Alex Chilton, R.I.P.


A few personal words about musician Alex Chilton, who died yesterday of a heart attack. (This will be personal, and fannish, and long, and if that's not interesting to you, move on.)

Chilton was, most importantly, singer or writer on lots of really, really great pop and rock records, from his days in the 1960s as wunderkind vocalist for the Box Tops ("The Letter," "Soul Deep") to his days in the 1970s in the cult favorite pop-rock-art act Big Star. (He went on to make solo records through the 80s and 90s, most of which were at least charming, but I wouldn't claim greatness for.) Basic discography and bio data at wiki, of course.

It's a little hard to pin down exactly what was so great about Big Star; they had piles of really great and affecting songs, to be sure, but always meant something more than that to their fans. There was the interesting legend of the "fallen star," the guy who had huge hit singles right out of the gate as a teen with the Box Tops who turned obscure pop classicist, and of the "lost album," Big Star's devastatingly strange LP alternately known as Third and Sister Lovers, first issued in 1978, years after it was recorded.

Beyond the songs as songs, Chilton and his music had an interesting cultural role, especially for those of us growing into pop-rock cratedigger and historical consciousness in the early to late 1980s. Along with the Velvet Underground, he was one of the leading acts lost in the mists of history who were being talked up and newly discovered by that generation's serious, studious, fanatical pop/rock historians and devotees and acolytes. (This was in the days, kids, when things actually could be lost in the mists of history, before all information and art was digitized and available to everyone everywhere all the time, largely the happy condition of modernity.)

But unlike the Velvets and Lou Reed, his aftercareer had neither major labels and hit singles nor a well-known and unavoidable cultural cachet. No Honda or AmEx ads for Alex; in Big Star's aftermath he made weird records for obscure and overseas labels, and then began making smooth, slight, sometimes even silly records, mostly covers of the old soul and R & B and pop that he grew up loving, the kind of stuff a Memphis teen in the mid-60s would have been formed by.

So Chilton imbued many of us with the sense that there were layers and layers to the world of culture that were not visible, and were fantastically rewarding; now-age youth heroes from R.E.M. to the Replacements (who, yes, wrote a song about Alex) to the eerie Brit 4AD crew working as This Mortal Coil were all transfixed and fed by his music and the idea of him, and whispered to their followers that there were giants in the earth in those days, giants that still never managed to break the surface of that earth.

Knowing that inspired thousands to look for more, to try to rewrite the history of pop culture and figure out that there were dozens and hundreds, not a singular, canon of cultural excellence. And also, of course, to try to emulate music that in both its blinding brightness and stygian shadows was eerie, alien, inexplicable, and harder to capture than the likes of, say, the Posies or Matthew Sweet thought.

He toured around the south pretty constantly in the mid-late '80s and I saw him play in Florida nearly 20 times, more than I saw anyone else perform. I'd never miss him. He was then almost totally eschewing what his devoted fans would have wanted of him, playing loose and smooth soul, R & B, and pop covers with mild insouciance. What he was selling, though I don't think he would have put it that way, was his pure Alex Chilton-hood, playing mostly to kids who wanted to be near him rather than hear the specific music he chose to play.

He let this eager teen fan buttonhole him in a shitty motel on Jacksonville Beach one night in 1985 after performing at the Einstein a-Go-Go. He and his boys, Rene Coman and Doug Garrison, put up with me for an hour or so, and he gently rebuffed my intense adoration for Big Star's Third in particular, a record whose gushing and barely controlled waves of anguish, love, and frankly psychotic mania spoke a little too clearly and sharply to a teen me. Oh, all that stuff was just fragments, shapeless, no really memorable songs, he insisted. He wasn't mad at me about it or anything, just amused at how wrong I (and a generation of his fans) were about that record. He never played anything from it in those days. He did what he loved, not what we loved.

And that love, and that sense of a dude who was doing exactly what he wanted the way he wanted to, came across; Chilton had the enviable and unshakeable cool of any kid leaning against the hood of a car with his cigs rolled up in his sleeve. He wasn't movin' until he wanted to move, man. The very fact that he refused to revisit whatever soup of Beatles fanatacism, futuristic guitar pop vision, and pure agonizing emotional madness from which Big Star arose made him even more interesting as a living presence for us Big Star fanatics. At least for a while. I think by the mid-90s it became a sly joke that maybe wasn't that funny anymore for any of us, and by then he'd be occasionally giving the people what they wanted touring with revived versions of the Box Tops and Big Star, with the same insouciance. He could be a pro when he needed to be.

