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Why we loved Alex Chilton

#1 Record album cover
Image via Wikipedia

Alex Chilton passed away late last night. Chilton had been a teen pop star for the Memphis soul/pop band The Box Tops, had a strong, varied solo career as a writer, singer, and producer, but was best known as the primary force behind the legendary 70s power-pop band Big Star.

There was always something self-deprecating about the group. Who names their band “Big Star” and calls their first album “#1 Record”? But Big Star is one of that small handful of recording artists — like, say, The Velvet Underground, Nick Drake, or The Pixies — who never broke through to mainstream success, only put together a handful of records, and yet managed to make every single one of them essential.

Part of Big Star’s appeal was their versatility. If you loved 60s guitar-driven rock and roll, you could love Big Star. If you loved fun, up-tempo, well-crafted pop songs, you could love Big Star. But yes, a huge portion of their fan base was drawn from the people who loved the alternative bands Big Star had influenced, the “spent a chunk of the 80s/90s rewinding the cassette of Radio City and waiting for that boy/girl to call generation“:

Most of the folks above, I would guess, are older than 35 and younger than Chilton himself. But not that much younger. Chilton was born in 1950, and he was 59 when he died. With better living/luck/genes, he might have seen his threescore and ten, but he was not, by any means, a talent cut down in the flower of youth. If you are a member of the generation I mention above, the people in the bands you like are starting to die not because of heroic abuse of drugs/alcohol, but because they are getting old. Unfortunately, that means that any one of us could be next. That’s the scary part.

I’m not yet 35, and Big Star was long-defunct before I was even born. For many of us younger fans — and even many older ones — we loved Big Star and Alex Chilton not least because we loved the people who loved them, who introduced us to him. All you need to do is to listen to Jeff Buckley’s cover of “Kanga-Roo,” Elliot Smith’s take on “Thirteen,” or The Replacements’ loving ode, “Alex Chilton.” They were perfect a band to be a second-order fan — you coud hear them and simultaneously hear both The Beatles from the 60s and Wilco in the 00s, all enmeshed together. The fact that folks like Buckley and Smith are themselves gone compounds the sense of loss.

We also embue into Big Star the love of our friends and fans who clued us in. For the most part, you never heard Big Star on classic rock radio; there were no biopics or Behind the Music documentaries; no Volkswagen commercials or key placements in a movie soundtrack; in many cases, you couldn’t even get your hands on the albums themselves at a record store. So virtually everyone had a friend who slipped them an album, dropped a track onto a mixtape, or otherwise introduced them into their lives. Very little music comes to us personally, but Big Star almost always did. Carrie Brownstein testifies:

I first heard of Alex Chilton in the Replacements song that bears his name. “Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes around… They say, ‘I’m in love with that song.’ ” Later, Paul Westerberg sings, “I never travel far without a little Big Star.” When I used to tour with my band, I would think of that Replacements tune as we traveled from one town to another. Touring is fragmentary and disjointed by nature, and you have to find home in what little there is of it — in your favorite song, in your favorite band — and then I’d think of Westerberg’s own anchor, Alex Chilton. I knew then that I was part of a continuum; one of longing, of listening, of hoping and of always reaching, both forward to the unknown and back to what I hoped would always be there. And I felt like I’d found my home.

Musicians and fans have always passed around Big Star songs and albums like a secret handshake. When you found out someone hadn’t heard #1 Record or Radio City, you were so excited to provide that missing link, to pass on all the glimmer, the jangly guitar, the big chords, the melodies, the American anthems that let you keep your teenage self — for some of us long since faded — close, etched upon your skin. And suddenly, you realized that every great band or musician you love also loved Alex Chilton and Big Star; it’s certain. More importantly, it’s crucial. I remember seeing Elliott Smith cover “Thirteen,” and I wanted to climb inside every line of that song, to be both the lover and the beloved, the outlaw, to merely exist in the wondrous realm somewhere between Smith’s version and Big Star’s.

Those links, those anchors, are breaking. That’s what we’re mourning.

One comment

In 1989, my band was booked to play a show in Savannah, Georgia. I was twenty-years-old. We were opening for Alex Chilton, and I couldn’t have been more excited. Big Star is still one of my all-time favorites…

For weeks, I dreamed about what I would say to Alex (obviously, since we were both musicians, I could call him by his first name). When the long-anticipated night came, and I saw him enter the club, my mouth went dry. He unloaded his gear on stage, set up, and did a very short sound check. Then he sat at the bar.

I walked up and introduced myself: “Alex? My name is Paco. I’m with the other band.”

He smiled and shook my hand in a patient, tired kind of way. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“You’re one of my biggest heroes.”

He smiled again. “Thanks.”

“I noticed your amp is pretty small. Why don’t you have a bigger setup?”

He looked at the stage. “Is that your amp up there on top of all those speakers?”

I smiled proudly. “Yeah. It’s pretty badass.”

Alex Chilton chuckled at my comment. “You’ll get over that.”

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