Alex Was Our Beatle
I was playing in Tuscaloosa in the mid to late 1980s. My band, Will and the Bushmen, was in town to play and my friend had hooked me up to open for Alex Chilton at one of the clubs on the college strip. I was such a fan of Alex’—-a fan of his Big Star records, a fan of his whacked out early solo records, a fan of the bootlegs circulating around the fans at that time, a fan of The Cramps, Tav Falco, Lorette Velvette, whatever Alex played on, I owned. He was a topic of conversation among my friends and myself. I was a superfan. I played to the pretty well packed club—they knew me and my songs, my choices of cover songs—The Bushmen were a Tuscaloosa mainstay from 1984 to the early 1990s. I went through my set and then decided I’d do “Thirteen”, a Big Star song from their sparkly sad debut album, “#1 Record”. I loved the song; I believed it, and usually performed it with my eyes closed, trying to channel to uber-sincerity of the original. About 2/3 of the way through the song, I took a breath and opened my eyes. About 5 feet in front of me stood Alex Chilton. I was mortified! Thrilled! My hero was impassively watching me play one of his masterpieces. He looked neither impressed nor disgusted. For once, Alex didn’t have that bemused little smile on his face. I was relieved, and launched into my next number, a cover of Gram Parsons’ cover of the James Carr soul classic “The Dark End of the Street”. I closed my eyes again. Opened them after the second verse. Alex was still there. Still just sort of checking me out. I think “Dark End” was the last of my set, and this being a humble ’80’s Tuscaloosa, Alabama club gig, there was no dressing room, no crew to get Alex’ gear set back up for the show. Alex climbed onto the stage as I was unplugging and casing up my ’60’s Epiphone acoustic guitar. He leaned over to me and said “If you play an F Sharp Minor instead of that D over F Sharp on ‘Dark End of the Street’, it’s MUCH scarier”. The master had deemed to speak to the student. Victory was mine and I celebrated by drinking all fifty dollars of my pay for opening. I got drunk and enjoyed Alex’ show. I staggered down the the Booth later and enjoyed more after hours beers before somehow winding back up at my Dill’s Motor Court room with my friend and bandmate Sam. We slept late and woke up to knocking on our motel room door. It was Alex Chilton. He wanted to check out my vintage Epiphone. He wanted to see if anyone had any pot. He was obliged. Alex asked if we minded if he played us a new song he was working on. We just laughed. The thought that he would ask US was nothing less than hilarious. He played the song. It was ok. Alex had to hit the road. I followed him out—he was traveling alone in a rented Ford Bronco, while his band drove the van with the gear. Alex played me a Jesse Belvin song. I didn’t really get it. Alex asked my birthday. I told him and he got a thoughtful look on his face for a few moments and then said, “Wow, Will. We’re just about astrological twins”. Alex was into astrology. He drove away. A lot of friends have been telling their Alex stories. During a recent phone call, discussing Alex’ death, my friend Pat said it best: “Alex was our Beatle”. Alex was our Beatle. But we could go see him up close in the clubs. We could shake his hand and tell him how excited we were to meet him. And he would give us that bemused little smile.