Infinite Dreams: The Life of Alan Vega Brian Dillon

An endearing and suitably messy biography of the
pioneering punk vocalist.

Infinite Dreams: The Life of Alan Vega, by Laura Davis-Chanin and Liz Lamere, foreword by Bruce Springsteen,
Backbeat Books, 328 pages, $40

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When he died in 2016, graffiti appeared around New York’s Lower East Side: “Alan Vega’s God.” A downtown deity of hip, transcending powers: on and off for over forty-five years, Vega and Martin Rev, calling themselves Suicide, made music of extraordinary tenderness and savagery, sci-fi sleekness and throbbing atavism. With Vega, it was as if the Elvis of Sun Studios in 1955 had been hollowed out—nothing left but a feral yelp and its dust-cloud echo—or as though the ghost of doo-wop (an influence he shared with Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and Brian Eno) were stranded in space, minus its harmonies. Beneath this voice were the migraine buzz of Rev’s keyboards and the hissing chemtrails of his primitive drum machines. “Ghost Rider,” “Cheree,” “Frankie Teardrop”—Suicide could be by turns elating, fragile, and terrifying, all the while locked in monotony and claustrophobia.

Laura Davis-Chanin and Vega’s widow, Liz Lamere (both also musicians), have written an endearingly messy biography of the singer and artist, who was born Alan Bermowitz in 1938 and grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. His mother, Tillie, was a bookkeeper, his Polish father, Louis, a diamond setter on Canal Street. Alan studied astrophysics at Brooklyn College, but soon began taking art classes, too, under the tutelage of Ad Reinhardt. Tillie fretted: her son now spent his days drawing and reading Camus, Sartre, and Kerouac. But he got a job at the welfare department, and married his first wife, Mariette, in 1961. Interviewed for Infinite Dreams, Mariette recalls Alan’s growing fixation with the war in Vietnam and plausible nuclear apocalypse, an apartment filled with his increasingly disturbing drawings, and coming home to find her husband ensconced with a friend, making ghastly electronic sounds. By the end of the decade, he was a sculptor on the cusp of making it, with his bristling and trashy light constructions.

One of the striking things about Vega’s career (if that’s the word) is that he was almost forty years old when the first Suicide album appeared in 1977. When he married, he had been a conventional-looking, if devilish, young man with beatnik tendencies; a little over a decade later, his style was equal parts Presley (all periods in one), Ronnie Spector, and Iggy Pop. Seeing the Stooges in 1969 had in particular effected “the astonishing restructuring” of Alan Bermowitz. Advertising for an early performance in 1970 read “punk music by Suicide”—they were the first group to self-describe as “punk” after Lester Bangs had used the word, the year before, to characterize the Stooges. Suicide’s act (was it rock ’n’ roll? performance art? stylized psychosis?) sat happily at the Mercer Arts Center at Broadway and West Third Street, alongside proto-punk glam contemporaries like the New York Dolls and the Magic Tramps. “Happily” here means: if one band was too much, there was always an alternate horrible noise in another room.

During the imperial phase of punk and its button-down pal “new wave,” Suicide were as much reviled as revered. Support slots for major bands turned into riots, notably while opening for Elvis Costello, as well as a rain of lethal coins from Cars fans, and even one axe-throwing incident at a Clash concert in Scotland. Vega: “You fuckers have to live through us to get to the main band.” His onstage persona—chain-wielding, smashing himself in the face with his microphone, but suddenly as plaintive as Johnnie Ray—remains a mystery in Infinite Dreams. What kind of release or escape was involved? Early on, Vega was estranged from most of his family, who he was convinced had disowned the wayward artist he had become. He didn’t attend his parents’ funerals. By all the accounts of friends and collaborators, he was a kind and genial man with blue-collar enthusiasms (every type of sport, playing the horses and the lottery) who seems to have evaded the excess and chaos that overtook many comparable performers. But then, with Suicide, there is a voice filled with dreams and pain, harried by phantoms.

Listen to the band’s first two studio albums, and their music feels spookily self-enclosed, even trapped. As with the solo records of Nico, or Neu! and related projects, it can be hard to go back to less monomaniacal music—or a huge relief. Later Suicide records, and Vega’s own solo output, were more happenstance, improvisatory, and collaborative. So it makes sense that a Vega biography should be quite a ramshackle affair. Sometimes the chronology skips a beat or bar, doubles back, gets submerged in echo and repetition. Quotations from the likes of Henry Miller, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir sit unprocessed on the page. The writing’s needle frequently goes into the red: “the New Year’s Eve moon shone stark into his eyes. He looked around him. His heart pounded.” Mundane details of workaday life begin to pall. None of this much matters, because what remains is so engaging, including reminiscences from Elvis Costello, Billy Idol, and Vega’s son Dante.

In the end, Vega’s is a story about perseverance. First of all, inside the work itself: his stubborn commitment to a limited array of musical and vocal maneuvers, which in turn tested the stamina of audiences to the limit. Vega had a “no notes” policy; what mattered was rhythm and sonics, so live versions of songs could sound radically unlike the records. You might say he had a “no career” policy, too; he was expert at saying no and staying home. But he seemed delighted by his increased if belated recognition, from the mid-1990s onward. Longtime fan Bruce Springsteen (who supplies a foreword to Infinite Dreams) covered “Dream Baby Dream,” there were museum shows for Vega’s visual art, and Suicide even opened for the re-formed Stooges. On his seventy-eighth birthday, following a stroke and a broken hip, Vega lay in the hospital and sang “Dream Baby Dream” very softly, just the title over and over, till his wife joined in: “… forever.”

Brian Dillon’s Affinities, Suppose a Sentence, and Essayism are published by New York Review Books. He is working on Ambivalence: a memoir about (among other things) education, failure, and Virginia Woolf.

An endearing and suitably messy biography of the pioneering punk vocalist.
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