Alex Chilton died this past week, apparently from a heart attack at the age of 59. I strongly doubt most people under the age of 40 know who he was. And I’d have almost as hard a time finding people my age and older.
But a lot of people did know who The Box Tops were and surely recall 60s pop hits like “The Letter,” “Soul Deep” and “Cry Like a Baby.” Chilton sang lead for the band, don’t think he wrote those songs, but I’d wager that’s how most people know him.
When The Box Tops broke up, he moved onto Big Star in the early 70s, a band that went absolutely nowhere in their time. It might be hard to believe that as the band became legendary long after their demise (surely beginning around the time I spent in college in the mid-80s, thanks to The Replacements having the song “Alex Chilton” that scored big on the indie scene at the time).
You’d think everyone knew about Big Star back then. But not quite. I recall discussing this with my newspaper editor in the mid-90s, who had been writing about music in Baltimore when Big Star was around. His recollection, roughly: “They were born over-hyped. Next Beatles and shit. Badfinger was the next Beatles, and they went belly-up. Didn’t leave much hope for these guys.”
I can’t vouch for the hype, but he was right about their fate. Beatlesque pop bands, no matter how good they were, just didn’t break through in the 70s. Kids’ tastes had morphed into hard rock, folk rock, prog or frilly pop aimed at pre-teens. Even a band as great as Roxy Music didn’t cut it in America at the time because no one knew how to classify them. The Raspberries were the most successful of the power-pop bands of the 70s, and they were by no means huge. Their lead singer, Eric Carmen, was much more successful going solo with “All by Myself” … and the reality is, that song is as good as anything The Raspberries did, and better in its pop sense and Carmen’s desire to craft a major hit that would fit in with the times (as opposed to rehashing a 60s pop fantasy, which they were great at).
No fucking way was Alex Chilton going to do that! And that might be why far more people know who Eric Carmen is, and no idea who Chilton was. He surely tried with Big Star, a band I knew nothing about throughout the 70s. I suspect their real fans numbered in the low thousands. I never heard all of Big Star’s first two albums until around 1990, when I bought that single-disc compilation of both, and of course it blew my mind with how good it was. (Their third, Sister Lovers, was comparatively bleak and depressing compared to the first two pop albums, so bleak it sat in the can unreleased for a few years. I guess it was Chilton’s version of “All by Myself” … his version being songs like “Holocaust” … title indicative of a ballad suggesting someone sitting in a bathtub of cold water with a razor ... not the kind of shit that inspired lighters flickering on in the audience.)
I’ll often cite Graham Parker as an example of a recording artist who marred his career because of his attitude towards record labels and executives. Not in any artistic sense, but marred in the sense of taking the shitty way the business operates personally, and letting that hold him back from recognizing it is a business and has to be worked at as such to succeed on a certain level, no matter how talented you are as a musician. Talented artists who make a name for themselves, but have a combative/negative view of the people trying to sell their product … just don’t make it past a certain level.
Which, I gather, suits most of these artists fine so long as they can make a living. But also prevents them from acquiring legendary status or lasting profits (which make a lot more sense as you age). They become cult artists, without fail, critically-acclaimed and putting out consistently good material. But simply artists not a lot of people know about, save for a dedicated fan base.
Such was Alex Chilton’s fate. After Big Star split up, he went through what many consider a dark period of the 70s through the mid-80s. But damned if my favorite solo albums of his, Like Flies on Sherbert and Bach’s Bottom, didn’t come out in that time. He was seriously fucking around with pop music structure at the time. I read a review of Sherbert where the writer chastised Chilton for being unprofessional, but that was the point. He could play better than that – he was purposely skewing the music to sound like it was coming apart at the seams. Imagine a soul band playing a frat party in the 60s in the deep South, late at night, everyone, including the band, drunk off their asses, and the band falling through one song after another, barely able to play. THAT was the sound and vibe he got on those records, and to me, it still sounds fascinating, what he was getting at. Of course, all of this stuff went totally unheralded at the time, and I’m not quite sure how the guy made a living.
And all this happened quietly. If you were a fan at the time, Christ, you deserve a medal, because you were there with very few people. I came in during his mid-80s renaissance, when he hit slightly bigger with the EPs Feudalist Tarts and No Sex, and then the album High Priest. As far as I’m concerned, this was his golden age. Moved to New Orleans, fell in love with the music, added it to his repertoire of pop and soul. I can’t recall which came first, The Replacements song with his name, or these recordings. (A little research: those recordings were 1985-87; the song “Alex Chilton” came out in 1987.) The albums had a lot of covers mixed with the originals, but he played them so well. I got particularly stuck on the song “No Sex,” about AIDS, with the chorus: “Can’t get it on or even get high/Come on, baby, fuck me and die/No sex/Not anymore.” That song nailed the mid-80s in every way possible: a perfect pop moment -- I liken that to the times the way most people do something like "Hip to Be Square" by Huey Lewis and the News. And “Come by Here” -- a cover of an old gospel song that sounded great with his white Memphis soul shading on it.
