Alex Chilton, Big Star, and Musical Immortality
By: Linnea Crowther
3 years ago
Alex Chilton isn't a household name.
Even if you don't know who he is, though, you probably know at least a few of his songs. If these opening lines sound familiar – "Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane, ain't got time to take a fast train" – then you've heard Chilton, singing "The Letter" with the Box Tops in the 1960s. And anyone who's ever watched That '70s Show has heard Cheap Trick cover "In the Street" during the show's opening credits.
A chart-topper when he was just 16, the Memphis native got his start singing lead for the Box Tops, though he wrote few of their songs and was backed by session musicians. Within a few years of leaving that band, he learned to play guitar, formed Big Star and subsequently wrote and recorded three records that drew critical acclaim but were largely ignored by the public. It was an incredibly dejecting experience for someone who’d dreamt of fame. A solo career rose from the ashes of Big Star, one in which Chilton constantly reinvented himself, playing everything from punk to R&B to old standards. As his sound changed, so too did his ethos; where once he’d courted fame, he now seemed happiest simply playing whatever music he was into at the moment.
My own discovery of Big Star began in 1993, when I had Blood by This Mortal Coil on heavy rotation on my Discman. Made up of a mix of covers and original material, the album includes a haunting song called "I Am the Cosmos." No, it's not a Big Star song. It's by Chris Bell, Chilton's sometime Big Star bandmate, recorded after he left the band. But I didn't know that at the time – I just loved hitting the back button to hear the song again. Later, I was browsing used CDs at a record store and came upon one called I Am the Cosmos by Chris Bell. I knew nothing about Bell, but I knew it had to include the same song I liked on Blood, so I bought the disc. Further record store browsing brought me to the reissue of Big Star's first two albums, packaged together on one CD as #1 Record/Radio City. A glance at the personnel list revealed two surprises. Chris Bell – hey, I love that record of his! And Alex Chilton – the guy the Replacements sang about? I was intrigued, so I bought it, listened, and fell in love. Most people who listen to Big Star end up falling in love.
Among my circle of friends, I’ve found that most fans of Chilton and Big Star have a story to tell about how they found out about his music and how it impacted them. Some heard the Replacements song "Alex Chilton," which imagines a world in which Chilton is a Beatles-level superstar, and wanted to learn more. Others heard covers of Big Star's songs – "September Gurls" by the Bangles, "Thirteen" by Wilco – and sought out the original versions.
With hit songs and famous fans to his credit, Chilton probably should be world famous. His death on Mar. 17, 2010, of a heart attack put a stop to his long and varied career, but didn’t stop an ever-growing legion of fans blooming in the underground. Before he died at age 59, he’d seen incredible highs and terrible lows. In the end, he had emerged from the lows to find joy creating music he liked. While he did it, he clearly influenced people – including notable people from rock stars to writers and even politicians.
When I saw that the anniversary of Chilton's death was coming up, I knew the best way we could pay tribute to him would be to talk to some of those people. I thought I might hear back from just a few, but I was amazed by the response I got, with interviewees ranging from a Posies singer to a Congressman. In retrospect, I shouldn't have been so surprised – once you're hooked on Chilton's music, it's hard not to talk about it. Here's some of what I heard when I asked his fans to share their thoughts.
Ken Stringfellow, singer and songwriter for the Posies (also played with Big Star in the reunion of the 1990s and '00s): “When my band, the Posies', first album came out in 1988, people mentioned, hey, you need to listen to this band Big Star. It took us a while to find a copy of the album – they'd just started being reissued – but the minute we heard it, our whole reason to be changed. That music – we absorbed it completely and absorbed ourselves into it completely. It was really a game-changer.”
Mitch Easter, founder of Let's Active and producer of R.E.M.'s early albums: “Like a lot of kids at the time, I loved The Box Tops hit ‘The Letter,’ and I happened to see them on American Bandstand. Dick Clark asked Alex a few questions and I was shocked to hear that he had a southern accent! I found that to be kind of encouraging, because I was beginning to play in bands myself, but all the ones I liked seemed to be from LA or London. You could make a pop rock hit in the South? All right!”
