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.

Alex Chilton Is Dead; Long Live Alex Chilton

I'm in shock. Alex Chilton is one of my top two musical heroes of all time (the other is Scott Miller). He has died of unspecified causes in New Orleans.

promise to post a full tribute to him shortly, but right now, I'm still in shock. More info can be read here.

This is the worst musical news I've had in a long time. I feel I've been punched in the stomach.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Blame Pete Redux!! The Update

I know this blog is sort of turning into "All Who, All The Time", but I really have to share this with you all... it's a great story. More non-Who content soon, I promise.

A while ago, I wrote a long-ish piece about how the Who shaped who I am, my music tastes, and a whole lot of times where the Who factored into my past. I signed it off thusly:

Now that I’m a father myself, I’m introducing my kids early on to the classics; my son as an infant would fall asleep every night to a Beatles lullaby CD made by Jason Falkner. And one of the songs which routinely calmed him down was Big Star’s “The Ballad of El Goodo”. My daughter, though she is still sometimes shaky when she walks, tries to play the guitar with me whenever I am playing it. I created lullaby comp CDs for my kids, with Verbow, Tom Waits, and yes, The Who among the included songs. Unlike my own pre-Who diet of John Denver and Helen Reddy, I want to give my kids an appreciation for the finer tunes, or at the very least point them in the direction of good stuff. And who knows… if early signs are any indicator, the kids may take after the father and become music fanatics. Heaven help us if that happens; Pete Townshend will then be guilty of corrupting two generations of Murphys!!!!

Well, I have to tell you, that's now come true. My son and daughter are now bonafide Who fans, at ages 6 and 2 1/2 respectively. You know how a lot of people can identify John, Paul, George, and Ringo almost immediately? Well, my kids can identify John, Keith, and Pete, and I'm working on having them able to identify Roger. Do you want to know the perfect way to introduce young children to the Who? Watch and learn:

Yes, I always thought that "Happy Jack" was a song that kids might like, but I had no idea how addicted my kids would get to the video. It makes perfect sense, really: the Who, in full madcap keystone cops mode, have lots of fun throwing cake at each other.

I showed my kids my DVD of The Kids Are Alright to show them the video of "Who Are You", which they liked, but I really caught them when I showed them "Happy Jack". My son, when he first saw it, had a genuine look of concern; he didn't get it. Then I told him how John was eating a piece of cake, and how Pete and Keith were being silly and would need to take a bath after getting all that cake on themselves. Then I pointed out the poor policeman, who would also have to take a bath after those silly guys put cake all over him. Now that he gets it, he loves it. And my daughter loves it because he loves it. In her 2 year old way, she'll fix me with a serious look and try to narrate it what's going on in the video; it's priceless. The video is perfect for kids, really. Their fandom started with "Who Are You" at the SuperBowl, and has become the real thing with the video for "Happy Jack". I couldn't be prouder.

POSTSCRIPT: I was singing "Who Are You" for the kids while I was at my folks' house last week, and my father (in his mid-sixties), says, "Oh yeah, that's the song in CSI: Miami." I was STUNNED, I tell you. He never knew it was a Who song, even though I was such a huge Who fan growing up. Serves him right for being so deep in John Denver lala-land all those years he could have been getting into the Who, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton.... but NOOOO!! He had to dig Richard Harris, Ferrante and Teischer, and Rodgers and Hammerstein. Old before his time, at least musically so. For him to reference "Who Are You" as merely "that CSI: Miami song" floored me.