Alan Vega vividly remembers the strangeness that surrounded the first time he spoke to Alex Chilton. He’d seen the late, influential Box Tops and Big Star singer-songwriter around CBGB several times in the mid-Seventies, but never at concerts by Suicide, the claustrophobic, minimalistic, fiercely original duo that Vega has fronted off and on for over four decades. He’d seen him so much that frankly he just wanted to know who this guy was, so he asked.
“I’m Alex Chilton,” he said.
“No shit,” Vega replied.
“No, Alex Chilton,” the singer rejoined.
Vega laughs, looking back. “I didn’t know who Alex Chilton was,” he says, though he later connected him to the Box Tops, whom he liked. Before long, they were smoking marijuana and drinking together, and Vega learned that Chilton actually did know Suicide and they were fast friends.
The friendly Suicide frontman, age 77, is seated in his two-floor lower Manhattan apartment, a clean, artsy space with red accent walls that’s strewn with a Warhol Marilyn, a picture of Elvis and a picture of Henry Rollins. Black hair spills out from the beanie he’s wearing, as he smiles fondly, reflecting on his friendship with Chilton. Vega suffered a stroke in 2012; his wife, Elizabeth Lamere, sits on the stairs to help him remember.
Next to Vega is a folded-over newspaper, not unlike the one on the cover of Cubist Blues, an impromptu avant-rock album he recorded with Chilton and singer-songwriter Ben Vaughn in late 1994. The trio made the loose and ragged record mostly from scratch over the course of two December days. It originally came out in 1996 on Henry Rollins’ 2.13.61 record label and was just reissued by Light in the Attic, but its unadorned, unique mixture of rockabilly (“Fat City”), blues (“Sister”), pared-down jazz (“Come On Lord”), hypnotic synth-rock (“Freedom”) and noise (“Promised Land”) remains timeless — mostly because it’s so unwieldy, as Vega whispers, yowls and intones Big Bopper—like purring at different junctures. Vega remembers the sessions as being just as unpredictable.
To him, he was expecting to record only the scuffling, muted rock & roll track “Fat City,” a nearly nine-minute song whose lyrics he scrawled on the day’s New York Post and the trio recorded in one take. “Alex was sitting on the ground in a lotus position, playing guitar,” Vega recalls of the late-night session, which took place at New York City’s now-closed Dessau Studio. “He was in his position for 200 hours; he wouldn’t move. I guess he smoked pot or whatever.”
Vega thought they were simply going to record a single, but they ended up being there for hours. “He kept saying, ‘Let’s do another,'” the singer recalls. So they then tackled the ambling, bluesy “Sister,” which Vega improvised. “Then he said, ‘Let’s do another one,'” Vega says. And they came up with 10 more off the top of their heads. “Next thing you know, I literally felt a fire burning in my scalp. I had flames coming out as we were doing the last song, ‘Dream Baby Dream.'” On the album, Vega shrieks and croons as Chilton and Vaughn play a bluesy, almost doo-woppy piano background music for the recording, a version of a vintage Suicide song renamed here as “Dream Baby Revisited.” You can almost hear the fire inside Vega, whether real or imagined.