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Vega, Chilton, Vaughn
Cubist Blues Joe Bucciero , November 30th, 2015 10:23

There's great video of Alan Vega performing 'Jukebox Babe' while opening for rockabilly revivalists the Stray Cats in Paris in 1981. After sweating and shaking his way through most of the song – a single from his first solo album – Vega slows down and scowls in the audience's direction. "Move your asses, fuckfaces!" he barks as the song comes to a close. Of course, by 1981 Vega must’ve been accustomed to being at odds with his listeners; his band Suicide famously spent the 70s inciting violent riots from showgoers aghast at the 'punk' act's implementation of droning electronics. With 'Jukebox Babe', though, Vega was offering an upbeat, guitar-and-drums rockabilly tune – and the audience still didn’t get it.

The song serves a pivotal role in Vega’s musical career. Released right after the initial demise of Suicide, 'Jukebox Babe' demonstrates Vega’s genuine passion for culturally formative rock & roll – from 'Rocket 88' to '1969' (if not, well, Perry Como's 'Jukebox Baby'). Where a Suicide track like 1977's 'Johnny' betrays this passion with its typical rockabilly chord progression, 'Jukebox Babe' really gets straight to the point. The song engages the spirit and narrative of the genre with both its lyrics (about jukeboxes) and music (a jangling syncopated guitar lick), without losing Vega's idiosyncratic minimalist bent. And, like the best early rock & roll, 'Jukebox Babe' really moves. Nevertheless, the Parisian audience didn't 'get' it; they didn’t dance.

Ben Vaughn, however, "really got ‘Jukebox Babe'," Vega contends in the liner notes to the new Light In The Attic reissue of Cubist Blues. The 1996 LP, initially released by Henry Rollins’s 2.13.61 label, brings together Vega, the noted producer and songwriter Vaughn, and power pop hero Alex Chilton for a collection of songs that exist in the same universe as 'Jukebox Babe'. To frame it in the context of Vega's oeuvre seems apt – despite the brilliance of Vaughn and Chilton, Cubist Blues most strongly bears Vega's stamp. The record brims with the manic energy and urban slop of Suicide’s first two albums while emphasising the rock-referential focus and comparative polish of 'Jukebox Babe'. Throughout, Vaughn and Chilton construct heavy, sparsely-populated sonic environments – built not with synthesisers but with guitar, bass, keys, drums, and (effectively) drum machines – in which Vega can do his thing.

Sure enough, song after song the frontman sounds possessed, free-associating with rock & roll signifiers – lords, devils, candymen, mamas, trains. The accumulation of words always coalesces into something greater, though. Vega effectively builds his clipped phrases into dense, perplexing narratives depicting urban decay, final judgements, politicised dystopias, lots and lots of sex and violence. He's concerned with the evil that men (in most cases, authority figures) do and how that evil picks us apart. His characters are forced to ride the 'hell train'; they cry out, 'do not, do not, do not!'

Id-obsessed and id-driven (i.e., improvised), Vega’s vocals aren’t pure dread; they never lose sight, after all, of a fun byproduct of the id, rock & roll. The yips, squawks, and moans that perforate Vega's dystopian mumblings locate the music firmly in 'Jukebox Babe' territory. The 'hell train' in 'Fat City' grooves too hard to be too frightening; Vega's pleas in 'Do Not Do Not' prompt slow pelvic sways thanks to his syncopated delivery and Chilton’s seductive piano stabs. Each track serves, ultimately, as a tune on Vega's jukebox – as something of a rock & roll microcosm, distilling a recognisable idea into something repetitive and mean.

'Fat City' then, is the rolling, Yardbirds-ian train song. 'Freedom' is the Everly ballad – robust, yet saccharine. The sloppy, swampy 'Lover of Love' brings in Chilton’s New Orleans roots, featuring a maxed-out piano-drum combo and maybe referencing the Allen Toussaint tune of the same name. Slow and spare, 'Sister' is the Buddy Guy blues burner. 'The Werewolf', with its buzzy synthesiser bass, and 'Dream Baby Revisited', which adds doo-wop to Suicide's 'Dream Baby Dream', provide the clearest link to Vega's first band – but also channel the likes of Link Wray and Roy Orbison, respectively. In other words, Cubist Blues provides a quick-and-dirty rock history lesson, given by three of the discipline's most qualified teachers. It's 'Jukebox Babe' interpolated twelve ways by three fiercely creative individuals: mean, spontaneous, loads of fun. "Move your asses, fuckfaces," indeed.