Like a pro, but never really exactly like one, which is why I think both the music and the legend resonated with record collectors with a taste for the outre and underground. He had the convincing and real aura of an actual man, an actual artist, with concerns that we could never quite understand, and when those concerns led to an absurdly straight-faced "Volare" covers, that was even cooler than hearing him play "Back of a Car" again could be. Kind of.

The last times I saw him perform were both in one week in November 1994. (For whatever reason, he never got to L.A. much.) He did a Big Star show at the House of Blues, and then a few days later was one of dozens of artists at a tribute show for Brian Wilson, then just beginning to crawl out of years of a mental black hole. (For Wilson fanatics, this is the show where he first met and heard the Wondermints, who became the core of his touring band in the shocking revival of his touring and recording career in the late 90s, culminating in the finishing of his own tortured lost album, Smile.) Alex performed a handful of songs–I cannot be sure which at this point, but I think might have been "Custom Machine," "New Girl in School" and "Solar System." I was in the front row. It was great.

A bit later in the night, unannounced, Brian Wilson himself performed, which at that point in time was an event of galactic rarity. A few feet to my right, also standing in front, was Chilton, the two of us Brian Wilson lovers reveling in this staggering moment. We caught each others' eye. (No, I'm quite sure he had no memory of having talked to me for an hour 9 years before.)

We both broke out in wild head-shaking grins, thinking, I suspect, the same thing: This guy, this hero, this legend, this brilliant and tortured creator of perfect universal pop and agonizingly weird personal/spiritual strangeness, who shaped so many people's love and approach to modern pop and rock, who made music so intense even he could barely understand or appreciate it…there he was! Doing his thing again! Right there!

In Alex's case, it took one to know one.

I highly recommend all fans of rock music to at the very least buy and listen to Big Star's Radio City (their second, when the band became more purely Chilton's after the departure of other founder Chris Bell) and Sister Lovers/Third.

Some clips, of the sublime Big Star ballad "Thirteen"

The Box Tops doing his first big hit, "The Letter"

And for those who need politics in their music, Alex is remembered on the floor of Congress by Rep. Steve Cohen, a Democrat from his home city of Memphis:

NEXT: But Can They Vote 'Present'?

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  1. Is it too soon after his death to link to parodies of Box Tops songs? I hope I’m not being a total cad, and here goes: the Wheel of Fortune?themed “Vanna, Pick Me a Letter” by Dr. Dave.

    At the time of my writing, Wikipedia claims that Chilton didn’t write “The Letter.” Maybe that makes my parody reference kosher.

  2. He did not write “The Letter,” or “Soul Deep.” He was just a singer in a soul band then.

  3. These personal words would resonate much more if we knew who wrote them. This was Doherty’s blog post, I presume? (He’s the one with the good music taste around here, after all.)

    1. Nah – I’m betting it’s a Walker post. I loved Chilton’s bands – Neon Rainbow by the Box Tops was the first single I ever owned as a kid. But who else on Reason’s staff could glorify one more disposable pop star (kinda) with Rolling Stonesque accolades more befitting a Mozart?

      Dude – it’s only rock ‘n roll. Be very, very surprised if anyone actually gives a shit in another 50 years. It ain’t an art form, no matter how much the thumb-sucking stoners connoisseurs of commonality wish it were so.

      One difference between Big Star and the Velvet Underground – Big Star were actually competent players – something that generally seems to detract from the reputation of any Artiste of Da People.

      1. Big Star were actually competent players – something that generally seems to detract from the reputation of any Artiste of Da People.

        No, it’s not a liability in the eyes of Da People. It’s a liability in the eyes of those elitists who take the Romantic view of rock, for whom “authenticity” and “primacy” are of far more importance than actual musicality. Or actual music, for that matter.

        For these people, “songs” act merely as vehicles for personal expression and as social signifiers; aesthetics take a back seat. Credibility is thus tied not to chops, but to perceived authenticity and the signifying of the proper social cues.

        Tight, finessed, well-rehearsed playing runs counter to those ideals on multiple fronts.

        As for Da People: If they seem not to value competent playing, it would be only because they generally don’t recognize it one way or another — not because they explicitly devalue it, the way the Rock Romantics do. (And anyway, I’m not convinced anyway that they don’t value it: Da People think Angus Young is one kick-ass guitar player, and they like him because of it. There’s a reason they made him, and not Lou Reed, a gazillionaire.)

        1. I imagine this thread has passed its expiration at this point, but, Tom, I just re-read this comment after you replied to the “snob” remark. But speaking as a musician in a rock band, I appreciate both “tight, finessed, well-rehearsed playing” and that “romantic primacy,” although I do agree that fetishizing the latter and dissing the former is silly. And I think really good bands combine those two things. But, depending on my mood, I can get equally excited by on the one hand, a kick-ass group of musicians providing a note-perfect groove and on the other, a ramshackle garage band putting their limited all into banging out a catchy tune.

      2. The “competent players” thing may be so, but it surely didn’t always translate that way on record.

      3. Ah, STE, your tooling around knows no bounds. Let the guy write about his emotions without letting your dickishness spray all over it.

        1. I’ve heard the “bedroom guitarists” theory – that guitarists that develop their own, many times imprecise or at least less clean, style tend to have more success in rock music. Think the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Bob Dylan, the list goes on and on. But, that doesn’t mean chops aren’t appreciated. The libertarian geeks that are all into Rush, for instance. But regular people like Radiohead or Jeff Buckely.

  4. Yes, it’s by Doherty. The byline should be back.
    Chilton was much loved by most of us here at Reason, by the way.

    1. Great tribute Brian. Big Star was/is one of my favorite bands in any genre.

  5. Oh, just take the compliment, man!

    1. Tom–Thanks for the compliment; I was just stickin’ up for my buds. There was some internal debate as to who would win the honor of the eulogy post…

  6. oh man, that’s terrible news. He also had impeccable taste as a producer, capturing the Cramps in all their early sticky glory. Thanks for sharing your memories of him Brian.

  7. Oh, all that stuff was just fragments, shapeless, no really memorable songs, he insisted.

    That was his line back when the ’80s rush came on, and he stuck with it, but his demos are structurally and lyrically identical (almost) to all those supposedly uncrafted not-songs. And there were a lot more not-songs just like them.

    People ? tons of them ? became creepily attached to the musical record of an ex-him he was glad not to be anymore, for mostly non-musical reasons, and he rebuffed it as kindly as he could. Usually. Sometimes, he was a crazy asshole.
    No summary flourish.

  8. I don’t know if you emphasized the buying of third enough. Seriously, everyone buy third.

    1. The first two, especially the second are great too. Also the album “Big Star Live” is a great, fresh, more raw recording made in a recording studio that any fan would like.

  9. Thanks for the words, Brian.

  10. Blah… musicians. Condolences on dying though.

  11. I don’t think you can buy the second record without buying the first with it. They’ve been the best two-pack in the history of music for a long time now.

  12. Cyrano—Yes, I think you are right. I’m not always up on what’s officially packaged and in print and how these days.

  13. I’m old enough to remember the Box Tops, albeit in a hazy, fleeting, childish way. Those of us who have dabbled in the creative side of pop culture should be so fortunate to have someone like Brian Doherty remember us when we’re gone, if what we did was worth remembering. Nice job, Brian.

  14. Sounds cheesy, but me and the fianc?e did “Alex Chilton” on Rock Band tonight in his honor. Not a song either of us know very well, but it seemed appropriate. For musically challenged nerds, that is. 🙂

  15. Sounds cheesy, but me and the fianc?e did “Alex Chilton” on Rock Band tonight in his honor. Not a song either of us know very well, but it seemed appropriate. For musically challenged nerds, that is. 🙂

    1. Sorry about the double post. Don’t know how it happened.

      1. awesome, grylliade!

        you rock, yet again

  16. Brian, that was a great tribute. Like you, I was of the second-generation punks that rediscovered Chilton by reputation in the early 80s and fell in love with Big Star records.

    I would only add that “#1 Record” is also absolutely essential. As Carrie Brownstein noted today, “Big Star’s music filled a void you didn’t even know had been there.”

  17. If you are going to name your band after a grocery chain, Piggly Wiggly is way cooler.Hell, even “Jitney Jungle” or “The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company” beats Big Star.

