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Alex Chilton, Immersed

In memory (and praise) of the tawdry, defiant anti-canon he carried around in his head

By the time I caught up with Alex Chilton in January 1981, he wasn't exactly living the glamorous life. Back home in Memphis for a few years, the power-pop giant had recently made the solo record Like Flies on Sherbert and—from what I could gather courtesy of my Memphis friends—plenty of trouble around town. Still, he was as nice as could be during our interview. Initially declining beer in favor of Coca-Cola, he eventually caved in, since the rest of us (me, two music-loving compatriots, and Ross Johnson, the drummer for Chilton's then-current group, Tav Falco's Panther Burns) were knocking back a few. "So, what's this Erlanger all about?" he finally asked in his slow drawl, eyeing our bottles. And soon, he had one.

I had already absorbed the Big Star albums and Sherbert as part of the same meal—#1 Record and Radio City had been reissued as a double LP in 1978, Third had seen the light of day the same year, and Sherbert had appeared out of nowhere in fall 1979—which may have had something to do with his forbearance that cold afternoon. I believe I had at least some idea of what he was thinking. The records seemed of a piece. Latecomers to the Chilton universe may perceive Sherbert as a desecration, but it sounded like fun to me, and not very different from what he'd been doing in 1974.

What seemed to be going on in Chilton's head was just a lot of music. Sitting there in the dimness of that bar, he talked about his songs in terms of other songs: Sherbert's "Hey! Little Child" was "a combination of about 10 different songs I can think of, like 'Chain Gang' by Sam Cooke and [Cordell Jackson's] 'Stranded on a Dateless Night.' " He referenced Xavier Cugat and Benny Joy, and imagined an Ace Cannon cover of Strauss entitled "Tuff Danube."

Although he was living at home with apparently little money, he didn't appear bitter. I got the idea that his stint with TFPB was strictly for laughs. (Though two months later, I'd catch a Nashville performance that revealed Chilton's guitar playing as a magnificent abstraction of rockabilly verities—no joking matter at all.) My carefully rehearsed questions seemed beside the point for a man whose musical education included guitar tips from the likes of Beach Boy Carl Wilson and session man Sid Manker, who played the licks on Bill Justis's "Raunchy."

That education carried Chilton through the remaining three decades of his life as heroic loser and inspired cover artist. After he began performing regularly in 1984, I saw Alex play dozens of times in his various guises, including a perverse, abortive 1999 Memphis date with the Hi Rhythm Section. I never saw him do a credible version of "September Gurls" and didn't expect one. But given something that suited the anti-canon he carried around in his head—Brian Wilson's "Honkin' Down the Highway," say—he could finally relax, just as he had with that ice-cold Erlanger.

In the years before his death last week in New Orleans, felled at 59 by a heart attack, he supplemented his income by doing package tours and casino gigs with his first band, the Box Tops, along with the occasional Big Star appearance. Like many of his post–Big Star recordings, such mundane work may have seemed to repudiate his immense gifts. But I think he enjoyed the feeling of immersion in the tawdry, compromised rock 'n' roll past those jobs provided. Talking about critics in 1981, he'd told me, "These Ivy Leaguers, they pretend to be above rock 'n' roll, therefore they understand it totally and everything. They don't really have too much of an idea of what it's all about, as far as I'm concerned."

 
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