Alex Chilton is dead. His old band, Big Star, made three perfect albums. There are a thousand stories of excess and studio-trashing and general Memphis insanity. I just wanted to play you some songs of his that I like.
If you're not familiar with the man's work already, you should probably skip the rest of this and buy Big Star's three albums and play them over and over again until they are imprinted on your soul—this works best if you are a teenager. That's the stuff that'll convince you of his genius, the rest of this is to convince you that the genius went beyond gorgeous Beatles-inspired powerpop.
In the first half of the 1970s, Alex Chilton was the best singer and songwriter in America. (He was also, throughout his entire career, one hell of a guitar player. According to Chuck Prophet, Tom Waits called Alex Chilton "the Thelonius Monk of the rhythm guitar.") He invented power pop, had a hand in shaping New York punk, helped preserve and advance the musical legacy of Memphis, and directly or indirectly inspired everyone you love who picked up a guitar in the last 30 years.
He meant a lot to a hell of a lot of people, but what he meant to me isn't all that interesting or important. What's important is that Alex Chilton recorded hours of beautiful, weird, dark, difficult, joyous music.
First, he was the crazy-young preternaturally talented singer for a great '60s American white R&B group. You should pick up a Box Tops best-of.
Big Star will be his legacy, obviously. Chilton was usually dismissive of his own creative abilities, saying the Big Star albums were primarily a success of production. He's not all wrong—I've never heard acoustic guitars sound richer, deeper, or more gorgeous than on a vinyl copy of #1 Record—but the perfection of something like "Thirteen" is a triumph of songwriting and performance. (Don't be surprised if someday soon someone or other on X Factor or Idol turns it into the next "Hallelujah.") "September Gurls" is about as close as anyone's ever gotten to the perfect rock and roll love song. If you don't already own everything recorded under the band's name, you ought to get the new box set.
After that came another of those wilderness periods. There was Bach's Bottom and "Bankok" and then, eventually, the incredibly damaged Like Flies on Sherbert. Recorded by (the recently deceased, sigh) Jim Dickinson, Flies is manic, tinny, demented—Third/Sister Lovers on uppers instead of downers. Lots of folks hate it. Its easy availability is something of a shock—I think something like 500 copies were originally pressed. Anyone looking for more Big Star will be (and was) sorely disappointed.
There was another lost period, more lost maybe than the others, and then he basically came back cheerful and relaxed. He put out a couple albums and what seemed like a hundred EPs made up of sloppy good-time covers and the occasional jokey original, all with some wonderful guitar playing (and some with some otherwise indifferent performing). There were a couple Big Star "reunions" (
Jody Stephens was the only other surviving member of the band
) [Correction: bassist Andy Hummel is still with us], a couple more Box Tops reunions, inessential (but enjoyable) new albums from both of those revamped groups, and a thousand shows in venues across the nation. But mostly Alex seemed to finally be getting the happy, quiet life he deserved—a cult legend and a New Orleans neighborhood fixture, with checks finally, finally rolling in. (Thanks in part to That '70s Show—or, as Chilton referred to it, That $70 Show.)
Here's Tennessee Representative Steve Cohen eulogizing Chilton earlier today (god, I never thought I'd see the day when The Replacements were mentioned on the floor of the US House of Representatives). "He is an embodiment of Memphis music," Cohen says, "hard, different, independent, brilliant, beautiful." A surprisingly hip assessment for a congressman, right? (Trivia: Cohen is in what used to be Harold Ford's seat.)
So here's a fairly unrepresentative YouTube sampling of the Alex Chilton mixtape I've been putting together in my head today, with an emphasis on the weird, the sloppy, the dark, the hilarious, and the difficult. Cuz I hope you've already heard the beautiful stuff.
"Take Me Home and Make Me Like It"
"What's Your Sign, Girl"
"Lovely Day" (which became "Stroke it Noel")
"All I Really Want is Money," from his post-Box Tops pre-Big Star unreleased-for-years album 1970
Ten minutes of Like Flies on Sherbert ("Boogie Shoes," "My Rival," and "Hey! Little Child")
And one crappy live clip, because the one time I saw Alex Chilton play (at some godawful free open-air thing in Minnesota, years ago, with a pickup band) this was the song he seemed to have the most fun playing: "Il Ribelle," by "the King of Italian Rock and Roll," as he put it, Adriano Celentano. (He also played a fantastic cover of Michael Jackson's "Rock With You.")