Rest in peace, Alex Chilton
My short list of personal rock’n’roll heroes is pretty concise: Brian Wilson, Todd Rundgren, Ray Davies, Paul Westerberg, Doug Sahm, Lowell George, probably a few other names. Near the top of that list is a man who died today, Alex Chilton.
Before you throw Elvis and Chuck Berry and John Lennon and Bob Dylan in my face, the operative word here is personal, as in, people whose music I formed an intimate relationship with, whose music changed my life and inspired me as a writer and got inside my head and altered me forever; those people affected me, too, but they were more universal, with an effect that was felt across the board.
The first time I heard Alex Chilton was as the singer for the Box Tops, which made some great soulful Southern pop singles for the Mala label when I was still in junior high school. I dug the sound, and thought they were great singles, but it was the beginning of FM radio and the age of the album, and singles acts were considered teenybopper declasse. (Although, in retrospect, those were some mighty fine 45s.)
In high school, I was always on the hunt for Badfinger-style Fab Four recapitulations, but Ardent — the Stax-distributed label that released the first two Big Star albums, No. 1 Record and Radio City — had really crummy distribution, at least in my part of California; the only time I recall ever seeing anything on Ardent was a promo copy of the Terry Manning-produced Hot Dogs’ Say What You Mean, which I bought at ASUOP Records in Stockton.
By the time I’d landed at Tower Records in Las Vegas in the late 1970s, the import distributor JEM Records’ PVC label had issued Third/Sister Lovers, and the house that Creedence built, Fantasy Records, had acquired Stax. American Fantasy had no interest in any rock outside of Creedence, but its English affiliate, EMI, released No. 1 Record and Radio City packaged as a twofer, which I: a) finally heard and: b) got completely smitten by to the point of obsession. And then I got around to Sister Lovers, and that one worked its haunting magic on me, too.
There was something so right and perfect about Big Star’s music; it was everything I wanted in melodic rock, wrapped up in one neat package. Chilton’s voice, grainy and gruff on the Box Tops records, found a more McCartney-like pop sweetness on the Big Star sides, with the first album also having the counterpoint of the late Chris Bell. The songs themselves on the twofer — “The Ballad of El Goodo,” “Thirteen,” “In the Street,” “When My Baby’s Beside Me,” “Way Out West,” “What’s Going Ahn,” “September Gurls,” “Back of a Car,” “I’m in Love With a Girl” — were a beautiful marriage of voice and guitar, and I couldn’t get enough. Still can’t. And same goes for Sister Lovers, with “Stroke It Noel,” “Jesus Christ,” “Holocaust,” “Kizza Me,” “Thank You Friends.” I mean, shit. Music of my life. Many late nights spent listening to this stuff. Fuck.
I never did see any of the Big Star reunions, but I saw Chilton a few times in his post-Big Star solo career. Once, on a rainy March night in Austin at South by Southwest, in a tent, I saw him do a solo version of Nina Simone’s signature “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” with the most amazing fingerpicked bridge on an archtop guitar, and then a killer version of Domenico Modugno’s “Nel blu di pinto di blu,” better known as “Volare.” In Italian. I fell so madly in love with the tune and the performance that I learned to sing and play the song myself.
It still hasn’t sunk in that Alex Chilton is gone. I’m numb. Intellectually, I understand it. Emotionally, later tonight when I cue up some Big Star, I’ll probably turn into a weepy mess — no pun intended, but at some point I’ll betcha I cry like a baby. Losing a musical hero is like that, at least for me.
My heart goes out to Chilton’s family and to Jody Stephens. But you know who else I feel bad for? Dwight Twilley. Big Star was scheduled to do a gig with Dwight at this year’s South by Southwest on Saturday. I got to know Dwight when I worked at Digital Music Group, then Dwight’s label home (he’s now with Gigatone, which is run by Mitch Koulouris, my old boss at DMGI). If anyone I know deserves an audience that will listen to his music and give it some new consideration, it’s Dwight. A gig with Big Star might have provided a real boost.
Anyway, I hope it isn’t too controversial with me bringing up Dwight while talking about Big Star. This post is me sitting in the studio at my pal David Houston’s house with another pal G.P. Bailey, just scatter-typing out a rambling bunch of words in response to a piece of really bad news. Hope some of those words made sense.
Rest in peace, Mr. Chilton. —Jackson Griffith