Archive for Alex Chilton

Chris Stamey’s “A Spy In The House Of Loud” Is An Unusual, And Excellent, Artist’s Memoir

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on June 13, 2018 by johnbuckley100


It makes sense that Chris Stamey named his band The dBs, because he’s always been intrigued by the technical aspects of making music.

Stands For Decibels was this seminal New York-by-way-of-Winston-Salem band’s first album, and perhaps Stamey’s best song on it was “Cycles Per Second,” both reference points to music making.  So it makes sense that in his new book A Spy In The House Of Loud, Stamey doesn’t merely write about his bands, he writes about how they made records.  Even if you’re not a gear head, it’s fun, because he’s an engaging writer and he really was in the right place at the right time.

To place him in his proper coordinates, Chris Stamey came to New York midway through the ’70s and saw Television, often, in their earliest CBGB incarnations, quickly figured out the world was changing and that he wanted to play a role.  By 1978, he’d teamed up with fellow Southerner Alex Chilton in his post-Big Star solo foray.  Chilton and Television’s Richard Lloyd played on Stamey’s excellent initial singles, before he put together the dBs with fellow North Carolinians Will Rigby, Gene Holder, and Peter Holsapple.

If you were there at the time, and I was, the dBs were a remarkable anomaly in New York. An experimental pop band with an ear for the kind of radio hits their progenitors Big Star should have had, they existed in that post-first wave CBGB bands environment in which you could see, over successive nights, No Wave bands like DNA, the newest British important (from Gang of Four to XTC, Magazine to the Soft Boys), bands from L.A. like X, and Lou Reid’s latest incarnation.  New York was the center of the rock’n’roll world and the dBs were just slightly off kilter from the environment around them — excellent musicians with jangling guitars and a tight, propulsive rhythm section, two singer-songwriters vying for dominance, and a Farfisa adding color. They never quite made it, and some of it — explained in Stamey’s book — flowed from how they were never quite able to capture on vinyl — yeah, vinyl — that stage set that could bring down Hurrah or other clubs of the day.

Stamey went on to be a charter member of the Golden Palominos and release a number of solo albums, including one of the highlights of the 1980s, It’s Alright. Over time, as he moved back to North Carolina and raised a family, his influence on contemporary music shifted from musician to being the producer on several of the best albums of the age, particularly Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac, and Alejandro Escovedo’s A Man Under The Influence.  Most recently, it was Stamey who put together, following Chilton’s 2010 death, that series of all-star shows playing Big Star’s Sister Lovers, also known as Third.  In fact, Thank You Friends: Big Star’s Third Live is one of the most remarkable documents of recent years, with Jeff Tweedy, Ira Kaplan, Robyn Hitchcock and so many more playing the music from this greatest of American artists of the ’70s and beyond.

And now Stamey has written a book.  A Spy In The House of Loud is fascinating reading for anyone who’s ever wanted to understand what happened when a new set of bands displaced the rot in Rock Music in the punk and post-punk era.  Stamey’s a musician and a fan, and he writes of his contemporaries with a rock critic’s eye.  But he also ably captures what happened when making albums shifted from an analog to a digital process — and all that got lost along the way.

Chris Stamey will read from his book at Politics and Prose in D.C. this coming Sunday, June 17th at 3:00 PM.

Our Idea Of A Summer Blockbuster: “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me”

Posted in Music with tags , , on June 23, 2013 by johnbuckley100

So we don’t have a release date on the soon-to-be-released documentary on Big Star, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Mebut let us assert that in a perfect universe, this would be the movie you’d watch in your favorite drive-in, as the Super Moon rose and that couple necked in the back of a car.

We’ve been thinking a lot about Big Star lately, as the lines coverage, and the coverage of the William Eggleston exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum remind us of that time, in 1974, we walked into a record store in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and hearing the jangle of Big Star’s Radio City album, we asked for the record and espied, also for the first time, that great Eggleston image on the cover.  We bought the record, and thus had about a three-year head start on everyone in getting to understand the greatness of Alex Chilton.  See, it was really only in 1978, after the band had broken up and what then was called Third was released (later given the intended name of Sister Lovers) that the rock crit brigades came out in force to ensure we knew of Big Star’s greatness.  By then, Chilton had spent a summer gigging in New York with Chris Stamey playing in his band, but the magic that was Big Star was over — at least until the early ’90s when Chilton and Stephens began to tour with the Posies rounding out the lineup, eventually releasing a (not very good) album in 2005.

A 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 them here — wherein we write about the impact Big Star had on music, culture, and most important, our teenage life — but let us calmly state: in the great chart of influential bands, if the progenitors of much that we love can be seen to have started with the Beatles, Stones, Led Zepplin, and the Velvet Underground, many — so many — of the bands we have loved since the mid-Seventies owe their eye teeth and first-born children to the music made by Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Jody Stephens, and Andy Hummel over the course of a few short years.

Check out the links above, and go see the movie.  In a just world, they really would have been big stars, and this really would be a summer blockbuster.

Alex Chilton Died Because He Didn’t Have Health Insurance

Posted in Music with tags on April 14, 2010 by johnbuckley100

Sad, amazing story in the New Orleans Times-Picayune.  Alex Chilton’s Life In New Orleans Was A Mystery, And That’s How The Big Star Singer Wanted It

More Thoughts On Alex Chilton

Posted in Music with tags , on March 19, 2010 by johnbuckley100

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.

Alex Chilton, RIP

Posted in Music with tags , , on March 18, 2010 by johnbuckley100

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.

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