It sounds like something out of a movie, novel or dream: three musicians, two of them well-known figures from their respective genres, record moody blues rock music inside a downtown New York City studio with cigarette smoke in the air during the wee hours of the morning. The singer is making up lyrics off the top of his head and coming up with songs at an incredible rate; while the other two musicians are creating music that could be best described as a soundtrack to any classic noir film. The three musicians later release the music as an album that received little fanfare, perform only two shows in support of it, and then go their separate ways.
What’s just been described is the unique and true story surrounding Cubist Blues, a one-off album recorded by Suicide’s Alan Vega, Big Star’s Alex Chilton, and instrumentalist/producer Ben Vaughan. Originally released in 1996, Cubist Blues was a forgotten album for almost 20 years despite the impressive lineup behind it. Recently, archival label Light in the Attic reissued the record along with a live performance by the band in France.
“Amazing,” says Vega recently about the revival of Cubist Blues. “It’s been a long time. That’s miraculous, it’s like everything else in life.”
“I thought it was lost in the mists of time forever,” says Vaughn. “It really came and went and all three of us were busy guys at the time, so when it went, we didn’t even notice. We just continued on. When Light in the Attic contacted me about this, I went, ‘Oh, that record. That’s interesting. I hadn’t heard it in 20 years; I wonder what it sounds like.’ It is a very interesting record. I almost feel like I’m not on it.”
According to the reissue’s liner notes by Lindsay Hutton, prior to the recording of Cubist Blues, Vega was working on his own album with his wife at Dessau Studio in lower Manhattan. It was during that time that Vaughn, who was a huge fan of Vega’s work (particularly the song “Jukebox Babe” from Vega’s self-titled 1980 solo album) contacted him about doing a blues record.
“I avoided meeting Alan for quite a while because I assumed he was as psychotic offstage as he was onstage,” Vaughn recalls. “I was finally introduced to him and he was the nicest guy in the world. When I got to know Alan, it was based on the fact that we both had this love for ’50s rock and roll and rockabilly. About a few years later I met Alex and we immediately started to talk about music, which is how we bonded. And we realized that ‘Jukebox Babe’ by Alan Vega was one of our favorite records of all time. So it was kind of the basis for my friendship with Alex was our love for Alan Vega’s music.”
To the ears of fans of both Vega and Chilton, Cubist Blues was a stylistic departure of sorts; Vega being best known for his work as one-half of pioneering electronic music Suicide, and Chilton from the legendary power pop band Big Star. “I’ve been always been a fan of blues music,” says Vega, “ever since I was a youngster: jazz, blues, this and that. I listened incessantly to music. My father was a country and western fanatic, my mother was an operatic fanatic. So go figure it out.”
“I always thought that Alan Vega should make a blues record,” says Vaughn. “I always thought he was a blues singer, no matter how crazy Suicide was or how electronic it was. When I hear his voice, I would hear the blues. I always thought he should make a late-night blues album, kind of like that Sam Cooke Night Beatalbum, but downtown New York style. I was friends with Alan and every now and then I would mention ‘We’re gonna make this blues record someday,’ and he said, ‘Hey, you tell me when and I’m ready.'”
According to Vaughn, Vega didn’t want to get into the particulars about who was going to be in the band — he just wanted to go in and play. Vaughn had also spoken with Chilton on the phone about the project. “I said, ‘I’m going to be producing Alan Vega and he doesn’t want to even know what band I’m putting together.’ And Alex said, ‘I want in. I love Alan’s voice. It sounds like a great idea, a blues album. I’m in.’ And he paid his own airfare to come up to New York.” Vega knew Chilton as well, having previously run into him in New York City. “I was like a fan of his,” he said. “Funny thing was, Alex never came to the Suicide shows. I figured, how did he even know about that stuff?”
During those two late nights in the Dessau recording studio in December 1994, Vega worked on the words while Chilton and Vaughn performed the music themselves. “We went in and we did it for ourselves,” Vaughn says. “There was no label. We weren’t thinking about releasing it or anything. For me, I wanted to know whether this blues album in my head could exist in real life. Bringing Alex on board brought an element to it I couldn’t have predicted as well, and we decided to just be the only musicians on it, just the two of us, listening to Alan sing.”
Vega recalls that he originally went into the sessions with one song he had while later developing the lyrics for the songs on the spot; how he did that remains a mystery to him. “I had a second song that I wrote the lyrics to on a newspaper clipping, the poetry was written in hand, prior to doing Cubist Blues. The rest I don’t even know where it came from from. I did 12-14 songs from the top of my head, and holy shit. At the end, it really was like a burning sensation in my head. It was a fire [in] my head. I said, ‘Guys, we really have to quit.’ And we just kept going. And it came and it came — and I kept going. Go figure it out. I can’t — I don’t know where it came from. What came out is the Cubist Blues.”
