Thursday, March 18, 2010

Alex Chilton 1950-2010

It was junior year in high school and we were in Deirdre’s room in the dorm at Interlochen. Cyd Fenwick had a copy of Alex Chilton’s “Bangkok” 45. Cyd had the 45 because she had been in Panther Burns, and Alex had run with that crowd. Cyd had probably been shipped off to school in rural northern Michigan because she’d been in Panther Burns and run with that crowd as a minor, but that’s only speculation on my part. Her worldliness was pretty impressive.

Anyway, she cued it up on the turntable and it practically ripped my head off. The music was raw, warped, and belligerent. The lyrics were perverse but the vocal was almost blasé. It was completely unlike anything that was on the radio or pushed in the record stores: pure trash rock genius. I was hooked. Being clueless and 16, the only thing I knew about Alex Chilton was that somebody mentioned he was in the Box Tops. I began a quest for more Chilton action, which was pretty futile considering the selection in the record stores in Traverse City and the 45’s extreme rarity. I could find nothing; ultimately, I let it slide.

Time passed, and I started university back on my home turf in Ann Arbor. One of my first acts of the academic year was to go see Let’s Active open for Echo and the Bunnymen in Detroit. Let’s Active played “Back of a Car” as part of the set, and it was another one of those songs that knocked me out. Mitch Easter said it was by Alex Chilton and Big Star. Of course it was. My urge to search was renewed, and the record store prospects were much better in Ann Arbor. I found a copy of Big Star’s Third on PVC first, which I adored front-to-back for its haunted, damaged aesthetic. I found an original pressing Big Star’s Radio City (and an Ardent promo copy, no less) at Wazoo Records for four bucks. Read it and weep, kids: Four. Bucks. An original pressing of #1 Record followed not long after. Of course, in the 80’s, original pressings were the only option: there were no reissues. Every Big Star record was brilliant, and I gave them all numerous spins. They also made the 80’s ‘jangle pop’ that infatuated me make sense: it was a link between the 60’s bands and the new indie bands I loved.

As school wore on, more and more of my favorite musicians and music writers acknowledged Chilton. Interest grew. I was working at the student newspaper, the Michigan Daily, writing music criticism, and when Chilton offered a new solo EP called Feudalist Tarts (his first record in 5 years), I was all over it. Chilton tour dates were announced, including one in Ann Arbor. I interviewed him for the Daily. He was working as a dishwasher in New Orleans, hardly the existence of a rock legend. He seemed bitter that the music hadn’t received a fair airing. He was making small inroads by issuing an EP and playing gigs, but he didn’t seem confident it would change much. It was a disheartening interview. Fortunately, the show was pretty well attended by people who knew their shit. Chilton played a set comprised of his new songs, Box Tops and Big Star tunes, and a bunch of R&B covers. He played well and seemed pleased with the enthusiastic reception he received. When he played "Bangkok" the club exploded.

Word was spreading. Chilton played more gigs, showing up in Michigan with some regularity. Big Star became a name to drop in college rock circles. The Replacements recorded “Alex Chilton”, a song Chilton himself dismissed, but got a lot more indie rock kids on his radar. Eventually, the Big Star albums were reissued and made much more accessible. By the 90’s there was enough of a groundswell that Chilton and Jody Stephens experimented with a reformed Big Star, adding Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies to replace Andy Hummel, who was no longer gigging. A genius move, truly, because the Posies were about as close anybody ever came to approximating Big Star’s brilliance.

The reformed Big Star didn’t play out often, but often enough that I could catch them once, a couple years ago, at the Fillmore in San Francisco. It was a great show. There were some name musicians in the crowd, and many other enthusiastic fans. Chilton looked good, albeit a little like Hunter S Thompson, puffing on a cigarette holder. He sounded good. He seemed to be having a good time. He didn’t seem to be in the dark place he was in the 80’s. Everybody loved hearing all those brilliant songs. I was glad he’d received some of the admiration he deserved from the music community. I’d like to think that’s how he was feeling last night when he was getting ready for the Big Star gig at SXSW: accepted, admired, and ready to rock.

He was a big part of my musical life. I’ll miss you, Alex.