In response to the politics, culture and sheer madness of early '70s New York, artist Alan Vega and musician Martin Rev created the counter-cultural performance art statement that was Suicide.
"CBGB was a unique animal unto itself as the place was a right shithole that had this desolation shithole-row type of charm," says Walter Lure. “The place stank and was in a rotten neighbourhood, but that was part of its attraction; the anti-glam factor. Punks always fancied themselves as down and out rebels living drugged-out on the edge. Max’s was at the other end of the spectrum. It had been a trendy Warhol gang hangout in the late sixties and early seventies, and really was sort of decadent and glitzy. After the Warhol gang faded away, the punks took over and gave it a bit of street credibility. The place still was a nice-looking club that had a decent restaurant on the ground floor and good music on the second floor.”
Max’s was much more up Suicide’s street with its towering artistic legacy and less self-conscious cliques. Under its next owners and the guidance of Peter Crowley, this would be the club where Suicide’s fortunes changed and they first got on record. But in 1974, it was still a struggle for them to get a foot in the door.
While artists still frequented the front bar, the 30 foot deep back room had achieved an elite notoriety after being adopted by the Warhol crowd in the late sixties. Its low-lit ambience still attracted huge stars and artists behaving badly. Meanwhile, the live room had played host to the Stooges (with Iggy famously slashing his chest after returning with Raw Power) and Dolls. “Us younger kids, like Patti Smith, Wayne County, David Johansen and the fantastic New York Dolls, who were part of the back room, began to have more relevance,” says Elda Gentile. “Max’s focus went to music and the days of Warhol’s dominance began to wane.”
After the Mercer’s collapse, Mickey Ruskin started allowing in more local musicians, such as Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye -- who supported veteran activist folkie Phil Ochs in December 1973. Max’s also broke with its policy of only presenting acts signed to record companies by giving Television and Patti a five day stint in August 1974.
Marty and Alan had asked Mickey Ruskin about playing at Max’s a couple of years earlier. Ivan Karp had even sent a letter of recommendation, which prompted a provisional Easter date before Ruskin backed out when Suicide called to con rm. In early 1974, Marty returned and ended up leaving a reel-to-reel demo tape with booking manager Sam Hood, but had still heard nothing after a few weeks. Too impoverished to be flinging reel-to-reels about, Marty decided to go and get the tape back. Sporting his ‘Suicide’-studded jacket, hat, shades, and steel pole, he turned up at Max’s and found Hood in his office.
Marty soon began to feel like a y on Hood’s coffee cup, recalling how “He only seemed to be hiring guys who’d just made records for Sony, and said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t book you’. So I asked him for the tape back. I sat down, thinking ‘I’m just gonna sit here until he finds the tape’. He started looking for it, going through boxes, but still couldn’t find the tape. I had no other place to go, and I didn’t care, now we weren’t getting a gig. Then, at some point, I started to nod, like having a siesta. All of a sudden, he decided he would give us a showcase. I guess he had been worried about me nodding out in his office. Maybe he thought I was high or overdosing, or something. I sat there and could see what was happening, so I kept it up. To top it off, he walked me to the elevator. He wanted to make sure I got on the elevator okay and wasn’t going to nod out. I don’t know why he was so worried. I did not expect that, but it was like getting out of the army. I walked out and said to Alan, ‘We got a gig at Max’s!’”
The Village Voice ad for Suicide’s Max’s debut on August 6 quoted Roy Hollingworth’s Melody Maker review, one from Variety calling them “the most bizarre act around” and that Village Voice review declaring that they were “the hippest act in town.”
Suicide had been slotted in over a showcase for a major label glam band. In the audience was Craig Leon, another early fan and vital figure in their story. Born in Miami in 1952 and growing up in Florida, where he opened his first studio, Craig would soon become another seminal presence in the downtown revolution, producing debut albums by the Ramones, Blondie, Richard Hell and Suicide. He was already working in the studio assisting producer Richard Gottehrer, who had co-written sixties hits such as ‘My Boyfriend’s Back’ and ‘I Want Candy’. Gottehrer had also founded Sire Records with Seymour Stein in 1966.
Craig had already done some work at Sire when he found out from his friend Paul Nelson (the man who had signed the Dolls to Mercury) that London Records was planning to launch an American branch of Jonathan King’s UK Records in New York, and was looking for an A&R scout. After reasoning “Maybe I’d want that instead of Sire, which was an unknown entity at that time,” Craig went for an interview with “this old school, cigar-smoking kind of A&R guy,” who assigned him to “go around this weekend, then give me a report, tell me what you’ve got. If I like your observations, maybe you can work for us instead of Sire.”
