Story by John Greak
It took me a minute to realize what was going on. At the top of my Facebook page, a friend of mine had posted a message that simply stated, "december boys got it bad...sorry, john". A quick scan below revealed condolences from another friend, and that is when I spotted the link my friend Amy had posted: Alex Chilton had passed away after suffering a heart attack in his adopted home of New Orleans. He was only 59, and is survived by his wife and son. He left behind a legacy that saw him start out as the teenage singer of The Box Tops, and then gain much critical acclaim - although little commercial success - after joining up with Chris Bell, Jody Stephens, and Andy Hummel to form Big Star. He later produced the first two Cramps singles and their debut LP, Songs The Lord Taught Us, and was the often cited patron saint of the 80's college rock scene, name dropped by everyone from R.E.M. to Steve Wynn to The Bangles to Kurt Cobain. He was immortalized by Paul Westerberg on the iconic Replacements track "Alex Chilton", and along the way managed to release 11 solo LP's (of varying quality), tour and record with Panther Burns, and, over the last 17 years, tour and record with reconstituted versions of both the Box Tops & Big Star. Most surprisingly, millions of people who tuned into That 70's Show during its seven season run found themselves humming along with the theme song, which unbeknown to most happened to be a cover of the Chilton penned Big Star classic "In The Street".
On the occasions that artists I truly loved and admired have passed on, I found it difficult to find the words to describe the impact those artists have had on my life. Today is one of those days. I had the pleasure of seeing Alex perform 4 times, and three of those were with the latter incarnation of Big Star, which featured Chilton and original drummer Jody Stephens joined by bassist Ken Stringfellow and guitarist Jon Auer of The Posies. Two of those shows took place in the mid 90's at Tramps in New York City, while the last of those performances came this past November at the Masonic Temple in Brooklyn, NY. It was a special event, with the power pop legends and crowd enthusiastically feeding off each other during the 90 minute set. Chilton appeared to really enjoy himself; he was in good voice that night and the band was decidedly less sloppy than it had been in the past, something which I chalked up to evidence that he was finally comfortable with his status as rock & roll elder statesman and was taking the bands live excursions that much more seriously. He even felt compelled to poke fun at his own vanity, acknowledging that he refused to wear his glasses during the set despite the fact that he had to put them on between songs to check the set list. From the opening notes of "In The Street" to the final "Thank you agains" chorus of the aptly named "Thank You Friends", the band was spot on. It is hard to believe that the man who showed so much passion and joy that night, and who obviously had so much left to offer, is gone so soon.
Of course, the fact that 1,000 people were gathered in Brooklyn that night to see a band that almost 40 years earlier probably struggled to sell 5,000 records was remarkable in its own right. The reasons why Big Star, and Alex's tracks in particular, struck such a chord with those who bought their records will never be crystal clear, but two thoughts do come to mind. First off, there were the hooks. Musically, his influences were worn on his sleeve - you could hear the hints of Lennon & McCartney here and Ray Davies there, with the soul of Memphis' rich musical heritage percolating beneath it all. Lets face it, there were very few bands out there that borrowed so heavily from the British Invasion, yet managed to somehow capture the essence of Booker T & The MG's without sounding anything like them. The second, and often overlooked factor, is that although he didn't quite capture the dark, existential angst and uncertainty that enveloped the songs of band mate Chris Bell, he was a serious writer. There's a reason why so many "Alternative Nation" era bands covered Chilton's songs; they were snapshots of discontent, cynical love letters to the young and the restless a full 20 years before Generation X turned those same chords and lamentations into multi-million dollar recording contracts.
For years, Chilton bristled when questioned about the Big Star legacy, often citing the songwriting as somewhat tepid and proclaiming his later solo efforts, which are much less celebrated and often times critically panned, superior in quality. Whether he truly believed that or was just partaking in some sort of public relations gamesmanship, we will never know. What we do know is that he was always true to himself. The most enduring image I will take of Alex is him leading Big Star through what appeared to be an improvised rendition of Glenn Miller's "Pennsylvania 6-5000" during the last encore of their first New York "reunion" show in 1995. The song was a total mess, with both Jon Auer & Ken Stringfellow struggling to keep up as he labored to "lead" them through the song. When it was over, he basically shrugged his shoulders, grinned widely, and walked off the stage, leaving the crowd scratching their heads but of course wanting more. And now that he has exited stage left for the final time, I can say with confidence that he definitely left the crowd wanting more.
Rest easy Alex, you most certainly earned it.
Big Star tribute this past Saturday at Antone's during SXSW: