Friday, March 19, 2010

Alex Chilton

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.


1900-2006 said...

My perspective is a lot different than yours, Bill. I think Alex Chilton is far more well-known than Eric Carmen and I know many people under 40 who are Alex Chilton fans. Of course, most of the under-40 fans I know live here in New Orleans, where Chilton was not just part of the community of local musicians but a neighborhood guy you'd see riding around on his bicycle, dressed in a oddly clean-cut way that reminded me of Lee Harvey Oswald.

Part of what I'm mourning when I think Alex Chilton's death is that we lost another creative, eccentric, complicated person who came back to New Orleans after the storm and struggled to bring the city back to life. We've lost so many wonderful people in the past few years.I didn't know Alex Chilton except to say hello. (We used to share the same bike mechanicm who was also a musician.) I'm a fan of Chilton's music and I think rock-n-roll lost a great songwriter. I don't have problem with musicians dissing record companies and not playing the corporate music game. They pay a price for that, and self-indulgent recordings cost them fans too. (It's been ages since I purchased any music by Paul Westerberg.)

I have a hell of a lot of respect for artists who produce work on their own terms. The older I get the more I love and admire the Mekons. Jon Langford and Sally Timms blow me away every time I get to see them. Langford was here in late December and I saw him play at nearby bar with a local band backing him and he was brilliant. He's got a nice level of fame and critical respect. He can go anywhere and find musicians of all genres who are thrilled to play with him, fans and supporters who are happy to see him and make his visit pleasant. That's pretty sweet.

William S. Repsher said...

Well put, as always. Here's an idea -- I think you scratched this surface of what you want to get out about Chilton's passing, in terms of the New Orleans angle and your original emotional jolt of feeling transported back to the college days. If you'd want to expand on that a bit, I'd post it here as a "guest post." Not so much a rebuttal, because this isn't a rebuttal, just pondering the passing of a musician who had a deep effect on both of us.

Send it along if you get the urge -- I'd be glad to put it up as "Alex Chilton II." If not, that's cool, too. (And re: Westerberg. Boy, if anyone's ever fallen off the corporate bandwagon, it's him. Follow link in story to piece I did two years back. As noted, used to think that stance was cool, but I'm having issues with it now.)

1900-2006 said...

Thanks, Bill. I don't have time this week to expand on my Alex Chilton post, but if I attend his memorial service here I'll definitely tell you about it. Plans haven't been announced yet; maybe there will also be a jazz second line that will go through his neighborhood. Depends on what his sister and his wife want and how Alex felt about such things. Now that I think about it, he may have been at the funeral for Bill Moss, the bike mechanic we shared. Bill Moss was also a musician he was killed a almost 2 years ago when he was walking on a sidewalk in the Bywater and was hit by a truck driven by a girl learning to drive. Like Alex Chilton, Bill wasn't a jazz musician, but musicians of all kinds came out to play him home. They gathered round the hearse and played as the coffin was placed inside. The second line went through the French Quarter and into the Bywater and stopped at bars where Bill often played music and/or occupied a bar stool. I remember that the brass bands played "I'll Fly Away" as we moved down Royal Street and the hundreds of mourners sang along and the music echoed against the buildings. It was a beautiful moment.

William S. Repsher said...

Jesus Christ, it sounds like you're itching to get something out! Again, if inspiration strikes later on this week and you get the time, I'd be glad to put the results up here -- photos, too, if they float around.

We had a similar situation here about a month ago when a much-loved garbageman was killed by a truck (illegaly traveling on a side street, but apparently a fairly normal practice around here). On the corner where it happened, a huge memorial sprouted: pictures, candles, letters, cards, shirts from softball teams, flowers. Center piece was a white shovel, which is still there along with a few other things chained to the lamp post. Good to see that sort of tribute still happening in the neighborhood.

1900-2006 said...

Bill, are you on Facbook?

William S. Repsher said...

No. It's blocked at work, don't feel like playing catch-up every night with it when I get home, and don't like the vibe of a permanent high-school reunion sifting into my every-day life (which is how it strikes me for a lot of people after the initital thrill of being friended by the guy in the third grade who used to pull your hair).

