Sunday, April 4, 2010

Alex Chilton 1950-2010

(Reprinted from shaking like a mountain)

“Children by the million
Sing for Alex Chilton
When he comes ‘round
They sing, ‘I’m in love
What’s that song
I’m in love with that song

The in-yer-face dichotomy of the strange, niggling, woebegone career of Alex Chilton is that absolutely more peeps, kiddies, flipsters, pop cultists and the not-so-great unwashed know of him than have actually hear him, or even, more insidiously, don’t know that they have indeed heard him. A perpetual, maybe even classic, cult artist, he, despite some true popcult peaks, remained unrecognized (as the young lead singer of the AM radio hitsers The Box Tops), undiscovered (as one of the primary forces of nitcrit cult faves Big Star), unknown (as the author of the Bangles well known “September Gurls” and the Cheap Trick diffident remake “In the Street, better known as the theme song for TV’s That 70’s Show), and unheard but forever mythologized as Paul Westerberg’s muse in The Replacements “Alex Chilton”).

Chilton was virtually a child star, a Memphis born blue-eyed soulster, who at 16 experienced a top of the chart hit while fronting the Box Tops with “The Letter”, followed by two more legit hits, “Cry Like a Baby” (which marched all the way to No. 2) and “Soul Deep”. Dissatisfied with the early sixties plastic pop machinery that The Box Tops were enmeshed in, he started up a second Memphis band, Big Star, in the early 1970’s with drummer Jody Stephens, bassist Andy Hummel and fellow songwriter and guitarist Chris Bell. That band, Big Star, became an immediate critical darling, drawing rave reviews and plenty of publicity push in the wide array of rock mags that existed at the time. A combination of industry bad mojo, including an uncomprehending public, a minor league record label, and the predictable split-up marked them as one of the biggest busts of the post-Beatle rock era.

Time, as is won’t with a whole lotta cultural iconoclasts, was good to Chilton and Big Star, with the band winding up as an after-the-fact staple on college and independent radio, with a legion of on-the record worshippers like the aforementioned The Replacements, REM, Elliot Smith, The DB’s and the Bangles. The third Jim Dickinson produced Big Star record Third/Sister Lovers (with Chilton as purty much the sole force, since Chris Bell had departed) wasn’t released until after the demise of the band and it is widely (and legitimately) hailed by pop cult diviners such as Robot Hull (“haphazard masterpiece”), a jangly, gloomy, sweet and sour, head-in-the-sand, tour de force.

Mid-career Chilton began embracing his cult status, becoming an American equivalent to John Cale, behaving outrageously and obviously abusing substances, acting as de facto party planner/producer for the likes of The Replacements, Tav Falco’s Panther Burns and The Cramps, moving to New York and cutting a top notch EP (Singer Not the Song), an influential single (“Bangkok”), and an all-time rock snob fave LP (Likes Flies on Sherbert), all of which poised him on the punk edge. I was lucky to see Chilton at Boston’s infamous Rathskeller during this period, he and his young band played a blistering but careening show, one both toxic and adrenaline-producing. I had lucked into a brief fill-in position as rock critic with the Rhode Island’s only daily, The Providence Journal, and I rejoiced immeasurably (in full, naïve, young, rebel-wanna be mode) that I talked an unknowing editor into allowing a mention of one the coolest and most arcane names in rock into a squaresville, mainstream, widely read publication.

Chilton soon went through another desolate period, changing styles again and making music that grasped at blues, rockabilly, and country’s primitive roots, eventually also producing Detroit’s The Gories and more Panther Burns stuff. Smack dab in the mid-1990’s Chilton once again did the unexpected and made an album and toured the oldies festival circuit with a revamped Box Tops and also reformed a mutated new version of Big Star, made up of old mate Jody Stephens and Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow from modern day cultists The Posies. He passed away, only a few days before a scheduled appearance with Big Star at this years’ annual South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, where he long been revered by industry insiders, geeky rock scribes, and budding quirky songwriters, many with long allegiances to the cult of Chilton and his backwards, side-stepping career, seeing Chilton as both soul deep American maverick and artistic wounded soul, another pop genius somehow doomed to a life on the showbiz periphery, perpetually resonant and influential to those game few that are willing to burrow, termite-like, into the crooked and tangled rock and pop foundations.