The Complicatist: In praise of Alex Chilton (1950-2010)

I saw you staring into space

by Gordon Campbell

By the time he was 26, Alex Chilton had already blown out two musical careers – first as a pop star, and later as an indie rock cult figure. After that, it was always going to be hard to find a place in the world. As a 16 year old white soul singer from Memphis, Chilton had sung lead for the Box Tops on a string of hits that started with “The Letter” and included other good Southern pop songs like ‘Soul Deep,’ ‘Cry Like a Baby’ and ‘I Met Her In Church’ all of which had been masterminded in the studio by another Memphis original, Dan Penn.

One Box Tops’ hit (called ’ Sweet Cream Ladies’) was actually a song in celebration of prostitutes, and the lyrics were considered fairly racy for Top 40 radio back in 1969 :

They will love you in the darkness,
Take advantage of your starkness,
And refuse to recognize you in the light….

Tell the socialites to look the other way;
It’s instinctive stimulation you convey
It’s a necessary function,
Meant for those without compunction,
Who get tired of vanilla every day

Within three years, Chilton was over it. He walked out on the Box Tops and formed Big Star in 1971 with a guy called Chris Bell. Big Star came to be loved (retrospectively) by many, but at the time it was embraced by very few – partly because its obsessive take on obscure mid 1960s pop was so out of step with the times. Far too late for the British invasion, and at least a decade before the notion of power pop.

With Big Star going nowhere, Chilton was by his mid 20s right in the middle of a spectacular creative and personal meltdown. The damage is evident on three albums – Sister Lovers, Like Flies on Sherbet and the collection of odds and ends eventually re-issued as Bach’s Bottom, which was a bad inverted pun on Box Tops. Those discs contain some of the most emotionally direct and self-destructive music ever recorded.

Well, big deal. In any field of art, anarchy can be an over-rated quality. Mainly because so much of it is bogus. More often than not, it involves a pantomine of anarchy of the sort perpetuated at the Big Day Out a few years ago by Iggy Pop, or when Johnny Rotten set out to shock the bourgeoisie. In those cases, the disorder and anarchy is being inflicted on an audience by the control freak on stage with the microphone. The point of Chilton’s dark period was that he wasn’t in control – this was a genuine, no safety net case of masculine vulnerability and despair from someone still at the peak of his game. Rob Sheffield’s obit for Chilton caught this aspect pretty well :

Big Star invented a vision of bohemian rock & roll cool that had nothing to do with New York, Los Angeles or London, which made them completely out of style in the 1970s, but also made them an inspiration to generations of weird Southern kids. Especially girls — for hipster gals who couldn’t necessarily relate to the abrasive machismo of Lou Reed or Iggy Pop, Alex Chilton was a dude who let female fans hear themselves in his music. Nobody was ever better at making Southern girls feel cool.

Yep, the key term is vulnerability. Not James Taylor’s singer/songwriter angst or Leonard Cohen’s come hither schtick – but the sound of a real person in pain. Erik Davis once described Sister Lovers as a perfect example of the condition that Prozac was invented to prevent.

The Like Flies on Sherbet album is a quite different kettle of fish – instead of despair and depression, this time around it is self-loathing that seems to be driving the band to attack the conventions it pretends to be honouring. You like the Carter Family? You like Ernest Tubb? You like rawk’n’ roll? Well, eat this. Some of Chilton’s music from this period was actually pretty funny, as in “Bangkok” his drugged homage to Johnny Thunders and Chinese Rocks : “ Here’s a little thing that’s gonna please ya./its a little town down in Indonesia / Bangkok ! Here’s a revision that’s kinda minor/ It’s a little town down in Indochina / Bangkok ! ….

Not that the subsequent claims for his importance and influence on indie rock ever brought Chilton much satisfaction. It amused him at times, but mostly it seemed to irritate the hell out of him. In 1992, he dryly told Pulse magazine : “Everywhere I go, there are all these Big Star freaks, and they’re nice little guys who are usually in college, and they’re kind of lonely and misunderstood, and learning to play guitar.” Later, in a 2007 interview, he didn’t seem to really rate Big Star’s albums either : “I’m not as crazy about them as a lot of Big Star cultists seem to be. I think they’re good, but then again, I think Slade records are good, too.”

Off hand, Kurt Cobain was probably the only other major musician who felt quite as uncomfortable in his own skin, and with the adulation he engendered. Chilton had been there and done it eons ago. As mentioned, he was through with being a pop star by the time he was 20, and well over being a cult hero by five years later. Unfortunately, that left him with over 30 more years of living to fill in, before he died of a heart attack in Memphis last month (on St Patrick’s Day) at the age of 59.

In recent years, things had settled down somewhat. For much of the 1990s and 2000s, a public belatedly aware of him had wanted either the Big Star oldies, or some fresh chapter of the old raw emotion. It was a setup bound to disappoint. Some nights on tour though, Chilton would oblige. In one gig a few years ago in Auckland, he played the start of ‘Kangaroo’, then said Fuck it, and settled for the easier, less traumatic loveliness of “ Thirteen “ from Big Star’s first album. In his obit piece, Rob Sheffield says that a love of Big Star was what brought him and his (eventual) wife together, and they played “Thirteen” at their wedding. Nice.

