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: