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Remembering Punk Pioneer Alan Vega

Singer Alan Vega, seen here onstage in France in 2004, died Saturday at age 78.
Frank Perry
AFP/Getty Images
Singer Alan Vega, seen here onstage in France in 2004, died Saturday at age 78.

One of the founding fathers of punk, singer and visual artist Alan Vega, died Saturday. He was 78.

Vega's death was announced in a family statement published by his longtime friend, musician Henry Rollins. The cause and place of death were not shared, though Vega reportedly had suffered a stroke and a heart attack in 2012.

As a musician, Vega was best known as half of the pioneering electronic punk band Suicide, which he formed with instrumentalist Martin Rev in 1970. Their first album, the eponymous Suicide, was released in 1977.

Over the years, Suicide gained the reputation of a band that, though widely name-checked by other artists, wasn't heard much by the public. When French interviewer Thierry Ardisson touched on that in a 1989 segment for the television program Lunettes noires pour nuits blanches, Vega simply shrugged and said, "It's their bad luck. It's their problem; it's not mine. They'll listen someday."

But in the meantime, Suicide's music — Rev's repetitive keyboards and drum machines, layered with Vega's skittering, stuttering vocals, which went from mutters to screams — convulsed and confounded music fans, especially in the incipient days of punk. In 1978, at a show in Scotland where Suicide was opening for The Clash, someone in the audience threw an ax at Vega's head. That same year, a show in which Suicide was opening for Elvis Costello turned into a full-scale riot — which the duo promptly released as half of the live album 21 1/2 Minutes In Berlin/23 Minutes In Brussels.

As Suicide, Vega and Rev went through fits and starts of disbanding and reuniting, but together they made five studio albums between their debut and 2002, along with several live albums.

Born Boruch Alan Bermowitz in 1938, Vega grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, and had the accent to match. After attending Brooklyn College, where he studied fine arts and physics, he found an artistic home at Museum: A Project Of The Living Artists, a multidisciplinary space in Greenwich Village where he made sculptures and played music. Museum was also the location for Suicide's first shows.

In the 20 years before his death, Vega had relaunched his visual-arts career, but he also continued releasing solo albums and collaborations with artists as diverse as The Cars' Ric Ocasek, Liz Lamere (who became his wife), Alex Chilton of The Box Tops and Big Star, and the singer, spoken-word artist, visual artist and poet Lydia Lunch. But Vega's career also went down more surprising pathways for an avant-garde legend: His solo work was sometimes tinged with rockabilly, and in the 1980s Vega was marketed as a pop star in France.

Ever since Vega's death was announced, artists from across the musical spectrum have paid tribute. Bruce Springsteen, who has covered the Suicide song "Dream Baby Dream" and recorded it for his 2014 album High Hopes, posted Monday on his website:

"Over here on E Street, we are saddened to hear of the passing of Alan Vega, one of the great revolutionary voices in rock and roll. The bravery and passion he showed throughout his career was deeply influential to me. I was lucky enough to get to know Alan slightly and he was always a generous and sweet spirit. The blunt force power of his greatest music both with Suicide and on his solo records can still shock and inspire today. There was simply no one else remotely like him."

Vega is survived by his wife, Liz Lamere, and his son Dante.

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Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.