My email address ... used to be under my picture, but I must have somehow deleted it (I'll get it back up) -- but it's repsher AT (Don't even want to type it out correctly here as having it appear anywhere intact seems to result in spam.)

The Beatles Comment Guy said...

I left a few comments on a Beatle post from a time back. Henceforth I guess that'll be my name.

I have to confess, I don't get the whole Chilton thing. I've tried to give his music a fair chance, in the best of faith, but it never really rose above mediocre or "competent" for me. Wherein lies the appeal of Big Star, and his later stuff? Box Tops are more or less decent, if derivative as hell soul rockers, but other Chilton has never done it for me.

I'm willing to try again. Occasionally, I finally "get" an artist after the 2nd or later attempt. It wasn't until the 3rd go round or so that I realized that I loved Sparks. On the other hand, I liked Steely Dan almost immediately. My wife still refuses to believe it.

William S. Repsher said...

No shame in admitting that. Most people in the world, myself included, didn't get Big Star the first time around and never paid attention until indie rock stars of the 80s started making waves about him. I've been listening to a lot of Badfinger this week ... and there's a lot of down time there, too. Man, if every song was on the level of "No Matter What" that would be a different story. But a lot of it was just serviceable, Beatlesque pop. (And, of course, admitting as much is heretical to the revisionists. But they can save it, because my brother and I both bought Badfinger's ASS album in the cutout bin in 1975 for $0.99 [50 cents a piece]. Nobody was buying that stuff at the time.

beatles comment guy said...

Good song. However, for whatever damn reason, I can't help thinking that Beatlesque rock just makes me want the Beatles instead! My wife and other intimates have a joke with me that Come Together by Aerosmith just makes us want to listen to Abbey Road.
(I had one friend in high school who PREFERRED the Aerosmith version.) Badfinger just makes me wanna put on some of Paul's better solo work. How woefully underrated! John's reputation outshone his actually musical ability and Paul's solo work will consequently never get its fair due. I'm finally pushing 30, alas I'd rather hear "Silly Love Songs" than any Lennon solo track. I can't freakin' believe I'd say such a thing!

I guess there are millions of 3 chord melodically poppy bands. This is why Chilton just doesn't appeal to me. There are tons who do what he did, and did it just as well or better.

I'll keep trying, but prospects are grim.

Beatles Comment Guy said...

Oh, and just to clarify: I meant the reputation bit only about Lennon's solo work. My basic theory is that it was his personality that was appealing, not so much the music. He was an interesting figure, and something of a wit. Some (not including myself) might be drawn to his politics/social criticism. For various reasons, he's more compelling as a person than a solo artist.

As for Chilton, here's another thought. The "revisionist hype" might sometimes turn people off. Those who tout "unacknowledged geniuses you haven't heard " put people off because doing so can seem vaguely insulting. I guess you could call such types obscurity snobs. Maybe the acts in question really are unacknowledged geniuses, but the hype and slight snobbishness work against exposure to potential listeners.

Another, though maybe sketchier hypothesis: certain types of personalities are drawn to be critics. Therefore, the types of music/bands those personalities like are bound to be critical favorites. Big Star is a critics' band par excellence. Maybe critics like to think that if they would or could make music, Big Star one of things it might sound like.

The above isn't necessarily a dig at critics. There are acts like Rush, Steve Vai, Queensryche, and so on that I call musicians' bands because musicians admire them in greater proportion than other listeners. A theme with almost all the guitarists I've known is that they all have a personal favorite guitarist who is "better than Hendrix", but never recognized as such because "only people who play music themselves can understand why."

William S. Repsher said...

Well, the older you get, you just like what you like, with little regard to popularity, hip quotient, etc. The pressure's off, no one really cares what "old people" like, etc. It's a good feeling: freedom. Recently, I've been listening to The Monkees and Keith Jarret solo piano music ... which are about as far apart as you can get. I'm also about to get into Bossa Nova music thanks to a disc of stuff a friend forwarded. This after a foray into classical and jazz piano. And throw in Supertramp, Big Star and Replacements fixations that lastes a few days each. I don't know where to stop and can't seem to slow down in terms of getting into all kinds of stuff. Not patting myself on the back -- just recognizing there are oceans of music out there I know nothing about. And I like some of it.