More Thoughts On Alex Chilton

Gather my children and you shall hear about just how dismal the prospects were for real rock’n’roll in 1974.  The Stones had peaked and were about to begin their long, nearly uninterrupted decline.  Oh sure, The Who had not long before gathered themselves to produce perhaps rock’s greatest novel, Quadrophenia, and Led Zep were in full form, and with the rise of Bowie and Roxy Music, something new and powerful was in the air.  But that stretch between Mick Taylor leaving the Stones and the first Clash album being released a little more than three years later was the musical equivalent of the stretch between the sack of Rome and the painting of the Sistine Chapel.  And then there was Big Star.

The recollection in these parts is that Radio City was released in late winter ’74.  We remember walking into a record store in Harvard Square, hearing the riff from “September Gurls” and pulling cash out of our pockets.  Here at the dawn of rock’s Dark Ages came the chime of a Rickenbacker and sweet, pure vocals.  There was nothing else like it going on at the time.  Yes, we invoke the Byrds and the Beatles to describe Chilton and Big Star circa Radio City, but really, they were sui generis.  Sure, The Raspberries had stumbled into the same quadrant, though Eric Carmen had so much less charm and talent.  Maybe the nearest equivalent was Dwight Twilley, as by 1975, “I’m On Fire” would have the same combination of hooks, ringing guitar, and a pop chorus that stuck around like the last bit of flavor in a stick of bubble gum.  But there was really no one like Chilton, nothing like Big Star.

The radicalism and high concept brilliance was evident even in the choice of the William Eggleston photo on the sleeve.  Who knew, other than maybe John Szarkowski at MOMA, that by taking banal photos in color, Eggleston was about to transform photography?  And the music?   Chilton, by then in his early 20s, was like any normal young person living in Memphis — the stewpot of rock and soul — who just happened to have had a #1 record when age 16.  The songs on Radio City do not have the feel of a rock star jamming and seeing what works, they have the sound of a genius sitting in his room and writing down songs, slowly.  From the complex guitar figures, to the mimicry of Jimi Hendrix’s finish of “All Along The Watchtower” (on “You Get What You Deserve”), these are songs that show the acute angst of a normal brilliant teenager, which clearly Chilton couldn’t have been, since he was already a prodigy who’d been out on the road and reached commercial success while the rest of his cohort was studying Algebra 2.

Radio City was as perfectly intact as the first Clash album: one classic song after another.  From the anguished lyrics in “Daisy Glaze” — “you better not leave me here…” — to his grappling to understand the world in “What’s Going Ahn,” Chilton showed the vulnerability that would damn near kill him ’round about the time he got to Sister Lovers.

But there was always a shellac covering to his sensitivity, a hardness that by the time I met him was cynicism steeped in gin.  My friend Andy Schwartz had gone to see him in situ (Memphis) circa summer 1979, and found Chilton boorish, antisemitic, coasting. When he wrote a critical article in NY Rocker — Chilton had the year before been playing gigs around NY with Chris Stamey on bass, and so clearly was circulating — it created something of a PR problem.  But that was later.  When Radio City came out, as ostensibly worldly as someone who’d had two Top Five singles might have been expected to be, Chilton instead proved to be introspective, adolescent, vulnerable.  In “Back of A Car,” he had, it seemed, the same hormonal confusion of any American kid of his era. The whole thing is really as brilliant an album as any American songwriter ever produced. Painstakingly constructed, beautifully performed by Chilton, a great singer and guitarist, with Jody Stephens and Andy Hummell on drums and bass, Radio City in its own way launched as many bands as the first Velvet Underground album.

There are other chapters that could be explored.  The relationship between Chilton and his friend Chris Bell, who’d left after #1 Record, and would die ten years later after releasing the sublime single “I Am The Cosmos.”  The creation of Sister Lovers.  The boozy, woozy bar band phase, the Seeds covers, “Bangkok,” the lounge songs, the messy Like Flies On Sherbet, the seemingly sober recreation of Big Star later in the ’90s, and episodically in the Aughts.  Jesus, even the poignancy of dying just before playing this weekend at SXSW.  If the rise of the Beatles is one of the greatest stories since the birth of Christ, surely Alex Chilton is the protagonist of one of the greatest rock’n’roll stories since the birth of the Beatles.  Brilliant, sad.  We need Paul Westerberg or someone to do the rock opera.  We need Thomas Wolfe or someone to come back from the dead and write the novel.

3 Responses to “More Thoughts On Alex Chilton”

  1. Poignant posts, John. Thanks. You probably saw it already, Westerberg wrote this for the NYT:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/21/opinion/21westerberg.html?ref=opinion

  2. johnbuckley100 Says:

    Will – thanks for the posting. Hadn’t seen it, and glad to have now. JB

  3. […] zillion words have been spilled on Big Star, some of them here in our memory of the time we in 1980, when we were a rock crit pup and Will Rigby …, but let us calmly state: in the great chart of influential bands, if the progenitors of much that […]

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