Craig knew his friend Terry McCarthy, whose apartment he was staying at, was managing a band who were also on the same showcase as Suicide that weekend at Max’s. Having long forgotten McCarthy’s band, beyond it being “a Roxy Music-Dolls imitation in high heels,” Craig was about to leave after their undistinguished set, but impetuously decided, “I’m gonna stay and check out this thing called Suicide that’s playing next. There were more people to see the glam band than stayed to see Suicide.”
He was glad he did. Speaking now, Craig’s most abiding memory is of Alan “swinging these chains and hitting the table in the front row. One of the important things about the gig, that I thought was cool, was that he was going one step beyond Iggy Pop. Suicide were the first people in New York who really coined the punk thing. There were by now only about eight people in the audience, and he was swinging these chains and making a big noise with them. Marty was making like loud Velvet Underground walls of noise, but it had rhythm, although not as rhythmic as it became on the album. Alan had his hair up in a do and was wearing something very sixties R&B, like a leopard skin coat or something like that. He was jamming and doing a kind of James Brown thing over it. I thought they were phenomenal, because it was something totally new. I was very aware of the German bands then, and they reminded me of Can, a lot. Not so much Ash Ra Tempel or Popol Vuh, it was a lot more melodic than them. My favourite Can record was Monster Movie. That repetitive thing of ‘You Doo Right’ and ‘Father Cannot Yell’ was kind of like what I thought Suicide was doing that night, in a very New York underground kind of way. Can’s singer Malcolm Mooney was kind of like the Teutonic version of Alan, except he was very restrained in comparison. I really thought Suicide were great.”
Excited at his discovery, Craig hurtled into London Records on Monday morning, enthusing about this group he had seen called Suicide. He told his prospective boss how they didn’t have bass or drums, just a guy playing a keyboard, and another one singing, “except not really singing because it was like hardcore downtown art stuff... I said I thought this band was great, doing something really innovative and new. In my bright-eyed innocence, I thought that something new and different was what the label would be looking for if they wanted a young guy working for them to find new bands. In essence, they did, but they didn’t want them quite that different! Obviously the name wasn’t right for the label, right off the bat. He said, ‘We’ll get back to you, kid.’ I didn’t get the gig, which cemented the fact I was going to stay at Sire, so I ended up not getting a job because of Suicide! I didn’t meet Suicide at that time, I just made a mental note and put them on my list.”
Although Suicide got to play a return gig, as 1974 progressed, Max’s started falling on hard times, exacerbated by three res and the Warhol crowd drifting on to One University Place and the Ocean Club on Chambers Street. In her book High On Rebellion, Yvonne Sewall-Ruskin accuses the glam crowd of taking over the night scene, a move which drove away the more generic arts scenesters who had traditionally patronised the club. “Mickey became bored with his own party. He had filled too many stomachs without filling his own pockets,” she writes. “This combination of factors -- the res, thefts, unpaid tabs, and drugs -- contributed to Max’s demise.” The club closed in December, marking the end of an era, and one of the most vital artistic hubs of New York’s twentieth century, but it wouldn’t be the last the world heard from the venue.
The winter of 1974 saw Marty forced to temporarily move out of his studio at after Mari had moved in with the whole family, which was then four kids, a cat and a dog. “I had allergies to cats so I split for a while,” recalls Marty. “At first, I went to this freezing little room at the Project where Alan had stayed. Now he was living with his girlfriend in Brooklyn, he gave me the keys.”
By then the main janitor was artist Joe Catuccio, who “wasn’t so happy about seeing one of us sleeping there again. He really liked having that place to himself. Joe used to paint there; these very large, almost modern religious paintings. He was like a Michelangelo of his time. I only stayed there a couple of nights. At night I would go to Max’s. Howie Wolper saw me there and said ‘You gotta come and stay with me.’ He had a loft downtown with his girlfriend, who was Elodie Lauten, the electronic composer. The three of us would sleep on the floor. That kept me going for a while until Mari found another place in Brooklyn.” (Catuccio moved out of Greene Street in 1997 and still operates a Project of Living Artists in Brooklyn.)
Still banned from CBGB and with another club gone, Suicide retreated to the Project to give their sound a makeover. One of Marty’s most momentous strokes in sculpting his fermenting instrumental panoramas was also his most romantic. After Mari had stopped playing drums at rehearsals, he had stuck to his declaration that she would never be replaced by a human, preferring to explore the rhythmic nuances which congealed in the amped-up feedback roaring out of his overdriven organ, or using his one-man-band snare-cymbal combination. Now it had become time for Suicide to introduce a discernible beat, if only to give Alan a firmer platform to grasp as song ideas continued to form in the lyrical phrases he was playing with.
“One night, it just came to me,” recalls Marty. “The perfect idea which was gonna change everything!”