Alan Vega, who died Saturday at the age of 78, was a New York City-based visual artist who loved extremes, especially the confrontational rock & roll of the Stooges, the roaring drones of composer La Monte Young, and the beat-driven electronic art of Silver Apples. These influences all converged in “Frankie Teardrop,” a nihilist fable by his group Suicide. It was the ultimate expression of his proto-punk vision and one of the most terrifying songs ever recorded. Lou Reed once said he wished he’d written it.
Vega — along with Martin Rev, his partner in sonic mayhem — was older than his CBGB peers. In fact, Suicide performed at the club before Patti Smith, Talking Heads, the Ramones, Blondie or Television, back in the early Seventies, when it was still called Hilly’s on the Bowery. For “Frankie Teardrop,” the group was influenced by their Sixties rock forebears, specifically the Doors’ “The End” and the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray,” extended bad-trip murder narratives that unspooled like art-films over abstracted musical backdrops. Yet “Frankie Teardop”‘s howling electronic assault sounded like nothing that came before. Anticipating new wave, no wave, synth pop, industrial, electro and noise, it was in its way far more radical than the punk bands it preceded.
Suicide’s sound was so radical that, even amidst punk’s foment, the group didn’t get to record an LP until 1977. The 10-minute-plus “Frankie Teardrop” was the centerpiece of their debut. At the time, their electronic gear included little more than a beat-up Farfisa organ, a primitive drum machine, some Electro-Harmonix distortion pedals and a transistor radio good for ambient white noise and feedback generation. Suicide recorded with producer Craig Leon, a 25-year-old who helped create the debuts by Blondie and the Ramones. Leon had the idea to run Vega’s voice, along with some of Rev’s keyboards, through an early Eventide digital-delay pushed to the distortion point, a technique he’d learned from Jamaican producer Lee Perry during a Bob Marley session.
The song’s original name was “Frankie Teardrop, the Detective Meets the Space Alien.” But Vega transformed the narrative when he read a newspaper story about a guy who lost his factory job and, unable to cope, killed his wife, his kid, and then himself. Vega developed the narrative of a 20-year-old’s crash and burn: already a father, working 10-hour days to feed his family but unable to make ends meet, the character ultimately faces eviction, at which point he snaps. The breathless narration is interspersed with bloodcurdling shrieks, delivered over Rev’s relentless drum machine patter and a menacing turbine-like drone, culminating with the indictment, “We are all Frankies.”
The song taps into something primal and horrifically familiar. In a 1984 Rolling Stone cover story, Bruce Springsteen spoke about Suicide’s influence on his Nebraska LP. “Oh, my God! That’s one of the most amazing records I think I ever heard. I love that record,” he said of “Frankie Teardrop.” You could certainly hear the song’s influence on “State Trooper,” Nebraska‘s harrowing highway murder ballad.
Decades later, the sound of Vega’s leering “let’s hear it for Frankie!” says plenty about America’s society of spectacle, and its magnification by social media D.I.Y. myth creation. Offering no solutions or comfort, just bone-chilling empathy that’s difficult to confront, let alone accept, “Frankie Teardop” remains as tragically relevant as the day it was written.