Peter Noble/Redferns

Alan Vega Was One Of The Last True Punks

Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib on the late iconoclast, who died this weekend at age 78

I first learned of the band Suicide when I was 16 or so. They were a myth — a punk-rock campfire tale, told around the glow of cigarettes by older kids in an alley outside of a show they deemed “too boring.” I heard the infamous stories of Suicide’s live shows, where the band would perform in front of irate crowds throwing chairs, tables, an ax. For better or worse — most likely worse — I often consider the performance of punk to be largely about survival. It's about entering a place you might fear and making it out alive. On those terms, very few artists have ever been more punk than Suicide's Alan Vega, who died peacefully this weekend at age 78.

Alan Vega never ran. If the violence in the audience became too bad, he said, he would break a glass bottle and cut his own face open on stage. He would make himself bleed before anyone else could. Some would consider a fan's fascination with such an artist to be a glorification of violence, but I see it as a glorification of staying whole in the face of violence. I have been a target at punk shows, and I fought back before I learned a better, newer way to fight. Alan Vega realized early what some young punks realize far too late: If you make yourself a weapon, at any cost, you control the space again.

The big lie that I let myself believe as a teenager is the one about punk being all spectacle and little substance. And yes, I am still, to this day, recounting the stories of Suicide’s jarring live performances. But I cannot do that without also pulling the other hand from behind my back and offering the pure joy that their music gives me. I love Suicide for what they created and how it spread to the most unexpected places. I love Suicide because I love Bruce Springsteen. I love Suicide because they made the song “Frankie Teardrop,” and somewhere along the line Springsteen heard that and decided to make the album Nebraska, and I have held that album close, knowing it wouldn’t exist without Vega’s influence. I love Suicide because when I hear “With or Without You,” one of a small handful of U2 songs I can stomach, I can hear the song “Cheree.” I hear them in R.E.M., in Radiohead, in The Gaslight Anthem, Peaches, and The Knife. I close my eyes and can see their fingerprints on the records of so many bands I love.

They are deep in the roots of one of my favorite musical trees: the one that branched off and gave us artists who were able to see past the noise and the frantic energy and understand the craft. Alan Vega and Suicide made essentially the same sacrifice that is often assigned to Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground — the band that launched a thousand basement bands, the band that unlocked a new window for their peers and showed them how to traverse a new landscape. The band that, despite this, isn’t one of the biggest in music history. Suicide altered the landscape, and did it their way. I bow at the feet of Suicide's 1977 debut, the impossible run of songs that side one provides alone. The grand lesson of Suicide, I think, is that one should never mistake what something looks like for what it actually is. I spoke of violence and blood before I spoke of the music, sure, but the music is what holds up. New language had to be invented for what the band did with that first album. Vega’s rattling vocals, fighting it out with synths and drum machines, send me into chills to this day. This, too, is punk. It’s a trick, really: showing people who you are, and then giving them something entirely different.

I have been thinking a lot lately about confrontation, and the art that comes out of confrontation. I believe that anyone who makes art should aspire to run into a confrontational space, not away from it. I wish for art that does not know how deep the water is but still dives. The purpose of this, I think, is to allow for a space of endless questioning. Right before I heard the news of Alan Vega’s passing while driving into the dark of a Pennsylvania highway, I was thinking hard about how many artists have stopped themselves short due to their fear of not knowing what was on the other side of whatever door they were afraid to open. And just like that, Alan Vega — fearless, one of the last true punks — was gone. I saw him in person only once, at a New York show in 2012, shortly after he’d survived a stroke. Suicide played a short and loud set that felt largely improvisational, and it didn’t matter. An entire audience sat at their feet, mouths watering for more. Vega antagonized only a little. When the crowds stop throwing chairs and start throwing roses, I suppose it’s harder to motivate yourself to play the sneering villain.

What I love most about Vega’s career, even more than Suicide, is his 1983 album Saturn Strip. It is often forgotten, and it might even seem like a joke to some more hardcore Suicide fans, but it's his most fearless album — the music he made when he was feeling free. It's a pop album, straightforward pop; some might even call it disco. It was crafted to be a huge hit album, stripping Vega down to simple song structures with brilliant lyrics and infectious melodies. It fell short, nowhere near the commercial success that it was expected to be.

Sometimes, confrontational art is staring down an audience that wants you to bleed and telling them that they are there to survive what you give them, not the other way around. Sometimes, confrontational art is staring yourself in the mirror and pushing yourself beyond your limits, regardless of what comes out. Alan Vega did both of those things. He invented a new way to perform and talk about punk. He made one of the best pop albums of the '80s. He ran into all things seemingly unafraid, and sure of who he was.

There is a lesson to be taken from every musician who has left us during this wretched year. Alan Vega looked out at the masses, time after time, and saw people who wanted him to be afraid. He walked into the room with them, locked all the doors, and told them, “I don’t know about you, but I’m getting out of here alive.” May we all be so bold.