Alan Vega / Alex Chilton / Ben Vaughn – Cubist Blues (Thirsty Ear album, 1996)


Cubist Blues was originally released in 1996 and despite the critical reception with which it was received at the time, supported by two live shows in New York and Rennes, it more or less sank into cult obscurity. A reissue by Light In The Attic / Munster in 2015, complete with expansive liner notes and interviews with the surviving members of this one-off collaboration and those who supported the record’s original release, should hopefully act as some redress.

The location is Dessau Recording Studio in New York, housed in an old five-storey factory loft unit just north of Manhattan’s financial district on White Street. The factory building is a window to an older New York, when manufacturing still took place within the cramped environs of the island; a time before rocketing real estate developments, expensive retail stores, art, finance and unabashed ambition were Manhattan’s principal concerns. The studio owners decided to retain the name of the original Dessau Manufacturing Company in the moniker for the studio, despite having no connection whatsoever to its previous occupants.

The date is December 6 1994. The day is fast becoming a distant memory and the night is stretching out before three musicians and their engineer, all of whom are hard at work capturing an unrehearsed, spontaneous jam fronted by Suicide’s Alan Vega. The jam is eventually titled ‘Fat City’.

The jam lasts a little over eight minutes, and finds Vega reeling off words that seem to materialise out of nowhere from the newspaper in front of him, no hesitation or groping in the near-dark for ideas. It is the sound of now, and Vega is as white hot as at any point in his career. The two musicians backing his lysergic utterances with a focussed blues improvisation are multi-instrumentalist Ben Vaughn on bass and Alex Chilton on guitar. A drum machine keeps rigid, chugging time and the duo of Vaughn and Chilton throw out licks and unswerving, constant lines, resonating off Vega’s words but also acting as a musical counterweight. The engineer, Drew Vogelman, manages to record the whole thing. It’s a one take affair. No practices, no pre-jam discussions, just a single, seemingly effortless take. It’s pure alchemy.

The architect of this session is Vaughn, whose idea it was to capture Vega in pure blues mode. Chilton is an unexpected bonus. He hears about the idea from Vaughn and asks to be involved. Vaughn’s up for it but can’t stretch to the air fare to get the esteemed Big Star guitarist across to NYC, so Chilton pays for it himself and jumps on a flight, guitar case in hand. Chilton and Vaughn are both fans of Alan Vega, while Vega recalls standing next to Chilton outside CBGBs smoking cigarettes, but not talking to one another. He thinks of Chilton as a wraith-like character. He calls him The Gray Ghost. Beyond possibly sharing a light and bumming cigarettes off each other on New York’s Skid Row, Vega can’t recall the pair ever speaking.

As ‘Fat City’ wraps, Vaughn suggests they keep on going. They work through the night and record a clutch of tracks, each one created live, in the moment, with no plan. Blues motifs seem to emerge out of the ether, while Vega channels words from any available source, ceaselessly conjuring up images and continually fired up by the setting. At one point he sits on a windowledge, observing the street below and voyeuristically playing back what he sees. As the sun rises, they pack up and head out of the studio, with almost an album’s worth of raw, urgent material in the bag.

They convene at Dessau again the following night and do the same. A synth has been borrowed and Alex and Ben take it in turns to jam out riffs. At times it’s hard not to think about Suicide as fat, looping sequences like the one on ‘The Werewolf’ underpin Vega’s echoing, tremolo purr. It seems appropriate that they would tease out a louche, bar-room version of ‘Dream Baby Dream’ at the conclusion of the session.

Across the two nights of recordings that would eventually be issued by Henry Rollins in 1996 on his 2.13.61 imprint via Thirsty Ear there’s an air of danger, of prowling, vampiric characters staking the eerie side streets of Downtown. It’s mysterious and evocative, drawing on some dark energy as if the players were performing within a pentagram and channeling whatever spirits presented themselves. It stands out as one of the most accomplished and carefully-wrought moments in Vega’s career, and yet flowed forth without any sort of planning except for the idea that they’d attempt to record some blues.

Note: the 2015 reissue includes a download code for the previously unreleased recording of the Rennes concert.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

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