Alex Chilton, RIP

Sad news comes this morning that Alex Chilton, teenage pipes of “The Letter” and Box Tops fame, founder of one of the 1970s’ lone pre-punk gems, Big Star, has died.

Apparently it was a heart attack.  That Alex lived to be 59 is reason to be as grateful for what we had as sad at his untimely death.

It’s hard to remember just how revolutionary Big Star’s Radio City was when it came out in 1974.  Today we take for granted the blended juice of 1/3rd Byrds, 1/3rd Beatles, with a bit of Top 40 pop thrown into the mix.  After all, everyone from the Power Pop bands of the early ’80s to Teenage Fanclub to the Elephant 6 consortia use the same essential formula, with maybe a Brian Wilson nod here and there.

But when Alex Chilton released Big Star’s second album, there was nothing else like it.  When later what came to be known as Sister Lovers was released in 1978 (it was at first titled Big Star Third), a new dimension was added: Chilton’s deep yowling pain, his face dangling over the edge of the abyss.  This was a sound that either launched, or informed, a hundred bands.  In fact, when everyone went gaga over Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, no doubt a great album, some of us had a sense of deja vu, for it really was an effort at channeling the cosmic loss expressed by Chilton in Sister Lovers.

I once was sitting in my apartment when I got a call from Will Rigby of the dBs telling me that if I wanted to meet Chilton — he knew I was a Big Star nut — I should show up on the Upper East Side at a bar called The Eighties, where Chilton was playing with Tav Falco’s Panther Burns.  Alex Chilton playing for the Panther Burns was a bit like Willie Mays playing for the Mets.  You were grateful to see him play, but it was sort of pathetic that it had gotten to this point.  Anyway, I shlepped cross town — this was the summer of 1980 — and got to have a drink and a talk with Chilton, off the record.  He told me that he was trying to get his act together, but there were a lot of temptations for him in Memphis.  He said this while drinking his first gin and tonic before the Panther Burns’ 6:00 PM sound check.  He seemed to savor no special pride in what had been created with Big Star, and took my insistence that Big Star had created at least two classic albums as almost beneath consideration.  He refused to acknowledge he could be doing better than playing rhythm guitar in a pretty bad rockabilly band.

Later he released some commercial and critically successful, but for me disappointing solo albums, reformed Big Star with the Sadies — right?  or was it the Posies? — to fill in on bass and rhythm guitar, and the live album they released in the 1990s was pretty good.  They even put out a so-so studio album just a few years ago.  But what Alex Chilton will be remembered for was the depth of his fake big-boy growl as a 15-year old singing one of rock’s great Top 40 singles, “The Letter,” and the magnificent early work on Big Star’s second and third albums.

Glad he lived to be 59.  Said he didn’t amount to more.  Said to think of him as a squandered talent, and I hope his life was happier in its final years.

One Response to “Alex Chilton, RIP”

  1. […] zillion words have been spilled on Big Star, some of them here – wherein we tell the story of that drink we had with Chilton in 1980 — and some of […]

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