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.
When the idea for the Cubist Blues session came up, Vega was working on his solo LP Dujang Prang. Lamere recalls that Rollins was hoping to launch 2.13.61 with that record. The Suicide member remembers his first meeting with Rollins as being weird. "I said, 'What does this skinhead Nazi want from me?' I thought that's what he was," Vega recalls. "He comes to the door and he's got a book about John Coltrane and all of a sudden to me, he's a changed man, like a college professor." He laughs. He found Rollins to be "Mr. Business" when they'd meet in Chinatown to discuss his records and the books the former Black Flag singer would later publish, and he would be hilarious when they'd hang out otherwise.
They were recording when Vaughn called Lamere with the idea for a session. "Ben is a good friend of mine," Vega says. "He loved us [Suicide]." Lamere says, "He is cool and laid-back and easy to work with, but he's also totally on top of his stuff, and he's an amazing musician."
Vaughn told Chilton about the recording, to which the Big Star singer said, "Oh, that's great," and asked to be apart of it. With everyone on board, Chilton flew up from New Orleans and Vaughn booked the studio. The one thing they all had in common was an interest in the blues.
"I always joked, 'Two Jews, two blues,'" Vega says, referring to Vaughn. "I grew up with blues music. When people asked me what the record sounded like, I'd say it's 'country-eastern.'"
After the record came out, the trio reconvened again to play live in Rennes, France, and New York City in December 1996. "It took five or six hours to get to Paris, and five or six hours to get to Rennes," Vega says. "Alex said only one thing about how long the travel took: 'Man, I could be in China right now.'"
Vega didn't rehearse with the group, but he remembers the energy of the gigs. After the French show, Vega recalled getting into a fight with a reporter. Someone likened Suicide to a dinosaur band, and he became, to use his word, unleashed. "I said, 'Get outside!'" Vega yells. "He was like, 'No, no, no.'"
New York was generally a better experience. "We worked real hard at that show," Vega says, recalling their night at the small Mercury Lounge. "I said to Alex, 'Maybe we could do something a little different.' He gave me a withering look. 'Ah, shut the fuck up.' So I shut the fuck up. I didn't say another word and at the end of the show, I don't remember being onstage. We were hungry."
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, Vega recalls feeling an overwhelming concern for Chilton, who lived there. In the years since they'd met at CBGB, they'd become very close. "No one could find him," he says. "Then Ben found him somewhere. Apparently he was home."
Vega and Chilton had kept in touch over the years. When the Box Tops singer died of a heart attack in 2010, he was overcome. "He was, like, my guy," the Suicide frontman says. "I think about him all the time. As I get older, people die. It's hard every time. But Alex was tough. It was such a shock. I see him clearly. I keep thinking he's alive all the time. 'Cause he's a god. I feel like I'm seeing him on the streets and I have to restrain myself.
"To actually have gotten to do something with the guy was a godsend," he continues. "I wish we could have done it all again. I think about it all the time. Ben calls up and wants to do some new songs now. I wish Alex was there. You know, I wish Alex was there."