Thursday, March 18, 2010

Alex Chilton, 1950-2010

I don't really know where to start, so let me start easy and go from there.
Alex Chilton is, was, and will always be, one of my two favorite musicians of all time; the other one is Scott Miller, he of Game Theory and the Loud Family. Alex has been one of my favorites since I first heard Big Star, in 1992 to be precise. I came to Big Star via the Posies, oddly enough. On their "Suddenly Mary" EP, they included their cover of Big Star's "Feel". At the time, I thought, "Hmm, sounds a little like Boston," but didn't really question that it wasn't even a Posies original. Then, a month later, I heard the original in 2nd Hand Tunes in Evanston, and found out it was by Big Star. Around this time, Rolling Stone had just published their glowing reviews for the recently-reissued Rykodisc CDs. Then of course, Big Star decided to reunite in Missouri for Summerfest, of all things. My interest was piqued; I picked up the CD containing the entirety of their first two albums.
I was immediately smitten. It was just as cool as everyone said. There was no turning back.
Not long after, Big Star brought their reunion show to Chicago, a glorious concert I still remember to this day. Alex was under the weather, but he still put on one hell of a show. I'd seen Alex five more times since that show, including the second time that Big Star came to Chicago.
An Alex Chilton concert was always a fun time; we the fans had heard that Alex always seemed to cast a skeptical eye on that part of his legacy. For us, it wouldn't have surprised us if he had chosen NOT to include any Big Star within his solo shows. When he did invariably include one or two Big Star songs nestled within his sets of R&B chestnuts, we'd go apeshit for that sound. Speaking for myself, I even really enjoyed his R&B cover versions. It was obvious that he loved the music he played, and wanted to telegraph that to the audience. Even that first Big Star show (where he could have the best excuse in the world to coast, since he was ill), his passion shone through. In concert, he never phoned it in the times that I saw him.

For me, Big Star music is the closest sonic equivalent to joy; "Back Of A Car", "In The Street", and "September Gurls" are such incandescent power pop songs that the pure light that they put out can keep a depressed soul smiling for days. And when they went into full-tilt rock mode, only the most jaded could deny the driving crunch of "Don't Lie To Me" and "She's A Mover". I wrote a long piece on my favorite Loud Family album, but haven't paid Big Star the same favor simply due to a) a lot of critics have beat me to the punch, and b) when you listen to it, none of my words could add to the excellence which are those first two Big Star albums.

Alex's solo career is a checkered beast; while there are wonderful high points (and to be fair, a wonderful "low" point), there is also garbage, too. I personally love his last CD, Loose Shoes and Tight Pussy (titled Set in the US). He starts off with an Eddie Floyd cover, covers Gary Stewart, and keeps the mood loose and fun. He was a hell of a guitarist. At the same time, he also put out the wonderfully shambolic Like Flies On Sherbert. Depending on the mood you find yourself in, it is either a masterpiece or a mess; I like to think of it as a little bit of both. From all biographical accounts, Alex was at a bad time in his life. I always took out of it, here's a guy who sounds like life is really loose, and the recording captures not only the unhinged quality of a life lead that way, but of the potential for finding interesting material out of that kind of nuttiness. While I wouldn't recommend Sherbert for beginners, I definitely do recommend it. But then again, Alex also was the performer of the material on the loose compilation Bach's Bottom (instead of Box Tops, get it?). While I have not heard it myself, all accounts paint it as mostly pretty dire.

While the Replacements song has in it the line, "If he died in Memphis wouldn't that be cool", I actually think it's fitting that he didn't. While Alex may have been born in Memphis, and will forever be considered a Memphis musician, the reality is that for almost twenty years, he made New Orleans his home. It's almost like he went south down the Mississippi River at his lowest, kicked his addictions (again, so I've heard), and found peace for his restless soul. The few interviews he did led me to believe that he was very happy living in NOLA; for that, I think it's fitting that it was also the town where he passed. It's not necessarily that he forever turned his back on Memphis; it's almost like he could become a new person in New Orleans, that the weight of expectation might not have been as heavy as if he'd stayed in Memphis. He seized that opportunity. He certainly always appreciated the music of New Orleans; he has a cool cover of "Tip It In".

When I met Alex Chilton, my actions that night could have given him ample reason to have been rude or surly to me. He was the opposite; he put up with my weird-fan shenanigans in my request for an autograph. For that, I will always be grateful, and will always consider him a gentleman. His death is hitting me really hard; I still can't believe that the world has lost Alex Chilton. I can tell you that his music is woven into the fabric of my DNA, that his melodies will live on with me forever. I will always try to turn on the world to his music, except this time, with a lot of sadness. Please, if you haven't already, buy the Big Star CD containing #1 Record and Radio City. You're welcome, in advance.

The world has lost a great musician in Alex Chilton. Thank you Alex, for making my life so damn happy. Your music will last forever.

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