Somewhere in the mid-1980s, I started becoming irritated whenever anyone would casually tell me they were an artist, as if there was nothing to it, as if they barely even remembered it themselves. It got to the point that, when someone said that, I just wanted to yell at them, “Prove it! Why are you talking to me? Shouldn’t you be somewhere making art?!”
If you really were an artist, why would you bother to tell anyone? I figured if you really were, you wouldn’t have to tell anyone — they would be telling you.
Spending time around real artists — I mean scary, freakishly talented ones, like Raymond Pettibon, Hubert Selby Jr. and Diamanda Galas — confirmed to me that I wasn’t one. This didn’t cause me any distress. Actually, it gave me a lot less to think about. With that consideration out of the way, I just got to work. This is still the mode in which I toil to this day. I get an idea and go execute it, no art required. There is not one artistic thing happening, just actualization, completion and the brief euphoria of the empty workplace, which can now be cluttered with the next thing.
If being an artist is easy
What made me angry when someone called themselves an artist as though they were telling me their astrological sign was that I thought art should leave marks on the creator. It should not come easily and a price of some kind should be paid. If being an artist was easy, then what good was the art? I thought real artists were damned to serve the mad monster that raged within them. They were alone, lashed to the mast of a ship in a turbulent ocean, with no land in sight.
By this definition, I have met only a few artists. At worst, they were hostile; at best, they tried to be presentable for as long as they could, before they started bouncing off the walls or went into some inner outer space. People would remark later how this person was aloof or self-involved. Well, yeah. I figured being an artist was more affliction than anything else.
In the late 1970s, I had my mind blown by the first album by the New York duo of Martin Rev and Alan Vega, known as Suicide. The album short-circuited my narrow, febrile mind. It was the realest album I had ever heard up to that point; it might still be. There is nothing like it.
Vega and Rev also had solo careers and I did my best to keep up with both. Vega’s work fascinated me. It was so out there, and at the same time I thought he had written the songs just for me. In 1990, I was in Europe and found Vega’s newest release, Deuce Avenue. I couldn’t stop playing it.
In 1991, I was in NYC and asked my agent if he could find a phone number for Vega. He did. I screwed up my courage and cold-called him. As I heard the dial tone, I couldn’t believe what I was doing.
A voice picked up on the other end. It was Vega. I introduced myself, told him where I had gotten his number and asked if it was possible if I could meet him. He was hesitant but agreed and told me to come to his apartment. Minutes later, I was in a taxi and on the way.
I rang the buzzer on his door. He opened it. I introduced myself again and, after looking at me for a few seconds, he mumbled something and let me in. He asked if I wanted some coffee and I said yes. He said, “I’m warning you, kid. I drink mud.”
He made two cups of strong coffee and we got to talking. Meeting him was a unique experience in that within a few minutes, I knew I was going to be friends with Alan. Suddenly about four hours had gone by. That was July 15, 1991.
We spent the day looking at his sculptures, his paintings and stacks of notebooks with writing and sketches. The apartment was packed with his work; there was barely enough room for him and his wife, Liz. I realized I was hanging out with the real thing. Alan Vega was an artist.
Two summers later, I was living in NYC and would walk over to Alan and Liz’s place and we would work on a manuscript of his writing and sketches that eventually became a book called Cripple Nation, which we published on my imprint.
Hanging out with Alan was like being in an old movie. Sometimes when I would walk into the apartment, he would grab my face and exclaim, “Liz! Look at the kid! Doesn’t he look great?!” To know Alan is to love him, full stop.
Eventually, I would bring out some of Alan’s albums that had only been released in Europe. I was on a mission to bring his work to as many American listeners as I could. His music features in my radio shows on a regular basis. I have been rewarded with the opportunity to write copy for some of his catalogs in France, where his work is exhibited and sells very well.
On July 16 of this year, I got an email from Liz, asking me to call her as soon as I could. I called immediately. She was at a hospital. Alan had passed away a few hours before, 25 years and a day after we met.
She said that he had been working until the end. There were new paintings finished, and his assistant had gone out to get more canvasses because there was more work planned. Alan had finished a new album as well. I have heard tracks from it. Totally wild.
At 78 years, Alan Vega closes out five decades of uninterrupted artistic output. The real thing.
Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the playlist for his Sunday KCRW broadcast.