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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Big Enough, Anyway

Here's the basic outline: in 1967, when he was the sixteen-year-old front man for the Box Tops, Alex Chilton made the charts with the improbably big-bottomed pop-soul record "The Letter." The Box Tops--always one of my favorite names for a second-tier '60s pop group--managed to turn out enough singles for a dandy greatest-hits collection, but it wasn't until they disbanded in 1970 that Chilton learned guitar, began songwriting in earnest, and showed signs of an inspiring flakiness. In 1971, in Memphis, he joined up with Chris Bell to form the core of Big Star, one of the greatest American groups of that era to never sell a record until years after their dissolution. By the time I started buying records myself in the late 1970s, nothing by Big Star was still in print--not that this caused me distress at the time, because I'd never heard of them--but a few years later, their name started making it into such self-consciously new-style bibles of hip as Trouser Press, with the understanding that they were noble commercial failures who set down roots that were only now being tapped by the emerging jangle-pop bands, such as R.E.M.

By that time, Chilton was well into his storied solo career. A disconcerting number of the stories revolved around the reports that he was a drug-addled, drink-sodden wreck, and there was plenty of evidence to back the image up, starting with his willingness to be in the same room with, never mind produce, Tav Falco's Panther Burns. Every so often, though, he came through with the goods, whether it was the eary single "Bangkok" or the best scrapings off his lovably erratic comeback album Like Flies on Sherbert, the coming-back-from-the-comeback surprise EP Feudalist Tarts, or my all-time favorite AIDS awareness song of the Reagan era, "No Sex." ("Pretty soon we're all gonna get it/ It's time to buy some stuff on credit.") That solo career never stabilized, but for a while there, there were three things you could count on from ol' Alex: he'd eventually release something, and it would be a long way from perfect and often a bit of a ways from recommendable to anyone but the passionately converted, and by God, there would be something on it that'd knock your hat in the creek. Now he's dea, at 57, of a heart attack.

What none of this information conveys is the special kind of affection--hell, call it love--that every rock freak I hung out with in the '80s and '90s, and who I wouldn't mind hanging out with today if I still had their numbers and addresses, seemed to feel for Alex Chilton. Paul Westerberg came close to capturing it in the Replacements song, "Alex Chilton", in which he depicted the barnstorming Chilton as a terrestrial minor deity, a living rock god but a down-to-earth one, with a well-worn minivan for a tour bus and a deep familiarity with Holiday Inns. (That song appeared on Pleased to Meet Me, the 'Mats' second album for a major label and their first after the dismissal of their own Dionysian fuck-up and rock-god figure, Bob Stinson, who left his mark on a few great records and died the death that many people assumed Chilton must have been headed for. Maybe Westerberg wrote that song when he most needed to believe it.) Chilton himself probably said it best, describing the impact that a song about him had on his career: "A lot of times people will just come up and be excited about it. The words they say are maybe not all that informative or interesting. It's just the excitement that's the main part of the message: 'Dude! Alex Chilton! Wow!' That sort of thing." I suspect that the people who heard that song fell into two categories, those who'd never heard of Chilton before and immediately thought, Man, I need me a piece of that, and those of us who were already fans and were grateful t Westerberg for translating what we'd all felt about him into words and a beat.

I suppose that much of the hero worship that Chilton inspired was the sort that pinheads express towards anyone who's legendary for having trashed himself; Keith Moon and George Jones and Tom Waits and Keith Richards all inspired some of that in their day, and so did a lot of sorry wankers who I'd rather not mention in the same post as them, especially not on what really should be a national day of mourning. But I know that, for a lot of people my age, Chilton's name had a special magic to it because of what was resolutely unmagical about him. He was a working stiff, someone who'd had his greatest popular success when he was still practically a child and who preferred to tend his own garden and do what struck his fancy than try to replicate it or cash in on it. When he met the Replacements after they'd helped introduce him to a new audience and solidify his standing as a college radio cult hero, it was on more or less equal terms: he wasn't a big swinging dick of the music industry whose ring they had to kiss, but he wasn't a broken-down dude out of rehab who had to be beholden to the big new stars, either. They were both pros, in it for the long haul, stubbornly working their limited market share, left of the dial. But Chilton was treasurable in that company because of his experience and the fact that he'd had a mass success and had kept making music without having one again.

It's an open question whether he could have had another one if he'd wanted it. But the fact that he seemed capable of living without it--that he let Big Star run its course rather than twist the band's sound this way or that, desperately trying to have a hit, and settled in Memphis and then New Orleans, where he tried new things and did what he pleased whenever he could book some studio time instead of carving out a niche in Vegas or L.A. and working the oldies circuit--made him seem like one of the guys to those of us who spent our college years, in the '80s and '90s, crowded into underheated music venues with walls plastered with mimeographed fliers and creaking wood floors that felt as if they might have given way if too many people had cheeseburgers on their way to the gig and squatting in cars with the radio tuned to the college station. His whole career had an improvisational, D.I.Y. feel to it that was inspiring, especially to those of us who weren't sure enough that we'd be dead by thirty that we sometimes wondered if it was possible to bypass business school and still have a future with some dignity. "Dignity" isn't the first word that comes to mind when thinking of Chilton, but he did earn himself plenty of respect, to go with all the love. I know a lot of people who thought of him when Katrina hit New Orleans, and I know a lot of people who reacted with a mixture of relief and "whadaya expect?" when word spread that he'd patiently waited out the cataclysm in a handy bar, like Walter Matthau in Earthquake. Technically, he wasn't supposed to die, ever. But you can expect your heroes to do only so much for you.

You know, I really should have called this blog "Cerebral Rape and Pillage." Too late now, though.


Phil Freeman said...

I saw Tav Falco deliver a hell of a live show at the Lone Star Café around 1991-92.

Mark Cohen said...

I came here via Scott McLemee and I'm glad I did. Enjoyed your piece very much, and it also put me in mind of my own inspiring flake, the forgotten Beat writer Seymour Krim. It may be that in our post-boom times hangover we have a special affection for those who stuck to their eccentric knitting instead of staying out late trying to be in with the in crowd.