Larry O. Dean, musician and songwriter who organizes the annual Alex Chilton Birthday Bash tribute concert in Chicago: “In terms of influence, he endorsed a more ‘experimental,’ intuitive, and experiential approach to music-making through his actions, and his jaundiced view of the music industry – forged as a teenaged member of The Box Tops – was a refreshing (and often hilarious) riposte to straightlaced executives and hipster insiders that provided me with an early glimpse of what careerism in music means for true outsiders.”
Bill Douglas, singer and songwriter for Einstein's Sister: “He was this very interesting character who was just doing his own thing. It was inspiring as a musician, as a writer, to see him do what he wanted to do.”
John M. Borack, author of Shake Some Action: The Ultimate Power Pop Guide: “He was one of the titans of power pop, one of the people who invented the genre, probably without even knowing he was inventing the genre.”
David Bash, founder and organizer of the International Pop Overthrow festival: “You could go so far as to say [R.E.M.] founded the alt-rock movement in the U.S. Alex profoundly influenced them. And they're not shy about saying it. The whole North Carolina scene with Mitch Easter and Chris Stamey – all those bands were profoundly influenced by Big Star, Chris, Alex, all of them. Certainly outside of the power pop sphere, he had a profound influence.”
Holly George-Warren, author of Chilton biography A Man Called Destruction: “In my mind, he was one of the first Americana artists. It kind of encapsulates all the American regional types of music, like blues, and country, and gospel. It's got a rawness to it, and it's the complete opposite of the type of music that's been fussed over in the studio – music made by committee, which most pop music is these days.”
Stringfellow: “They set the precedent for being an underground indie band that was highly competent and highly listenable, which is kind of normal now. In today's world, most people who like music don't even look at the mainstream. They go right for bands that are kind of like Big Star, bands that are really good but aren't moving records the way Lorde or Beyonce does.”
George-Warren: “[He also influenced] that whole lo-fi thing, which is also a huge part of the indie explosion that started taking off in the '80s and '90s. … He was very into that, recording things on the fly, one or two takes, cheaply recorded, done almost off-the-cuff... Everyone from the Mountain Goats to Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the list goes on of these contemporary artists who have embraced that approach.”
Bash: “Obviously in terms of my music festival, International Pop Overthrow, Alex Chilton has had a profound effect. Sadly, he never played it, but so many bands who have played the festival have done Big Star covers – when he passed, many bands paid tribute to him by covering Big Star or Box Tops. And just about everybody who plays International Pop Overthrow is a Big Star fan, one way or another.”
Drew DeNicola, director of documentary film Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me: “He was a very proud outsider – it was his M.O. It was a very cool way to be. To have basically said, I'm not going to be famous. I'm not going to be commercially successful. For that to not have ever been in the cards for them, that's why they're the original indie band.”
George-Warren: “He did so many different types of music, and he really followed his own muse after he got out of the Box Tops up until the end of his life, regardless of what kind of music was in fashion. Some people saw this as being almost self-sabotaging, because as the legend of Big Star grew, particularly when we started having the Big Star reunions, Alex could have easily gone into the studio and made a record with that kind of sound, or continued to do more Big Star-type music. But that wasn't his way.”
Bash: “It surprises me that Big Star or Alex have not been elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. … I'm really surprised their time hasn't come, and I think eventually it will.”
Kerry Tucker, guitarist and songwriter for Einstein's Sister: “The one thing I am very happy about is that it seems that maybe Alex started to see some of the rewards of being in Big Star before he died. I think the That '70s Show thing was good, obviously financially he said that was a good thing to happen, and who doesn't want that? I think the other thing too is the Big Star reunion and just seeing the interest that was coming out in Big Star.”
Borack: “Alex had that gift, especially on [Third], for making stuff that sounded depressing when you first listen to it, but the more you listen to it, it's uplifting as well. I can't pretend to know how he did that, or if he knew he was doing that. Probably since it was Alex, he would say, ‘I just wrote some songs and recorded them.’“
Stringfellow: “[It] had so many levels to it. On the surface, the dirge-like harmonies and the chimey guitars, the wonderful melodies, that caught us right away. With a lot of bands of that style, what you see is what you get. But Big Star just had so much more depth… There were two sides to everything that happened on those records.”
George-Warren: “The things he wrote [for Big Star] will last forever – they're very timeless songs. In some of them, you can feel the pain he was going through. He was able to capture that and express that. But I think he had to move on and do other types of music after that period, because he didn't want to keep experiencing that pain himself.”
Borack: “What Alex was doing was very innovative, combining his Memphis roots with British invasion stuff – it was very original. There was nothing like it at the time, and there's still nothing really like it today.”
DeNicola: “That ethos didn't have a name. It was just this willfully insolent nature and this absolute intolerance of BS. That was kind of rare in the '70s. He was just like… I'm just going to do my thing and do it my way.”
Tucker: “By not playing the game, by realizing how much BS is involved, we know as fans that every album he made was the album he wanted to make. He never bowed down to a record company or management or peer pressure or anything like that.”
George-Warren: “He was a great lover of music and he wanted to do whatever music moved him at that time. That was part of his own personal integrity. He couldn't do music that was not in his head at that time. The great thing is that at the end of his life, he was able to accept all these different aspects of his musical personality. He seemed to be able to find joy in all of the different aspects. His final shows with Big Star, he seemed to be very into that. He really seemed to be enjoying himself doing those songs.”
Tucker: “He had a 30-year career doing exactly what he wanted to do. There's something to be said for that.”
Dean: “He… always seemed to be having fun, even on off nights; isn't that what music (and all art) should be about?”
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, who gave a eulogy to Chilton on the House floor upon his death: “Alex was a very special singer and a very special human being. He was very bright and very independent. Marched to the beat of his own drum. He really liked government! It amazed me, when I went to his memorial service in Memphis, his widow was there, and I didn't realize this – he watched C-SPAN every morning. She said he was a C-SPAN junkie and a big fan of mine, which I sort of knew.”
Tucker: “I met Alex a couple of times. The one thing I found out is that if you talk to him about the show, or about Big Star, or about Alex, he would essentially just shut you down. He's the last guy who wants to talk about his past or talk about himself as an artist. The best conversation I ever had with him was talking about Stax and R&B in the '60s. … When you get him talking about something he's interested in, you can't shut the guy up. And he was incredibly knowledgeable.”
Cohen: “I remember one time, I was going over to the park to take a walk. A couple of my friends, Alex and one other friend, were in the park, sitting there in the Overland Park shell, it's a musical venue. Alex was just kind of sitting, and it's kind of an Alex-ism, his friend said, 'Alex, how you doing?' He said, '…Well… I've been better.' My buddy said, 'I've seen you worse.' Alex paused for a minute, and he says, '…I've been worse.' That was kind of a classic moment in Memphis.”
Easter: “[Big Star’s] records are surely in my personal Top 10. So many things about them move me still – they sound great, they have pithy lyrics, and there's a spirit of fun and looseness in there that are to me the hallmarks of really enduring pop records.”
Borack: “Big Star Third was obviously quite a bit different from the first two records. It's become almost my favorite Big Star record now, and that's mainly because… it was pretty much Alex's solo record. Hearing that record is like listening to a person work their way through a nervous breakdown. He was obviously going through a lot of issues with drugs and alcohol, but he was able to channel all that and still produce a record that has some of the most beautiful songs on it that I've ever heard.”
Dean: “Alex was a true iconoclast. I first heard him in Big Star, a band it's hard not to be influenced by (and which has proven to be rather influential in itself). But my reverence for Big Star goes in the opposite direction from a majority of others in that Third, which is more or less a Chilton solo album, is my favorite, followed by Radio City and #1 Record. The more I listened and learned, the more I realized Alex wasn't a perfectionist but rather a purveyor of mood and mindset over chops (though he had those as well); and while his devil-may-care attitude arguably made for some sketchy recorded performances, that sketchiness was never anything less than fascinating and truly one-of-a-kind.”
DeNicola: “There's such nuance in the music, and he's always playing with the bittersweet aspects, both lyrically and musically. The music keeps you coming back. It's not a one-shot, like you get it and move on. The music reveals itself over time.“