Tales of Bessman–Alan Vega, Suicide and The Blind Man in the Bleachers

Alan Vega’s death on July 16, and being back in Madison, Wis at the same time, brought me back to when I first heard Suicide’s self-titeld 1977 debut album, and The Blind Man in the Bleachers.

“The Blind Man in the Bleachers” was a No. 2 country hit in 1975 for Kenny Starr, a cover of the Top 20 pop hit that year by David Geddes. It really was one of the schmaltziest country hits ever, about a blind man in a high school football stadium bleachers who longs to hear his second stringer son’s name announced, but doesn’t show up for the season final. Turns out he died, which is how he gets to “see his son [finally] get in the game” and lead the team to victory.

I was working at the State of Wisconsin at the time, a typist-receptionist in the Department of Administration Bureau of Personnel, in a federally funded program called Project Skill, which was designed to give physically and mentally disabled people job opportunities (myself included, having–get this–earlier worked as a reader-typist for a blind man in the same old downtown State Office Building in the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation). One day this blind guy came in to work, but he wasn’t a client. I can’t remember what his exact staff position was, but Dennis in fact became one of my best friends—thanks largely to his wife Maddy.

Maddy, you see, was a great cook. She used to pack the best lunches for Dennis every day, and me being hungry, well, I stole them. Incredulous people would always ask, “How could you do that?” “Easy,” I’d answer. “He was blind.”

Not that Dennis didn’t try hard. He’d hide his lunch in the closet, in his desk, in places I can’t remember, but to no avail. I’d watch him fumbling around for his lunch and his eventual realization that it wasn’t where he hid it, and cover my ears for the inevitable “FUCK YOU!” that followed. Actually, “FUCK YOU!” was our mutual greeting: Every time he’d call me on the phone, either at home or in the office—and my desk wasn’t more than 20 feet from his—there’d be a pause after I answered, then a loud “FUCK YOU” (if in the office, a loud whispered “FUCK YOU”). I, of course, always responded in kind.

It wasn’t long before Maddy started packing a second lunch, and Dennis and I would walk the couple blocks from the State Office Building on 1 West Wilson Street to the State Capital Square, walking around the Square while eating—that is, when I wasn’t trying to push him into the street or he wasn’t trying to hit me with his cane. At least once a week or so he’d come over to my place a few blocks East of the Square on Hancock Street and listen to records, or I’d take the bus with him to the West Side for dinner followed by Crazy Eights, which, somehow, he invariably won amidst ceaseless gloating.

This had to be around 1977-78–the advent of punk and new wave, which is when I went back to listening to rock after having immersed myself in country music around 1970 when prog-rock and pop-rock replaced ‘60s Top 40 radio and underground rock FM stations. Hence, I knew of “The Blind Man in the Bleachers”–a hit that understandably hasn’t withstood the test of time. As for my Blind Man in the Bleachers, well, Dennis shared my love of ‘60s rock, but pretty much hated punk and new wave. To this day the only time I ever sat through an entire Saturday Night Live was the landmark one on Dec. 17, 1977, when Elvis Costello & the Attractions filled in for the just disbanded Sex Pistols, and it was over at Dennis’s with several of his and Maddy’s other friends. I think there was only one other person there who thought Elvis was incredible–let alone had any idea who he was.

But I played everything for Dennis—Elvis, The Ramones, Blondie, Television, Sex Pistols, Clash, Talking Heads. I don’t recall that he liked any of it, but he did have an assistant who was also a big punk fan, who actually saw the Pistols when they played the Longhorn Ballroom in Dallas on that ill-fated U.S. tour.

And, of course, Suicide. I went back to that first Suicide album right after the death of Vega, whom I met many years later in New York when I interviewed him for Billboard. Even now the minimalist album is gripping from instrumentalist Martin Rev’s “Ghost Rider” techno-electro get-go and Vega’s “America America is killing its youth” lyric proceeding into breathless abandon.

And how about “Frankie Teardrop,” which inspired Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper”?

It had an insane electronic beat and a fundamental keyboard grind that heightened the tension in Vega’s tale about the downtrodden psycho killer/suicide Frankie Teardrop (“Let’s hear it for Frankie!”), which erupted into a frantic screech as the subject exploded.

But it was “Cheree” that really set Dennis off. He’d goof on me non-stop for Vega’s “Cheree Cheree, oh baby,” mercilessly exaggerating Vega’s already exaggerated delivery.

I began my writing career in the Project Skill office, when Steve Tatarsky, who worked in the Bureau of Personnel and had earlier worked at The Milwaukee Sentinel, complained how he had to write the Department of Administration newsletter, titled–get this–D.O.A. Today. I offered to help Steve out, even though I had no writing experience outside school–and I’d flunked out of high school.

The only article I remember writing for D.O.A. Today was a somewhat investigative piece on the remodeled men’s room down the hall. Being an old building, it had these beautiful marble walls, institutional gravel floors, and big wooden doors in the stalls–also beautiful. But for some stupid bureaucratic reason, they decided to replace the doors with some kind of hideous orange formica, and I think they covered up the marble as well. It took a long time to do, and when it was finished, the modern upgrade looked awful.

I quoted an unidentified source who used the facility regularly, but as this was all almost 40 years ago, I don’t think he’ll mind if I reveal his name now.

“It looks like a Burger King!” said The Blind Man in the Bleachers.