Alex Chilton once told an Associated Press writer, back in 1987, that he didn’t mind flying under the radar as a performer.
“What would be ideal would be to make a ton of money and have nobody know about you,” he said. “Fame has a lot of baggage to carry around. I wouldn’t want to be like Bruce Springsteen. I don’t need that much money and wouldn’t want to have 20 bodyguards following me.”
That sub-radar way of operating meant that Chilton was incredibly subversive as a musical influence. Which is part of why the news of his death this morning (he actually died last night) floored me, so much more than I thought it would.
If you ask me my favorite musical acts of all time, I’ll probably roll out Brian Wilson, The Fleshtones, The Ramones, NRBQ, The Monks, The Lyres and a procession of others. But not Chilton. In fact, I’m terribly guilty — I have such a laundry list of musical faves posted on my Myspace profile … and no Alex Chilton or Big Star.
But his passing drew a huge gasp and a choked-up follow-up as I was catching up with the morning news online. Part of my reaction was his age (just 59). Part of it was always seeing a bit of him as the gravelly-voiced teenager who fronted The Box Tops. Part of it was knowing he was a big part of my musical molding in my early-to-mid-20s.
But part of it was the fact that I, like so many others, simply took him for granted. He’s been part of my musical life since the middle of my kindergarten year (early 1967), he was there as my record collection and sphere of influence expanded, and I always assumed he’d be around. I hang my head in shame and guilt — I didn’t even have him listed among my faves. Even though I love his music and can rattle a half-dozen or so songs I cherish off the top of my head at a moment’s notice: “The Ballad of El Goodo,” “In the Street,” “Thirteen,” “September Gurls,” “Jesus Christ” (one of my fave rock’n'roll Christmas tunes), “When My Baby’s Beside Me,” “I’m in Love With a Girl,” “ST 100/6,” “No Sex,” “Dalai Lama.” And he seems to have been taken away from us way too young.
Chilton’s Big Star songs possessed the unusual combination of extreme world-weariness and an innocent heart — kinda like the new wavers-turned-college-radio-heads who glommed onto him in the ’80s. Except his weariness was well-earned.
He learned the primary hard lesson of the music biz while in his teens: Record companies exist to fuck over their artists. He made more money singing the Box Tops hits on the summer oldies circuit than he ever did recording them.
Yet, his tunes, especially in those five years in Big Star, had an innocence to them. The open-hearted simplicity of “I’m in Love With a Girl.” The early-adolescent courtship of “Thirteen.” The snapshot of an average teenage day would make “In the Street” a natural choice to be the theme to “That ’70s Show” (minus the “Wish we had a joint so bad” line, of course). The wounded but defiant El Goodo, trying hard to hold on against unbelievable odds, with God at his side. “ST 100/6,” the cryptically titled, short, sweet, dreamscapey one-minute acoustic guitar segment (don’t know if you can really call it a song) at the end of “#1 Record,” with six little words: “Love me again” and “Be my friend.”
I saw him at Yale’s Ezra Stiles College in 1986. Two nights before I flew off for two weeks in Italy in May of ’89, I saw him again at the original Knitting Factory in New York. I was kinda surprised to run into him tuning his guitar in the courtyard at Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford, Ct., in the summer of 1990, on a tour that included Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits, Sonny Geraci of The Outsiders/Climax, Gary Lewis and ? (minus The Mysterians). I said a brief hi to him, and he was friendly enough, but it wasn’t a memorable encounter — just a couple words of recognition by a fan who knew his music and knew he was having to make a living playing his teenage hits to an audience that, for the most part, didn’t know or care about the great stuff he’d been doing since.
My ’80s included the renaissance of Chilton as an artist as the generation he spawned began paying him back. The Bangles redoing “September Gurls.” R.E.M. proclaiming his influence on them. The Replacements really and very loudly proclaiming it on my favorite song of theirs, oddly enough titled “Alex Chilton” (with Alex joining in). The rejuvenation of his solo career. (And I didn’t even mention his producing The Cramps’ “Songs the Lord Taught Us.” Or playing in Panther Burns with Tav Falco.)
What really endeared me to him and his music — what really me made me dig in — was a bootleg cassette that was given to me as a truckwarming gift. In the summer of 1988, I bought an ’87 GMC Sierra 4×4, the closest thing I’ve ever had to a new vehicle (10,000 miles on it). The day I got it, my pal Rodi gave me the tape, “Live at Radio City,” which he probably picked up at Rhymes Records in New Haven. It was a tape of Big Star’s radio concert on Long Island’s WLIR in 1974, just after the release of “Radio City.” It included many of the previously mentioned tunes, as well as “Oh My Soul” and “Mod Lang.” The repetition of the tape constantly running back and forth through both sides as I meandered up and down the Connecticut hills drilled the tunes into my head.
And for all his seeming insouciance, Chilton was pretty straightforward about the realities of the musical life. At one point, he caught WLIR’s deejay, Ray White, off-guard during the in-between-songs interviews. It was an innocent question; White referred back to The Box Tops and asked him what those early days of rock’n'roll were like. Chilton shot back, in that lazy Memphis drawl of his, “Pretty scummy,” which elicited an astonished “Really” from White. And at another point, the deejay referred to a music publication that had said something like “It’s only April, but we have the best album of 1974,” to which Chilton said something to the effect of that’s nice, and he’d had that sort of acclaim before, but he wished it would sell.
(And it pissed me off royally that, when Ryko released the radio concert as an album a decade later, it edited out all the interview material — which I felt was every bit as revealing as the music, if not more. I thought it was unconscionable of the label to do that.)
That “Radio City” didn’t sell in any numbers, like its predecessor, was criminal. True, the cream always rises to the top and good things always have their day, even if it takes years.
Not knowing Chilton, I’m guessing there had to be a feeling of vindication when those ’80s acts resurrected his career. And maybe that same feeling when he and Jody Stephens revived Big Star with Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer of The Posies in the mid-’90s. Or when “In the Street” became the theme to a hit sitcom. And maybe there was even a triumph to coming full circle and reuniting with The Box Tops in his later years to revive past glories on the summer shed circuit.
His solo career had always been a spotty, erratic, haphazard affair, and maybe, cosmically, he had run out of things to say and his time had come. But as a music fan, it sure seemed as if he left far too early. For all his glory and accolades, it was a rough life. But it certainly was an interesting one. He might have wanted to trade bank accounts with many people more than a few times, but he probably wouldn’t have traded lives with many people.
Usually, when a great musician has died, I look at his/her life with a small tinge of sadness and a fond recollection of what they’ve done. With Alex Chilton, though, the fond recollection is there, but this time, so is a soul-deep sadness. In the next life, I hope he finds both the accolades and the peace of mind.
Bonus video: Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Memphis) honors Alex on the floor of the House of Representatives.