The trouble was, his flameout had been expressed in music of such intense fragility that Chilton had never wanted to open those doors again, even assuming he could. Despite the cult adulation in his lifetime – the Replacements wrote a song about him called “Alex Chilton” and R.E.M, Jeff Buckley ete etc praised him to the skies – Chilton reacted by being either contrary, or inexpressive. Surly was the term reviewers tended to settle on. Musically, his output since the 1980s came to focus on old rockabilly and swamp blues (it should also be mentioned that he produced the first and best efforts by the Cramps) and on lounge standards such as “ Volare.” For a time in the 1980s, he earned a living by washing dishes in a restaurant in New Orleans, his adopted home before, during and after Hurricane Katrina.

Gradually, the awareness of his influence has enabled Chilton to form a band again, and to tour regularly. He played in New Zealand twice. The royalties from television – inexplicably, the That 70s Show picked Big Star’s song“In the Street” as its theme tune in a version played by Cheap Trick – also helped to improve his bank balance. Reportedly, Chilton got $70 every time an episode was played, anywhere. Over the past two decades, he had been touring solo, or with new lineups of both the Box Tops and Big Star, augmented by a couple of guys from the Posies. His personal life (married, with children) seemed to be in good shape at last.

One last Chilton story, told to me in 2006 by Jennifer Rogers of the Rogers Sisters seems appropriate. At a suburban house party of indie musicians in Brooklyn during 2005, she had got to talking to some older guy in white shirt and boat shoes who she had figured must have wandered in from next door. He asked about what she did, what kind of music her band played, and seemed kind, interested and amiable. Nice guy, wonder what he does. A friend later told her – hey, that was Alex Chilton. Omigod, Jennifer thought – I’ve just been prattling on to one of my major heroes and influences about my band and my ambitions, and he’d never let on a word. Surly? Yeah, but not always.

An Alex Chilton resume :

1. This video of the Box Tops first hit:

“The Letter” (great song, less than two minutes long) is hilarious. Chilton makes some flirty eye contact in the first two verses, before he cracks up and starts laughing at the ridiculousness of it. The keyboards guy is also plainly amused by the miming – he does a great “ Look Ma, no hands” gesture towards the finale, and Chilton’s nonchalant little hand movements at the fade are also ace. Trivia Note #1 : “ The Letter” was written by Wayne Carson, who later wrote “She’s Acting Single, I’m Drinking Doubles” – the only number one hit for the country singer Gary Stewart, another great 1970s flameout.

2. OK, and here is ‘Kangaroo’:

The guy who posted this video on Youtube calls it the best song of all time, and I wouldn’t argue with that. It sounds even better in the context of the album, alongside “ Big Black Car” “ Blue Moon” “ Stroke it Noel” and the crushingly sad “Nightime.” Despite the album’s downer ambience, Sister Lovers also contains the song ‘Jesus Christ’ – which has a pealing, carol-like optimism that functions as lightning in the darkness. There’s a great cover of the Velvet Underground’s ‘Femme Fatale,’ too.

3. The toll that the early 1980s had taken is obvious in this 1985 clip:

Though it does feature an interesting acoustic version of “Neon Rainbow” from the Box Tops era.

4. From the same period, this rare clip from French TV:

“Make A Little Love” is pretty amusing : “Skin as soft as buttermilk !” Yeah !

Chilton’s covers were always interesting, and often ended up owning the song. His version of “Summertime Blues” (available in toto on Bach’s Bottom, and in an excerpt on The Singer Not the Song” Ork Records EP) is really unhinged – but “Sometimes I wonder what I’m a-gonna do” should sound a lot more desperate than the way Eddie Cochran sang it, which came across as just mildly miffed. On his version of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” Chilton took on another hometown boy in Jerry Lee Lewis, and lost nothing by comparison. Ditto with his take on the Rolling Stones ” The Singer Not The Song” on the EP. The Lou Christie obscurity “I’m Gonna Make You Mine” was another terrific act of retrieval – and Furry Lewis, Ernest Tubb (“Waltz Across Texas”) and the Carter Family (“No More The Moon Shines on Lorena”) were others to find a home in Chilton’s back catalogue.

Trivia Note# 2: the cover illustrations for two of Chilton’s best albums ( Big Star’s Radio City and his own Like Flies on Sherbet) feature photographs by the legendary Memphis photographer, gunsmith and composer William Eggleston. (Part of the legend is also based on Eggleston’s spectacular love life, and alleged penchant for firing his shotguns into the roof and walls of his Memphis mansion.) Chilton and Chris Bell both deserve credit for putting Eggleston on the cover of Radio City well before his landmark 1976 show at MOMA in New York made Eggleston’s reputation, and transformed the way that art critics evaluate the use of colour in photography. If you don’t know Eggleston, this profile here is as good a place as any to start. Remember to click on the video link below the photo on the front page – it has some nice footage of Eggleston and Dennis Hopper.

In conclusion, while this heartfelt tribute from Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney relates mainly to the first two Big Star albums, I’m sure she’d include Sister Lovers as well :

Musicians and fans have always passed around Big Star songs and albums like a secret handshake. When you found out someone hadn’t heard #1 Record or Radio City, you were so excited to provide that missing link, to pass on all the glimmer, the jangly guitar, the big chords, the melodies, the American anthems that let you keep your teenage self — for some of us long since faded — close, etched upon your skin. And suddenly, you realized that every great band or musician you love also loved Alex Chilton, and Big Star.”

5. For all the above reasons, this video for “Thank You Friends” which includes random footage of Chris Bell and Chilton shot during the making of #1 Record, is a real heartbreaker: