The Garage, London, England • 3.8.98
So I’m trying to think back, figure out where things went just a bit wrong. What little triviality left a sour taste in my mouth. Was it something that DJ Tim Gane (Stereolab, got it) played? No, no incitement to stupidity and violence to be had in experimental French lounge music.
Or perhaps it could have been Panasonic. Yeah, bastards. When that black curtain concealing the stage was pulled back, everyone was expecting two anonymous ham-radio types, and instead there stood Gary Numan’s scary offspring straight in from boot camp, dressed immaculately in matching three-button Carnaby Street suits with equally matching looks of disdain. Tonight Panasonic is more interested in sounding like Morbid Angel than Eno. Beats slowly build and then fall down a flight of stairs, crashing into well-planned walls of white noise. There is no set list, rather a spiral notebook full of cryptic instructions and settings. Volume and amplified feedback are savored. They abuse their equipment with a certain bratty glee during this improvised and contemptuous outing. Panasonic dabble in Merzbow territory for the last few minutes of their set before quietly exiting to go off and eat circuit boards or something. The audience claps politely; so I can’t blame Panasonic.
Soon enough, the ominous droning beats kick in and the curtain is finally pulled away to reveal Suicide, maybe the last time for awhile. It is a jarring moment, like a good slap. Martin Rev is already out, on a mounted dais; all Lou Reed junkie looks, Terminator/blue-blocker shades, and clad head to toe in leather. He intently scowls at us, but barely acknowledges the presence of his keyboard. The lights are punishingly bright, flashing, and brightly colored, like a sugarfix disco. Perfect to frame Alan Vega staggering onstage. Applause he looks surprised and very pleased.
Truth be known, I had swallowed all of the tales of Suicide causing riots and destruction — and loving it — at every show. I fully expected Alan Vega to lunge out and slit every throat in the first rows. But he looks pleased — flushed with triumph even — well-deserved after three previous transcendent nights at the Garage (I can at least vouch for Friday and Saturday). Deep down, Vega and Rev are not as much deconstructionist performance artists as consummate performers. And so much the better. Witness Martin Rev robotically shaking to his music, raising his fist in a salute and bringing it down hard on his drum pad. Funky leather-boy. Then there’s Alan Vega. His onstage moves come in fits and tics and resemble Iggy Pop trapped in Jell-O (at one point someone yells out Iggy Pop and he replies “Fuck that: Jim Morrison.”) contorting and posing in slow motion. Sometimes he hangs on his mic stand for dear life, and leans waaaay forward, his hands twitching in a way that has been generously borrowed by the likes of Andrew Eldritch, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and Jarvis Cocker. Other times he’ll just throw the mic into the crowd. Sunglasses ever-present and getting the audience to light his cigarettes for him, it’s just too much.
Vega and Rev whisper among one another conspiratorially as Rev’s programmed parts clatter on. But that is the poisonous essence of Suicide — Soul Train drone — one maddeningly catchy drum beat with a scary/poppy synth line repeated infinitely until Vega grows weary of singing or Rev just pulls the plug. I know it sounds “difficult” reading about it (probably makes you want to start a riot, right? right?) but is just so perfect live. Even twenty years on…
Vega shows off his Che Guevera shirt, grabs the hands of the faithful at the front and improvises mad scat lines during “Che.” Vega’s heavily-echoed screech echoes throughout the hall for “Rocket USA.” He even drops to his knees during the lush “I Surrender,” and croons sugary “I surrender to you” to anyone at hand, like a schizoid Sinatra. Next admitting, “I don’t know what the fuck else to sing” and then mumbling incoherently. Rev glares at everything.
But right now you’re probably wondering why I was moaning on earlier, as at the moment I am collapsing under the weight of my own hyperbole. The problem is that a bunch of people paid a lot of money to show up and relive a punk ritual they were too young for the first time around: have a laugh and throw bottles at Suicide. Here is a helpful hint if they play in America- they DON’T feed on the antagonism and tension, maaaaan. Amazingly, the dreaded Suicide like to hear applause and have a receptive audience every so often. Throwing lit cigarettes at them will not make you the king of punk. Compared with previous nights, their performance was cut-short and more incoherent. Here ends the lecture.
Right in the middle of Alan Vega going on about how he wants to change his name, two cigarettes hit him in the chest, and there dies Vega the affable showman. He offers to take the whole audience outside: “I’ve been dealing with this shit since before you were born.” “Frankie Teardrop” becomes a primal scream therapy exercise with a hollow beat: “Frankie… FranKIE… FRAANKIEEEEEE.” Vega berates the hip scenesters clustered around the bar: “What are you all standing back there for, too fancy to come boogie down with us??” Next song begins and bottles fly. Vega makes Rev shut down his keyboard and explain how he is going to buy some “fucking cruise missiles” and come back here. They proceed to slash and burn through “Sister Ray Says” for 15 minutes, Vega incorporating a litany of band names into the lyrics (did he say Phil Spector?). Rev and Vega argue for some time. The music continues. Rev leaves and returns ó Vega dramatically lights a cigarette, exit both. Twenty minutes later and much prompting from the beer-soaked admirers down front and they reappear for the definitive reading of “Ghost Rider.” “America is killing its youth,” indeed. Scream and spasm. Vega shakes a few more hands and it’s over. Despite all of my stupid whining, gig of the year, no contest.