    I would link to TWILIGHTZONE! where they have a lot of links to hosted files of all kinds Chilton records but most of’em are rapidshare which doesn’t work for free for me anymore.

  18. I discovered Alex and Big Star after I realized that all the bands I loved in the early 90’s pretty much rip him off.

    My first memory of listening to Big Star in ’93 was I couldn’t believe the music was nearly 20 years old.

    Nice work Mr. Chilton

    1. That was exactly my reaction at about the same time. I think I first heard them in ’91 or ’92, my first year of college. I couldn’t believe I wasn’t listening to something contemporary.

  19. and when those concerns led to an absurdly straight-faced “Volare” covers, that was even cooler than hearing him play “Back of a Car” again could be. Kind of.

    Well put. Records like that are the proof one needs that artistic brilliance is more happenstance and accident than competence, and that the brilliance doesn’t need to be exalted; it kills the idolatry and increases the appreciation and respect. Better to try to follow your muse as best you can and fall short than to milk the audience by giving them a half-assed version of what they want (a la Chuck Berry).

  20. Terrific eulogy. My original Ardent Records pressing of “Radio City” is about the only thing of worth I’ll have to pass on to my kids.

  21. thanks, Brian for the memories. Excellent

  22. I’ll never forget seeing Alex at 7th St Entry in DT Minneapolis, a tiny place adjacent to First Avenue. As a life long Brian Wilson fanatic, it was shocking and exciting to hear Alex cover “Honkin’ Down The Highway”…unbelievable!

  23. I’m extra grateful now that my friend managed to get me a free ticket to Big Star’s sold-out show in Brooklyn last November. He did a lot of the classics, including some Chris Bell songs and even Bell’s solo “I Am The Cosmos”. It was great to watch him play. I’ve always loved his guitar style, particularly on “Radio City” — kind of a melodic mix of jangle and slash, if that makes any sense. That album is probably my favorite, but “Third” definitely kicked my ass when I first discovered it. I was on a two-week excursion abroad that had some low points that left me a bit homesick, and I wore out my discman playing the CD over and over. Brian’s description pretty much nails it — “barely controlled waves of anguish, love and psychotic mania.” Weird lyrics, sometimes funny, somtimes bordering on creepy — “The drummer said you were not very clean,” “I want to white out,” “I’d rather shoot a woman than a man,” “She’s got a magic wand that says play with yourself before other ones” — and a mix of that janlgy/slashing (at times sloppy) guitar rock and more reserved acoustic tunes. “You Can’t Have Me” sounds like a ramshackle Who. The low-key cover of “Femme Fatale” with Steve Cropper on guitar and the girl singing the chorus in French I actually prefer to the VU’s version. “Blue Moon” might be the loveliest song ever written. “Holocaust” might be the most depressing. If you’re a rock fan and are unfamiliar with Big Star, you oughta at least check them out.
    There’s my personal and fannish two cents.

    Thanks Brian.

    And to Alex: Don’t worry. This isn’t your last life.

  24. The comments prove yet again that there’s no snob like a rock’n’roll snob.

    1. Aw, come on. I know music snobs, and I plead guilty to having been a bit of one in my younger days. I’d like to think I’m not anymore — I’m pretty open-minded at this point, and routinely get into stuff I used to profess to hate.
      But, regardless, I didn’t see snobbery in any of these comments. Unless you’re suggesting that being a nerdy fan of a somewhat obscure artist and discussing it with other nerdy fans when the guy dies makes one a “snob.”

      1. Yeah, really — what snobbishness is Lith Ping talking about? If anything, the thread is anti-snobbery, like my lengthy comment above.

  25. Brian, I thought you captured Chilton’s who-cares post-70s attitute really well – non-ironic covers of “Volare” and all. It’s one of the reasons I never went to see him play, but maybe that was a mistake. “Radio City” to me is the one – one of my favorite discs of all time, and yes, it can only be bought on CD with “#1 Record”, which is about 75% as good and therefore totally essential.

  26. “He let this eager teen fan buttonhole him in a shitty motel on Jacksonville Beach one night in 1985 after performing at the Einstein a-Go-Go.”

    Buttonhole? Is that what they’re calling anal sex nowadays? Haha. Seriously, nice reminiscence

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