Day 1: In a few hours, I will fly to London to be a small part of a “30-Day Happening” called Station to Station. Alan Vega and Martin Rev, the sonic-art confrontationalist duo known as Suicide, are performing and want me to do a song with them.
Although Vega and Rev had started making music years before, their self-titled first album as Suicide came out on Red Star Records in 1977.
In 1979, Ian MacKaye and I found it for $2.99. I bought it for at least three reasons: The cover was splattered with blood, which appealed to me; the photos of Vega and Rev on the back looked insane; and the credits (“Alan Vega — Vocals,” “Martin Rev — Instrument”) inspired my curiosity.
When Ian and I played it in his room later, we listened in almost complete silence. Minimal, driving synths and vocals that went from cool to terrifying. A lyric from “Rocket U.S.A.” — “Gonna crash/Gonna die/And I don’t care” — was one of the heaviest things I had ever heard in a song. The album’s epic, “Frankie Teardrop,” about a man who kills his family and then himself, is something you have to listen to for yourself, as anyone else’s description of it will fall short. I think it is the single most intense song I have ever heard.
Hearing this album when I did, without the context I have since been afforded by years of listening to music from different time periods, I had absolutely nothing to compare it to. It drew a line between itself and every record I owned or had ever heard. It was that extreme a listening experience.
Later that night, Ian and I did imitations of Vega’s “Frankie” vocal at each other to get a laugh, but only because it had obviously kicked our asses. We were trying to ease the tension. It took me weeks to get back to that record, but once I did, I understood that it was more “punk” than all the punk-rock records I owned. The only album I had heard that came close was Public Image’s Metal Box.
The idea that, over 30 years later, I will be onstage with Suicide is incredible. But first I have to get to London. I will be arriving a couple of days before the show, so I hopefully have a chance to practice with the band and walk off the jet lag that twists me up whenever I travel east.
Day 2: In London. At the Ace Hotel in the eastern part of the city.
Long flights and no sleep make for great, pseudo-comic social observations. Of all the flights I take, U.S. to London and back seems to contain the messiest travelers. I am usually at the back, and getting off the plane often gives me a look at the conduct of customers of varying economic status.
In economy, it’s as if we all threw infantile tantrums while strapped into our narrow seats. We must grind our small portions of pretzels into the carpet, break our cheap headsets to pieces and disembowel our tiny pillows.
In business class, large bottles of mineral water are left mostly full, apples and sealed packets of aged cheddar lie abandoned, plastic cups are smashed, candy wrappers and other trash litter the space under the seats.
I try to imagine what it looks like in first class. Uneaten sushi, keys to sports cars on the floor, undergarments, wads of cash left all over, condom wrappers.
Heathrow was designed by architects driven delirious by reading too deeply into Dante’s Inferno. In tribute, they built a massive, ever-expanding, poorly ventilated labyrinth, designed to smash the morale of anyone who dares to walk its endless hallways in an effort to escape. Today, after about 11 minutes of trudging, I flashed back to a time I was at Heathrow in the 1980s and watched Ivana Trump pulling away from us rabble in a cart. I ran after her, waving my arms, and yelled, “Ivanaaaa! Waiiiiit!” She laughed and blew me a kiss as she disappeared.
The streets around the hotel are packed with restaurants and bars, all of which seem to be full. Londoners freak out on warm weather and, perhaps to beat back the oppression of long seasons of cold, damp and darkness, frequently wear revealing garments. Block after block of blue-white flesh flashed me as I walked in search of food. It was as if they all had been released from quarantine after some catastrophic outbreak, and were taking advantage of the moments before the next alarm sounded.
I finally found a restaurant with a seat, ordered, and listened to a series of Amy Winehouse songs playing on the house system. I marveled at her obvious talent and great phrasing. Her song “Rehab” came on and the music’s volume suddenly dropped, as if someone thought it would be disrespectful to let Amy tell it. As much as I wanted to hear that song because her vocal is so great, I thought it was cool that someone was looking out.
Day 3: It’s late. Alan, Martin and I just did a panel discussion in front of a live audience for The Quietus. For more than an hour, the moderator and I put questions to them. I wish you had been there.
Where Vega and Rev are coming from musically, it was like talking to two 10-mile-deep wells. We asked about how they prepare for a live show. They don’t. Their preparation is done by being alive up to the moment they walk out onstage. What happens once you’re out there? Whatever happens is what happened.
Rev talks about opening for The Cars. Twenty thousand people booing. How beautiful it sounded and how inspiring rejection is, the strength you can get from it. It was completely profound. We were all riveted.
We are a day away from the show.
Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Sunday KCRW broadcast.
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