Never go too far without some Big Star: RIP Alex Chilton

Alex Chilton has died. The passing of Chilton, 59, comes just as Big Star was to be feted at SXSW; it seems a kind of absurd extension of the singer's ambivalence about celebrity, evident over the course of his career.

As a Box Top, he was a teen idol while still a teen himself. As a young man, he was criminally undervalued in Big Star. And as a cult figure, his legend loomed over the mixed results of his later recorded work. Chilton seemed, to an outsider, indifferent to his own reputation, suspicious of latter-day appreciation of critics and music buffs which was, largely, withheld when Big Star actually could have used the attention. The truth is, Alex Chilton gave us enough great music to last his (and our) lives.

I wrote about Big Star last September when the Rhino box set Keep An Eye On The Sky came out. Two months later I was at it again when RhinoHandmade reissued Chilton's Big Star band mate Chris Bell's I Am The Cosmos.

I'll just say it very clearly and briefly here. Alex Chilton made some superb blue-eyed pop soul with the Box Tops and you owe it to yourself to get beyond the well-worn singles and discover some of the wonderful deep tracks on those early recordings. Big Star's first albums -- #1 Record and Radio City -- are two of the great achievements of bass-guitar-drums rock n roll. If you've listened to those records and you disagree, then you and I aren't going to agree on much else.

Big Star's blighted, blasted final album -- Big Star 3rd -- has never received a proper release and the task of properly representing those sessions now seems more urgent. 3rd -- with its mordant humor, its spooky glimpse into the fathomless well of sadness, madness, loneliness -- seems, on this sad night like essential listening in the truest sense.

Thank you friends. Thank you, Alex.

Views: 139

Comment by Sarah Keogh on March 18, 2010 at 6:29am
Well said, PC... I brought #1 Record and Radio City to work with me today so I can have a good listen again...
Comment by Edd Hurt on March 18, 2010 at 8:34am
I am shocked by this news, because I always figured Alex Chilton would become a respected elder statesman with one more hit record in him, playing Beach Boys songs from a shaded spot in deep New Orleans.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Alex Chilton in January 1981, a bit before the Big Star cult really got going. We had listened to the three Big Star albums, which had been reissued in the late '70s, and to Like Flies on Sherbert, all of which twisted our heads around and all of which seemed somehow restorative, prescriptive and yet profoundly melancholy, as if the great pop revolutions of the previous decade had been illusory. That Chilton could have somehow matched up Ernest Tubb, the Kinks and K.C. and the Sunshine Band in a Memphis studio was a bit beyond what I had thought American music was capable of at the time.

In 1981 Chilton was most shadowy, reserved and yet, I could tell, fragile. His voice was a languid, ultra-civilized and super-ironic drawl; he spoke as if he were negotiating melting ice cubes in his mouth. Somehow or another if was as if he were hard to even see directly; he receded. As for the conversation, he was funny, direct and obviously someone with a huge storehouse of pop memories, rockabilly detritus and arcana jostling for space. In short, he was everything one could have imagined he would be.

I think it was the experimental genie on his shoulder that made his career so odd. A lot of Chilton recordings are nearly sabotaged by the artist himself, and he tried to do a lot of things, maybe too many things. But underneath it all was his guitar playing, which was an extension of the Memphis rhythm-guitar tradition with glints of punkish, Tom Verlaine-style licks underneath. He was truly a great guitarist whose big, thick chords and formally delineated sense of time and space stood outside the main tradition of rock guitar work. There was a hidden warmth to it, a referential mood that made you feel good about what you were hearing. This goes back to the big storehouse of ideas I think he carried around in his head. Chilton learned guitar from guys like Sid Manker, who played the bit on "Raunchy" and from Beach Boy Carl Wilson, and from the r&b players he admired. Not many guitarists could say that.

As singer, he moved from the r&b of his youth to the quavering McGuinn-isms of Big Star to something more salacious in his later years. He liked to sing stuff from Ernie K-Doe and Chris Kenner; the pieties of pop were something Alex didn't have a lot of use for, it seemed to me. And this is why he was important. You could say he was a formalist and you wouldn't be wrong, and I certainly saw him play not up to his standard, coasting on the same old tunes he'd been doing for years. On the other hand, his strange repertoire was his and he created it.

