Tuesday, February 11, 2020

The Association - "Dubuque Blues" (1969)

The only place where I've ever seen much discussion of Gary "Jules" Alexander's songwriting as a member of the Association is way back in Richard Meltzer's 1970 The Aesthetics of Rock, a book in which Alexander figures in a fairly significant way. Alexander's obscurity over the years may be in part due to the fact that, like his three tunes that close out the group's first album And Then...Along Comes the Association, his songs can be a little hidden on the group's records. These songs are surely hidden to history also by the fact that listeners might not go to records by the Association for the kind of stuff Alexander does. His lack of a cult following might be explained by the straddling of a line between eccentricity and musicianship, between counter-cultural poetry and wordplay.

"Dubuque Blues" is a whopper from Alexander's return (after an absence of some time) to the group for their 1969 self-titled album. The 8-bar, country rock verse is structured as six lines of text: short-short-long-short-short-long. Alexander plays with rhyming expectations by failing to rhyme in the first two short lines, failing to rhyme the two long lines, but rhyming the second pair of short lines:

Do you remember Dubuque?
Have you even heard of that?
It's half between New York and California
There is a highway in and back
And an active railroad track
And the west side of the city sells no liquor 

These lines not only fail to rhyme, they do so with a major (and surely intentional) thud on the words "that" and "liquor." The poetry expands on the following section to longer lines with a rhyme of sorts of "thoughts" and "rocks," an internal rhyme on the next line, and a circuitous route to the end of the refrain:

And I can't recall the instances that keep it in my thoughts
City parks or nighttime girls or ancient limestone rocks
Writing songs of rights and wrongs and buying penny loafer shoes
Oh, definitely, most certainly, I've got the Dubuque blues

The choppy text in the final line is accentuated by two metrical hiccups, a bar of six-four time and an odd, three-bar ending that settles without cadence on a G major chord.

This section of the song is unique structurally, a sort of pre-chorus that swells amidst modulatory chord changes not to a chorus but merely to a refrain tag at the end. Somehow, between the whimsical poetry, the swelling intensity, the hiccups, and the floating end without a cadence, Alexander has found amidst all of this an utterly beautiful hook.