I spent my late teenage years being moved from school to school. First, my original high school burnt down to the ground, along with a years worth of work in art club and a collection of rare books on film and an early edition printing of Gone with the Wind that belonged to my maternal grandmother. We were shipped en masse to a neighbouring town’s high school. My family moved that summer to a teeny little town near the Alberta-Saskatchewan border where I was promptly met by people who couldn’t stand the sight of the flannel wearing, Salinger reading, Clash listening freak I was (and still am, thankyouverymuch). We lived as a family of five in a two bedroom apartment in Lloydminster, my father worked in nearby Kitscoty, and my parents looked for a home as my brothers and I were shipped off to Marwayne school, where Accounting was considered an acceptable options class. We were only in that school for a few weeks before my parents bought a house nearer to Kitscoty, so we ended up transferring to the school in that town, which wasn’t much better. I wanted to shoot myself. One of my classmates did actually commit suicide. While my classmates, who had known him since kindergarten mourned, I wanted to join him. I hated every minute of my junior high and high school years. Safe to say, I never have recovered from some of the wounds, whether they stemmed from outside attack or were self afflicted. I know people say you can’t change the past and move on from your high school years. I admire people who do. I wallow in mine. Adding to the hell that is high school was the fact my mother was incredibly ill and my father is incredibly hard for me to get along with. I always wondered if I felt I had a safe place as a teenager, a person I could go to without fear and incrimination, I might have survived it better. Instead, it only cemented my long-held view that people, as a whole, are unpleasant. Since I consider myself a thoroughly unpleasant person, I might be projecting.
I listened to so much music in high school I am kind of embarrassed by it. I was kept on a short leash by my parents, and I was certainly afraid of them. But I also turned 13 in 1990, on the cusp of a musical revolution. My love of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Britpop- they all formed the crucial part of my life soundtrack, and they also all lead me to their influences. The influences that would eventually lead me into a thousand different directions, and finally give me the one thing that has never failed me- music.
I wish I could remember exactly how Suicide’s eponymous record entered my life. I can’t. But I do know it came to me in a period of my life where the concept of suicide itself was at its highest peak. It oddly became the life affirmation I desired. Funny how life works, hmmm?
Yes, I’m aware this is depressing.
The band name is just so loaded, you know. Suicide. It’s meant to being up the stuff that haunts us and that we refuse to talk about. The band was called a “no wave” act, not influenced by typical rock, electronica, or punk influences. They stole from all those genres, but sounded nothing like any of them. They created the art of synthpop, but leaned heavier than anything Duran Duran would be, while remaining much more accessible than Skinny Puppy ( although I would like to point out that Ministry, the industrial metal act, is totally awesome. Jesus is my hot rod.)
Suicide’s Martin Rev created repetitive soundscapes that perfectly matched Alan Vega’s offbeat vocal stylings, this blues holler tempered with nihilism and confrontation. They are NOT an easy band to love, let alone like. But to me, at seventeen, a devoted Clash fan frustrated by the world view Joe Strummer gave me that was not bleak enough, they were a revelation.
This being said, it’s not like they just sat there with a cheap ass drum machine and a rank keyboard and droned forever on one chord. No, “Johnny” instead has the speed of punk built-in to it, throw on a couple of badly played guitars and you would have a Ramones track . It was the band’s first single, a masterpiece of electronic pulse and atmosphere. I swear to God, this is where Joy Division got it from.
Many people I know who dismiss electronica use the reason of the lack of musical adventure in songs, that they are pretty much one note. These critics are not wrong, early examples of electronica, such as Suicide and Kraftwerk, could be very monotonous. It’s about atmosphere, the feeling that it leaves when you hear it.
“Cheree” is all gospel organ and sweet whispers of love. I remember listening to this song for the first time and realizing it was a hymn about sex. Years of sexual repression and teenage confusion and fear all wrapped up into a 3:42 song. Needless to say, once I left my father and the “home” /prison where I felt completely alone and beaten down, I went insane, and sex, the one thing my parents were truly uncomfortable with, was my weapon and form of rebellion. Needless to say, sex as a weapon is a reckless way to live, especially as a woman, and I ended up pregnant at nineteen and trapped in a horrible, loveless relationship with a pleasant but self-absorbed man. It was the beginning of a decade mired in bad relationships that got progressively worse, and the one thing I have to say is in the end, I love my children, and they make the hell that was my twenties worth having to survived.
“Ghost Rider” feels as though Martin Rev has been possessed by the spirit of Eddie Cochran, “Rocket U.S.A.” vaguely resembles the wail of a siren, and “Girl” has a beat that loops around your brain and is actually hummable. But the album ends with the twin masterpieces “Che” and the notorious ten-plus minute “Frankie Teardrop”. “Che” has cellos and has this impending sense of death and doom that makes me feel that if it all did end, right now, in this moment, at least I know what death would sound like- heavy, dark, and every once in a while a Farfisa would pipe in to punctuate the din. It ends the record, a five-minute song named after a notorious revolutionary that sounds like a musical revolution on par to what the Sex Pistols did, only quieter, and frankly, a hell of a lot more honest. The Sex Pistols were nothing but a glorified manufactured boy band, like NKOTB or the Backstreet Boys. Suicide were the real deal, with real disaffection. It takes more courage to be a Suicide fan than a Sex Pistols fan. In your face gobbiness is easy. Complete destruction of musical structure- you try that for a living.
“Frankie Teardrop” is their masterpiece, an epic story of what America loves gone horribly wrong. The lyrics of this song are the most up front, and you can hear every painful detail of Frankie’s life. Married, working, a Vietnam vet living in deplorable poverty despite doing everything that was asked of him, and in the end, he kills his entire family. It’s the American nuclear family nightmare, an unhappy ending that occurs on occasion in life. The song is oddly calm musically, punctured only by the increased desperation of Vega’s vocal, which gets more propulsive and frantic as the song goes on, and it builds into a manic, bloodcurdling scream that is the single greatest scream ever put on record.
“Frankie Teardrop” will lead you to think one of two things. You will either accept the fact that life is simply all a series of tragedies and miseries, and that you cannot handle the lie of what you have been told, and you will simply leave now and save yourself the agony. OR- You will accept the fact that life is a series of tragedies and miseries, and you cannot forgive the lie you have been told, but damn it, you’re gonna find out if there is that nugget of happiness out there.
I chose the latter. Because I wanted to just see if such a thing exists. While there have been not entirely unhappy moments in my life, and my children do offer some pleasantness, true joy has never been achieved. I’m still looking. It’s out there somewhere. I just believe it is. Because I may be depressed and unhappy and frustrated, but I am not, in the end, a nihilist.
See? Ultimately life-affirming. I never said it was a happy story.