It's hard to know where to stop and start here. For my friends and me, Alex was as important as Lennon or Ray Davies was to an earlier generation of pop snobs. The Big Star records, at least, are now in the Canon, more or less. I do think that Third (which, I have always believed, works best in the original form of its first, 1978 release on PVC), is his greatest work--his greatest singing. "Nightime" and "O, Dana" are as lyrical, strange and direct as you could want, and certainly, "You Can't Have Me" and "Kanga Roo" predicted punk and new wave.

In the end, though, I think Alex could have done even more, but his casualness was a part of what he was all about. And as I say above, whatever he did, he alone did that. (Chuck Prophet is likely the one performer who has taken Chilton's lessons most to heart.) Alex belonged in New Orleans, a city whose irreverence and respect for tradition combined in ways that seemed close to his heart. We'll miss him. Take care.
Comment by Brendan Cooke on March 18, 2010 at 11:58am
a touching and informative tribute
Comment by Curtis Ray Barclift on March 23, 2010 at 5:13am
Big Star was the primary example of the hard-luck band. "When My Baby's Beside Me" should be a staple of classic rock radio. It was born to be a hit but didn't come close. I have one question. How did his voice change so much from the Box Tops to Big Star? I can hardly put the gravelly soul singer of the first anywhere near the higher register voice of Big Star. For a long time I thought he was just a member of the Box Tops, not the singer. But so he was. Thanks for all the great music Alex. It kind of illustrates what a sham the R n R Hall of Fame is if you''ll never make it but there stands ABBA.
Comment by Mike Sweeney on March 23, 2010 at 5:44am
Totally agree about Sister Lovers. What a crooked masterpiece... only Alex Chilton could and did pull something like that off. Alex's post-Big Star work has some wonderful cuts as well, and he was criminally underrated as a guitarist (in addition to a great songwriter). I'm still shocked and saddened by his death. He looked so healthy and played so well with Big Star just this past November in Brooklyn.

His voice always drove right to the core of me. At least I'll have that forever.
Comment by Reno Sepulveda on March 23, 2010 at 6:29am
I always wondered about the influence of Big Star on Tom Petty and those Heartbreakers. Southern jangle boys one and all. I've never read Petty acknowledging them. Of course REM paid them all kinds of tribute on tape and print and that's how I found out about them. By then, I'd already stumbled upon Chilton's Feudalist Tarts. Damn white boy! Hit it like you mean it old son!

I loved his guitar playing, very accomplished and informed, complex at times but not smooth at all. He could make the schmaltziest of covers sound hip and I think he genuinely enjoyed those songs. I sure do.

We've all heaped flowers on plenty of deserving dead the last couple years. Lets not forget those that are thankfully still with us. Go to the shows, make fools of yourselves, buy a CD and a T-shirt.
Comment by Sandra Dyas on March 23, 2010 at 7:08am
Ed. Alex Chilton was introduced to me via the Box Tops of course. Way back. Then in the 1990s a boyfriend introduced me to Bach's Bottom. I could not get enough of it and the cd remained one of my all time favorite records. I have it with me this morning as I head for my photo class at Cornell College. Yesterday our class traveled to and from Chicago to see the amazing William Eggleston show at the Art Institute. In a glass case were two record covers - album covers with Eggleston's photos on them. They were both Big Star - Alex Chilton albums. I continued to think of him on and off all yesterday afternoon and evening. Mentioning to one of my students if she had ever heard of him. No, she said, but she had noticed the two records covers in the glass case. I think of all we are all connected... his music lives on. Eggleston from Memphis was a friend of Chilton's family.
Comment by Robert Brom on March 23, 2010 at 4:30pm
If Alex had nothing more than his production of the Cramps and Panther Burns first seminal long playing record albums, he would have earned a star in rock and roll history.
Comment by Stacey Sullivan on March 24, 2010 at 2:36pm
Alex Chilton had a knack for writing and singing songs so that they would break your heart. Well, he's gone and broken my heart again. Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton...
Comment by Mohair on March 25, 2010 at 1:06pm
Very shitty last week after hearing about his passing... Was fortunate to meet him four or five times in the late 80s and then 90s with the re-united Box Tops. .. great shows and some very interesting conversations on topics ranging from Herman's Hermits to German marching band music!
My band played "Tightening Up On Me" as tribute to him at a gig this past weekend. Still bummed.

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.