alan and he was acknowledged as the groundbreaking creative individual he had been from the very start.

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.

Alan is survived by his amazing family, wife Liz and son Dante. His incredible body of work, spanning five decades, will be with us forever.