By Susanne Tabata
VANCOUVER — Time is still writing the story of Martin Rev. Over 40 years have passed since he and Alan Vega formed the protopunk electronic duo Suicide. Their work keeps growing in significance, particularly for the many artists working in its derivative forms. All this is in contrast to the late ’70s when the pair were reviled by punk audiences who did not like the stripped-down guitarless sound. None of it matters to Rev who, as a digital artist coming from an industrial age, has lived through many eras of reinvention.
“I was born post-war in an experimental age. All the great artists in the world were in New York, of all disciplines. The painters – the abstract expressionists, the modern painting movement – the writers, the jazz musicians…all came here. Nothing was finished yet. Everything was approaching avant-garde. Dance was still very fresh going into avant-garde. It crossed over to the jazz musicians. They were improvisers very influenced by classical music. I think jazz changed the American arts and the world rhythm to a different step for the entire 20th century.”
Rev grew up in a house of music and studied piano at a very young age. “Every Sunday my father would take out a mandolin, he was the most naturally gifted member of my family. My brother would play the accordion. I would pick up marbles in a plastic container and shake them that way. We sang folk songs…my father worked a job… Alan had a tougher time. His parents came here before the war and he was born in the depression. Everybody of that era was much more down to earth and more focused.
“For me it was rock ‘n’ roll. I remember the first time I saw Jerry Lee Lewis. I was seven or eight. No one was doing that. No one had ever seen that. And rock ‘n’ roll was just starting. The radio, when I was young, was open to groups off the street, groups you could hear on the street and a week or so later they’d be on the radio. There were roots in the ‘40s with rhythm and blues. Joe Turner and all those people who were really doing rock ‘n’ roll already, but nothing like Jerry Lee Lewis. Trains have always run parallel to what the music is. The rhythm of the blues was very affected by the choo choo train. As that motor developed in efficiency and smoothness and as there were more sophisticated ways of using engines, the music changed.” It sure did. Through the ‘60s and into the ‘70s, the face of rock ‘n’ roll changed colour and the Pop Art Movement dominated New York where Warhol and company held court tightly. Punk arrived at the right time.
It’s worth more than a mention that his life was intertwined with Mari, the late Mari Reverby, a visual artist and his lifelong love, and child of the Harlem Renaissance. She was painting and doing experimental theatre at The Museum: A Project of Living Artists – a NY city funded co-op art space. Alan Vega was central to the space, working in sculpture and experimental sound and Rev met him there. Vega saw the Stooges in 1969 and that changed their approach. They formed Suicide – a name riffed from a comic book issue of Ghost Rider called Satan’s Suicide – and were the first to call themselves ‘punk’ in ‘71. It was a microphone and a cheap keyboard out of necessity. After the debut self-titled LP ‘Suicide’ ‘77, it is well documented that they failed to impress fans of the artists they would open for, like the Clash, the Cars, or the Pretenders. For Suicide, acceptance was unimportant.
Alan Vega and Martin Rev would go on to make several recordings. Rev has created many solo projects over the years including the sought-after Martin Rev (1980), his last album Stigmata (2009) – a requiem for Mari.
“When I lost her, she was not just the mother of my children, she was my dearest closest friend. My music has gotten me through everything. This time it wasn’t enough. This was like the nightmare that you didn’t wake up from. The only solace in the first few months after she left was knowing I would join her. I was close. She is remembered in my life so she is remembered in my music, my solo projects. The first Suicide album was dedicated to her. People who are that important to you become a foundation in your life. It’s like you’re a tree. She is the first 3,000 rings of my life.”
Rev concludes with observations only a forward-thinking New York artist from his generation can make: “The continual gestation of art is over. It’s always clear to me that arts have a time. Disciplines start very fresh. Something very new, maybe it’s influenced by something else but it’s a new way of expressing. You go through periods where each generation can add something because it hasn’t been done yet and then eventually, it’s like a canvas, you fill up all the new fresh parts of the territory that are available in that language. You still have individuals doing good things. Sincere things. Elevated things. But in terms of movements, in order for a new movement to come in there has got to be something that’s still fresh and able to be explored that hasn’t been done. Where we’ve come to is all those arts – dance, painting, jazz, symphonic music, now rock ‘n’ roll essentially – they all have reached their ending points. They went through their avant-garde. Usually after avant-garde that’s the end of the movement, it’s the abstraction of everything that started. You get to a total abstraction like painting. After abstract expression there had to be something like Pop to bring it back to pure objectivity, but it was out of a different sensibility and a different technology in a way.
“I think that’s why we’ve come to this place. In some ways the western arts have all cycled. They can keep going but now they have to be incorporated with digital technologies. Everything comes right in time, especially for people who were there before. We need it now. When all these arts kind of dry up so to speak, like 15 years ago or more, when you don’t have the surge of creative energy coming from the bottom up, to me that’s a sign of stagnation to the point where something bad and dangerous is going to happen. All you have is material reality. You have nothing to come out and say this is new, fresh, joy, let’s live. Which is what the arts can do if that artist discovering this new territory can bring that energy out. I couldn’t do Suicide today. When we started it was storming the Bastille. The Bastille is down. I can do what I do today for me. It’s exploring and learning all the time.”
CORRECTION: Martin Rev performs on November 18th, not the 17th as originally published. We apologize for the error.
Martin Rev performs for the first time in Vancouver at the Fox Theatre on November 18th. The evening features performance by Tom Anselmi, the Expo ‘86 bad boy and key contributor to music development in Vancouver with his bands Slow and Copyright. Also on the bill is a set by Sarah Davachi and Richard Smith, DJs Magneticring and Daniel R, and visuals by Peter Hagge.
Susanne Tabata is a college DJ alum and creator of the acclaimed Vancouver punk doc Bloodied But Unbowed.BC, British Columbia, Fox Theatre, Martin Rev, Susanne Tabata