Springsteen’s punk roots
On his new album, the Boss pays tribute to perhaps his most surprising influence: way-underground noisemakers Suicide.
Ask any Springsteen fan what Bruce’s biggest musical influences are, and you’re likely to hear the same names over and over: Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, the British Invasion bands and, naturally, the Jersey Shore groups of the early 1970s.
Few followers of the Boss ever bring up the names Alan Vega and Martin Rev of New York electro-punk pioneers Suicide. But that is about to change, as Bruce releases his 18th album on Tuesday. Called “High Hopes,” the record closes with a sublime cover of Suicide’s 1979 single “Dream Baby Dream.”
Even in the duo’s notorious CBGB and Max’s Kansas City days, the Boss was a fan.
“We first met Springsteen in 1980,” remembers Vega. “He was recording ‘The River’ and we were recording our second album in New York. I spent five or six days hanging out with him and driving around. Then we had a playback meeting for our album. There were three or four big shots from our label, and Bruce was there, too. After we played the album, there was deathly silence . . . except for Bruce, who said, ‘That was f - - king great.’ He made a point of telling us how much he loved us.”
Praise is something that Suicide were not used to, and neither did they seek it out. They first met in 1969, at a downtown art space when Vega was an artist and Rev played in an avant-garde jazz band. The following year, they began working on Suicide, with Rev creating a stark and scary synthesizer backdrop for Vega’s demented howling. They called themselves a punk band years before the word had entered the musical lexicon, and together, the duo forged a sound that was as unsettling and creepy as New York at the time.
Alongside Suicide’s provocative sound was a deliberately confrontational live show. “I would often yell at the crowd,” adds the now 75-year-old Vega with a chuckle. “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!”
Unsurprisingly, that tactic would sometimes backfire. One show in 1978, opening for Elvis Costello in Belgium, ended with in a full-scale riot. Another, in England, supporting the Clash that same year, saw Vega almost being struck by a tomahawk thrown by the angry crowd.
But Springsteen was on to Suicide and knew they had something special. His love for the stark sound of their first two albums (1977’s “Suicide” and 1980’s “Suicide: Alan Vega and Martin Rev”) began dripping into his own music through the brooding 1982 album “Nebraska.” One track, in particular, “State Trooper,” was punctuated with shrill yelps that were an obvious steal from Vega. “I remember walking into my label just after it came out,” Vega says. “I thought it was one of my albums that I had forgotten about. But it was Bruce!”
Springsteen’s love of the song “Dream Baby Dream” came to the surface during his 2005 solo tour, when he performed it (with slightly altered lyrics) as the last song at almost every date. “I’ve liked Suicide for a long time,” Springsteen told British magazine Mojo that year. “If Elvis came back from the dead, I think he would sound like Alan Vega.”
The Boss even had plans to perform the tune as part of his 2009 Super Bowl halftime performance but backed out at the last moment, opting to perform all of his own songs, instead. “It’s like a symphony,” says Vega. “It’s a very hopeful song. I think it should be the national anthem.”
Even though Suicide last put out an album in 2002 (their fifth effort, “American Supreme”), more artists have voiced their appreciation of Vega and Rev in recent years. Fellow New Yorkers MGMT love them so much that they invited the pair to open for them at a now infamous Halloween 2008 show at Webster Hall, during which Rev wore ski goggles while Vega growled and scowled at the terrified front row of teeny-boppers. Even more surprisingly, alt-pop singer Sky Ferreira paid homage to them on the dissonant throb of “Omanko” — a track from last year’s “Night Time, My Time” album.
For their part, Vega and Rev are more into gangsta rap. “I think Snoop Dogg and Ice T are really great artists,” adds Rev, now 65. “Rap music is music of necessity — of the street. That’s what we were when we started.”
Although Vega now earns most of his money through his visual art, both members are happy to note that they make more money from Suicide’s music than they ever did. Springsteen’s inclusion of “Dream Baby Dream” on “High Hopes” is likely to add a few more cents to their tally. “I’m middle-class now,” laughs Vega. That may be so, but give them a chance and Suicide can still cause a riot. After all these years, there’s no greater success than that.