So as it turns out, he did not die in Memphis. But nonetheless, over the next few days, as devout fans grieve his death (at 59, of an apparent heart attack, in New Orleans), latecomers to Alex Chilton the musician (as opposed to Alex Chilton the song subject) will need recommendations on just where to begin their education. Beginning it is the only easy part.
Yes, you need all three Big Star albums, in chronological order: 1972’s #1 Record is most often packaged with its ’74 follow-up, Radio City, which makes the journey’s onset easy enough; those two offerings are required listening to fully appreciate the off-the-rails genius (yes, genius) of 1978’s Third (a/k/a Sister Lovers). But those Big Star years, a cornerstone of American power-pop and the pinnacle of Chilton’s musical output, cover less than a quarter of the man’s 45-year career. And any effort to create a conclusive musical Chilton biography (of which there are many meager attempts) would, by necessity, be a ragged, unsatisfying affair. One of the many not particularly recommended compilations out there is the titularly appropriate Lost Decade.
Alex Chilton was just 16 years old when “The Letter,” recorded as a member of the Box Tops in 1967, went to #1 and stayed there for a month. But when he moved from the Box Tops into Big Star and commercial recognition failed to follow, he more or less disappeared. He moved to New York. He drank. Lo-fi recordings were released, sporadically and out of the country. He returned to Memphis to produce the Cramps’ debut album and play guitar with the decidedly retro Tav Falco’s Panther Burns. For a time he even gave up music entirely in favor of manual labor.
By the mid-’80s, Chilton was back playing, though the Big Star deification then taking place was already happening independently, led by the Bangles’ cover of “September Gurls” and then the Replacements’ “Alex Chilton,” the consolidation of a musical recommendation made by countless college-rock bands (R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub, the dB’s, etc.), bringing notoriety to a man no longer certain that notoriety was something to be desired.
For his own part, by then Chilton performed combo rhythm and blues to confounded congregations wondering why a man who had a hand in penning such pop anthems as “Back of a Car” and “In The Street” would rather indulge in obscure covers and originals that might as well have been. But Chilton, often deadpan and distant, wasn’t offering an explanation.
Nearly everyone who ever met Alex Chilton has an Alex Chilton story. Not because his behavior was off-the-charts outlandish, but rather, due to his inscrutable and at times irascible nature, because it wasn’t.
For example: In 1986 I arranged for Alex to play a club just steps from the University of Alabama campus. It was his first trip to town, and before soundcheck, in the deli connected to the club, I introduced myself, told him how honored we were to have him play, and to let me know if he needed anything–anything at all. And the man who had accomplished the seemingly impossible by writing a serious love song from the point of view of a 13-year-old without crossing the line into oversentimentality looked up at me and said, “Would you mind? I’m trying to eat a sandwich.”
He eventually thawed, if only temporarily. The club was packed to maybe twice its fire limit (this was a different time), and the crowd cheered his every disassociated move, though not a single Big Star song made the initial set list. Alex seemed surprised, even pleased. Maybe surprised that he was pleased. And after leaving the stage, back in what passed for a dressing room, he taught his band the chord changes to “September Gurls,” then went back out for an encore that blew the proverbial roof off.
Chilton came back to Tuscaloosa many times. By the end of my stay there he would knock on my door, nod a greeting, and proceed to sit at the stereo by himself making cassette tapes of all the 45s he had bought while on tour (I guess that’s what I meant by “anything at all”). But he never quite lost the skin of a loner, never quite gave up that discomfited distance that kept damn near everyone at arm’s length. Just the type of person that rock ‘n’ roll usually saves.
Had he given all he had to give? Were the r&b covers and reunion shows with both the Box Tops and Big Star (they’d played Brooklyn Masonic Temple in November, and were scheduled for this year’s SXSW) the grist for a possible resurgence, or simply a form of early retirement for someone who had long ago mastered the bemused smirk of a man either wise or cynical beyond his years?
Alex, who’d since moved to New Orleans, was there when Hurricane Katrina hit, and at one point was reported as missing. You knew this wasn’t a publicity stunt because the unwanted attention was something he would’ve hated. As it turns out, he was fine. Yes, he’d been trapped by the flood waters, but he’d been rescued by helicopter. But when he called a member of his band to say that he was okay, he refused to say where he’d been relocated.