Suicide/Henry Rollins/The Feral Singers

Barbican, London - 9 July 2015

"I'm privileged to have seen Suicide (a)live. Just."

I will preface my comments by pointing out that I'm not well-versed in Suicide - I really only know the first album.

Overall, I thought it was a pretty incredible night. Largely as it was way more 'hardcore' (noise) than I was expecting. Thanks in part to a MASSIVE Moog modular setup (which seems to have featured on a number of shows during this festival). Part of the Moog Concordance, itself part of Station to Station: A 30 Day Happening, curated by Los Angeles based artist Doug Aitken. ( favourites Wrangler featured alongside LoneLady the following evening.)

The show was split into two halves with a 20 minute interval between. It opened with the (14 member) The Feral Singers doing a short voice piece - quite creepy and unsettling - a nice start.

This was followed by a brilliant personal introduction to Suicide by Henry Rollins. He was a huge fan when he was younger and he told the tale of being on tour and finding himself in the lower East Side with 8 hours to spare. He had the bonkers idea of calling his agent from a street pay phone to ask him if he could find Alan Vega's telephone number. He did. Rollins called Vega: "Hello", "Yeah?", "Err... is that Alan Vega?”, “Yeah”. Rollins went on to expound how he told Vega what a huge fan he was in particular of his lyrics and had the idea to publish a book of them. He summoned up the courage to ask Vega if he could come over to his apartment and, after a little hesitation, Vega said OK.

Moments later Rollins buzzed the door of Vega's apartment was let in. “Do you drink coffee kid?” Vega asked. “All day” said Rollins. “I warn you – I make mud.” came Vega's response. They hit it off instantly. Rollins told Vega about his idea to publish Vega's lyrics, asking if he kept his notebooks. He did – pointing to a pile of them. Rollins asked if he could take a look, “Sure kid”. By the end of the encounter Rollins had left with a verbal agreement to publish the book (which he subsequently did) and even went away with some samples of Vega's notes.

It's worth setting out Rollins' introduction in some detail as it perfectly set the scene for the performance and provided a very personal but historical context as well. It also, unexpectedly (probably unintentionally) went some way to debunk the mountainous mythology that has accreted around Suicide across the decades. All the more impressive then, to this Suicide live virgin, that what (immediately) followed blew me away in spite of numerous shortcomings that were much debated online afterwards.

Acknowledging that the two members of Suicide both also have significant solo careers, the first Suicide performance of the night was actually Martin Rev alone doing a selection from his 2009 album Stigmata. I say alone as there was no Alan Vega, but credit must also go to Moog knob-twiddler Finlay Shakespeare. 
In 2008, while Rev was working on Stigmata, his wife Mari died, and the album is dedicated to her. Its choice clearly meaningful and significant. The album has strong religious undertones (most track titles are in Latin) and the accompanying visuals tonight emphasised this. It was a huge wall of noise, fat synth bass lines, warm, rich analogue sequencers pumping forth from the almighty Moog Modular Analogue Synthesis kit on the stage. Its banks of lights flickering and pulsing their instrumental messages. It was essentially 20 minutes of instrumental noise and was utterly fantastic. One of the best live sounds I've ever heard. Rev's synthesiser playing consisted exclusively of him whacking the keyboard with his open hands, punching it with his fists and slapping his forearms on the keys to produce mostly white noise. About 90% of the music was coming from the flashing wall at the back. I didn't mind one jot.

68-year old Rev's PVC outfit caused a few giggles and disapproving voices of dissent. I just liked his attitude.

Rev walked off stage. A few moments later Alan Vega came on.

[Suicide: Alan Vega]

Photo: Suicide's Alan Vega

Presently 77, he was clearly very frail. Perhaps too much hard rock n roll living combined with too much muddy coffee? He was wearing a beanie hat, tight jeans, red and white sneakers and carrying a walking cane. He voice was rasping and he had difficulty walking. Having only taken a few steps into the stage (from the back – so that he didn't have to walk up the steps stage left) and his first words were “Fucking legs don't work any more”. He wasn't exaggerating very much. He too performed essentially alone for around 20 minutes, but with Liz Lamere and his son Dante Vega assisting right of stage on the music and sharing backing vocal duties. This (seemingly new) piece was entitled simply It.

Occasionally Vega seemed to absorb extra energy from that thumping wall of Moog and his voice fleetingly yelled with a strength and power that must have hinted at an incredible and now very distant past. It was good rather than great.
Physical shortcomings aside, I just preferred the Stigmata section from Rev. He made now be something of a shadow of his former self, but when you consider Vega was already 39 when Suicide's debut album appeared, he must have been and still remains an inspiration to countless musicians around the world (many of whom were in the audience this evening).

Following a second intermission, The Feral Singers returned with another piece that this time was a little more playful, coming across like a babbling mass of idiots – a parody of communication in the modern world?

Then came the section that everyone was hoping for when they purchased their tickets. This final part of the evening was entitled 'Suicide: A Punk Mass' - like some post-mortem tribute evening, but with the living 'ghosts' of Suicide participating. I had little in the way of expectations to be met here. I only know the self-titled first album and whilst they did perform songs from it, it was hard to discern them. In part due to the punk approach to performance which was more about attitude and energy than a slavish reproduction. In part due to Vega's voice being as weak as his footing.

To get through the evening Vega had to sit some songs out, singing from a chair at the back of the stage. He probably hated doing that with every fibre that he could still feel, and the strobe light that had been strategically placed behind the chair, presumably to add (an unnecessary) sense of 'dynamism' to the show, simply looked a bit embarrassing, disrespectful even. I think I heard Ghost Rider. I saw Henry Rollins join them for one song, and believe I saw Bobby Gillespie among a couple of 'special guests'. But frankly, all this paled alongside what I'd heard earlier during the Stigmata part of the service.

At the end of his introduction, Rollin's joked that Martin Rev and Alan Vega would, as always, put everything they had into the performance and that they might even die in the process. Looking at Vega struggling to move around the stage – sadly Rollins wasn't far off the truth. And yet... it was as if Suicide's purpose would not have been fulfilled if everyone in the audience went home happy. It would only have been a success if a significant proportion of the ticket buying public went home spitting out how what we had experienced in the rarefied halls of the Barbican was not the real Suicide.

He also said we should expect our lives to be changed by seeing Suicide perform live. I'm pretty sure everyone's was – albeit in different ways.

Some who had seen Suicide in their heyday have said online afterwards that they wished they hadn't even witnessed this. Others, me included, felt thankful. The Stigmata section was some of the most wondrous and mesmerising music I've heard live. The energy I took from that is why I go to see bands live. I'm privileged to have seen Suicide (a)live. Just. 
Review by Rob Dyer
Photo by Erik Stein