I’d see him play in New York a few years later, I think 1989 or 1990, at The Knitting Factory when it was that small living-room size space on Houston Street. I note this, because I got there early with brother J, who was visiting from PA to see Chilton play that night. I was pretty unafraid to approach musicians I was going to see at a show – had a fun time earlier that year hanging out with Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper at The Ritz pre-show, while Mojo laughed it up over brother J’s K Mart worker horror stories.
Well, we got to The Knitting Factory way too early, by about two hours, but it was a functioning bar, so we decided to hang out and have a few beers … as it turned out, sitting right next to Alex Chilton while he had a beer and a smoke. An arm’s length away. But there was just something about the guy that said, “Don’t approach me.” Wouldn’t even call it unfriendliness – he just put out the vibe that he didn’t want to be bothered. And I was learning that talking to many of these guys pre-show wasn’t some magical experience; they often had no warmth and wisdom to impart. Not sure why I thought they would, save for being raised in the age of rock gods and the bullshit aura we attached to them. Even when it was removed, and you were sitting next to a cult artist in a bar in New York, it still felt intimidating.
He was known for being cantankerous and moody, but I have to say, he put on a joyous show that night, half of it was oldies he was clearly having a blast playing, and instead of yelling at the soundman who kept screwing up, he worked out instructions to sing to the guy during his cover of “Volare” to help him get the right sound mix – it was pretty funny stuff. If 100 people showed up at The Knitting Factory, the place was packed, so the place was jammed, ecstatic, and I got the vibe Alex Chilton could do no wrong when he played New York.
That time in his musical career means more to me than Big Star, because I was there for it, and it played such a direct role in my life. That matters to me, because I feel like a half-assed hack writing anything about Big Star or his early solo career. The truth of the matter was I missed the boat on that shit, as did just about everybody else, and it feels a bit hollow to me now to go back and reclaim that music, despite the fact that it is well worth reclaiming.
An old college friend left a comment here that the death of Chilton brought her straight back to those college days, people she knew and The Replacements song, and I know that vibe, because that song in particular does sound very much of its time. If you were a kid in college and aware, it perfectly defines a certain vibe that is long gone, for us as adults and as a specific time in music. I can’t say it depresses me or that I long for it. The odd part is The Replacements have become almost as faded as Chilton’s legacy. Fans of the band from the time and Westeberg's solo career would disagree … but that's what I'd call a shrinking fan base, and is there anybody else out there? I strongly doubt it. And like Chilton, Paul Westerberg seems to be fond of the “fuck it” attitude, maybe even perfected the art form in his time, but as noted, you do that, it sort of freezes you in time as a recording artist. The artist and his fans age, and we move along with him, buying the albums, and keeping track, but, honestly, no one else seems to give a shit. We somehow stay stuck in that minor period of fame even while we move forward. And that present reality makes me feel a vague sort of sadness, as opposed to the good memory of “Alex Chilton” the song. In boxing, muscle memory is training your body so much that your muscles just respond accordingly, better and faster, as you endlessly repeat the training. That song feels like muscle memory!
That wasn’t my last minor scrape with minor fame and Chilton. I didn’t buy any of his stuff through the 90s and beyond, but was glad to see Big Star and then The Box Tops reform, play live and pick up some new fans along the way. That was a very cool thing to see happen, but something odd happened to me in the late 90s. I was part of an internet group that was heavily into music via a DJ’s show in New York. One of my posts to that group was about finding a CD that was nothing but 60s pop-rock artists recording jingles for Coca Cola radio commercials – I’m not even sure if I still have the disc. But I remember mentioning The Box Tops as one of the bands being on the disc.
A year or two passes. One day, I get an email from a stranger … who turns out to be a member of The Box Tops who read the post online doing an internet search for those Coke jingles they recorded back then. (My email address was my screen name.) He was overjoyed that these recordings existed, had heard rumors that they did, but never could track down the CD on which they appeared. (What I had was a bootleg, but I think the CD was officially released a few years after that.) If I’m not mistaken, I sent him the disc, or at least a copy of it – can’t recall, but I just went over to my CD drawer and couldn’t find it.
What I remember most about the email exchange was the way he described the band at the time, flush with success, acting like rock stars, in New York to play that night, and they got called into the studio by their manager to do this silly-assed Coke jingle that no one wanted to do, but they rolled along with it, in their frilly pop-star duds, just a bunch of kids making fun out of what could have been a drag on their time off while touring. And I sent this CD to him while the band was rehearsing again as the reformed Box Tops for some reunion shows. So I can guess that he brought this CD to rehearsal one day and blew everyone’s mind. From the way he described Alex Chilton, it sounded like they were all on the same page, having a blast, and simply enjoying the act of playing music together again after decades apart.
And maybe that’s where this should end, pretty much where it began. I tend to feel a big question mark when I ponder Alex Chilton and his life, but I honestly didn’t know the guy, came to a lot of his music after the fact, and the stuff I didn’t rang really true to me at a time in my life when music does that. I’ll probably go on a jag now and bust out all those discs to get re-acclimated now that I’m thinking of him. Used to think that was a half-assed thing to do, but the sooner the guy’s music lives on, the better.