The fresh and spontaneous musical chemistry among the three musicians is apparent upon listening to the noir-ish music on Cubist Blues: from the rockabilly “Fat City”, with its references to the New York City subway; through the Gary Numan/Brian Eno-like dreamy “Freedom”; and to the jazzy closing number “Dream Baby Revisited”. Chilton and Vaughn tackled the music that not only drew from the blues, but also incorporated jazz, garage rock, rockabilly, and electronic influences, with Vega’s compelling, gritty spoken-word voice providing counterpoint.
“Who really understood what it was,” explains Vega. “It was Alex, it was Ben, and then it was me — and we were all doing our things. I was into the lyrics, Ben was into the music, and Alex was into his thing, him on the floor. Who knows what Ben was doing, who knows what I was doing.”
“This project was really great because it’s hard to even remember how we did it,” says Vaughn. “It was like we went into a dream … and then reemerged and we listened to it and was like, ‘Oh, that sounds pretty good. I don’t know what you call it.”
About two years later, the music from Cubist Blues was released on Henry Rollins’ label 2.13.61. The band only performed two shows in support of the album, one of which took place at New York City’s Mercury Lounge with a unique twist. “None of us really listened to it since we recorded it,” Vaughn recalls. “Alex and I spent some time listening to it and figuring out what we would play. But Alan did not. He just showed up, he would look at the song title and go, ‘Oh,’ and then just [had] all brand new lyrics.”
“We did the gig in New York,” says Vega, “and at one point I asked Chilton about the lyrics or something. I said, ‘Maybe we could do this this way.’ And he gave me a look, and it was a look of ‘Shut the fuck up.’ That was Alex for you. He didn’t say a word. It was just a look of ‘Don’t ask any questions. It’s going this way,’ and that’s what we did.”
Amazingly, Vega wrote another set of new lyrics, according Vaughn, for the band’s other show in France (where Vega almost had a physical altercation with a dismissive French journalist). And then, just like that, the three musicians moved on. There was no discussion among them about working together again. Sadly, any possibility of a reunion by all three players of Cubist Blues ended with the passing of Chilton in 2010.
“We didn’t schedule anything else,” says Vega. “Again, we could’ve easily scheduled a lot of things. For some reason, we didn’t. It was just the two shows [in New York and France]. Who knows? It could have been 100 more shows, it could have been two more shows.”
“We were all very, very busy,” Vaughn adds. “I was scoring films out here in L.A., Alan was collaborating with a bunch of different people and recording with Suicide, and Alex was on the road a lot. We never even talked about doing it again. And of course a lot of that has to do with the fact that we thought Alex would live a long life. You just assume your friends are going to be around forever, so you don’t even think of any kind of sense of urgency about anything. We just assumed Alex was going to be around forever.”
“Alex was great, he really was great,” remembers Vega. “He was a fine gentleman. He sat in the lotus position to do his songs. He came all the way from New Orleans. I really miss him. I got to know Alex really well. He and I used to be real friends.”
Yet the story on Cubist Blues hasn’t completely closed as Vaughn and Vega recently collaborated again on new music, which, according to Vaughn, could be described as being in the same vein as their previous album. “We recorded some stuff a little while ago again with him improvising and the results are really, really good,” he says. “We just kept the tape rolling the whole time. We did it with no record label in mind, we just wanted to play together again, we got together in Manhattan and we got some really good stuff in the can.”
“When I hear Alan Vega,” Vaughn adds, “I really hear a really great American blues singer: a Cubist. He’s deconstructing and reinventing. It’s like blues off to the side looking at itself when he creates it. I just love playing with the guy. He brings out something in other musicians that you’ll never get from anyone else.”
To this day, Vega seems surprised about how much time has passed since Cubist Blues: in the following years, he has continued to collaborate with Martin Rev as Suicide and maintained another career as a painter. “It is like day one,” he says with genuine gratitude and amazement. “God bless us all, 20 years later. God bless the Cubist Blues, which is apparently getting more [attention] now than ever before.”
“I think of it more as an Alan Vega record,” Vaughn says of Cubist Blues. “[Alex and I] were listening to [Alan] and we were amazed to be in the presence of his creativity. There’s an aura about that guy. When I hear it, I hear Alex being alive and the two of us being inspired by Alan.”