Alex Chilton died two years ago today. Alan Scherstuhl wonders why he was never a bigger star. Originally published March 2012 on Obit-Mag.com.
On March 18, eulogizing Alex Chilton from the floor of the House of Representatives, Tennessee Democrat Steve Cohen praised the singer/songwriter not just in the language of bloggers and rock critics, which would have been surprising enough. Instead, Cohen lauded Chilton in the language of bloggers and rock critics’ Tweets. “Independent, iconoclastic, innovative,” Cohen trumpeted but with his allotted two minutes almost as tight as Twitter’s 140 characters, he offered no examples. “He never cared for the critics. He didn’t have that much acclaim at the box office or at record sales, but he did with others. R.E.M. was a group he influenced greatly, and The Replacements did a song called ‘Alex Chilton.’”
Alex Chilton of the 1970's rock band 'Big Star' performs at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, Friday, March 19, 2004. The Memphis-based group is currently working on a new album.(AP Photo/Jack Plunkett)
Much about this astonishes. First, that independence and innovation are apparently traits honored by Congress. Or that after eight years of Bush a Democrat considers “He never cared for the critics” to be high praise. Or that in the heart of the capital those hitless ne’er-do-wells the Replacements stand as character witnesses. That band also wrote a song called “Gary Got a Boner.” Once Gary passes, will we have to half-mast our flags?
Like a thousand online eulogizers – those critics Chilton says he didn’t care for – Cohen seems as moved by the idea of Alex Chilton, who died in New Orleans on March 17, 2010 at the age of 59, as he is with the music itself. Tellingly, Cohen mentioned only one Chilton song: “The Letter,” a 1967 #1 for the Box Tops, the producer-dominated teen-pop band Chilton fronted. By far Chilton’s biggest hit, “The Letter” is by no means iconoclastic or any of Cohen’s other I adjectives. It is instead sticky and sweet, like gum in your hair, a choice pop tune engineered to please and sell.
The Box Tops broke up in 1969. When he formed Big Star in 1971, Chilton took creative control, writing his own songs (at first with the dreamy and doomed Chris Bell), forging his own sound, but making no bones about what he yearned for: Big Star named its first LP #1 Record.
Pop was Chilton’s aim but also his great subject. He sang of kids who blast their music loud to cover up the silences that yawn between them, of 13-year-olds who know “Paint it Black” says everything there is to say about everything, of boys who want to hold your hand but couldn’t possibly come right out and say it the way those cocksure Beatles would.
For all that, the music Chilton recorded with his band Big Star is rock with the sun in it, reminiscent of the mid-’60s Beatles and Byrds. It’s tender yet tough, riffy yet melodic, finely crafted yet often rowdy. It strove not just for the sounds of the mid-1960s but also that era’s near paradoxical pop ideal: achieving vital personal expression in songs that kids will want to blast while driving, making out, and hauling themselves up into people.
Big Star never made it to the kids’ stereos.
It’s romantic to assume the villain here is that old bugbear American tastelessness. Against slick country-rock or the godstorm of Led Zeppelin, the theory goes, what chance did a wistful slip of a ballad like Chilton’s “Thirteen” stand? But the top hits of ’72 included plenty of wistful slips: “Lean on Me,” “Oh, Child,” “Heart of Gold,” all strange and sun-touched.
The fault might lie in poor marketing and distribution on the part of Stax, Big Star’s label. But it might also be that gorgeous – at times even elegiac -- rock music about rock music itself was simply too gnomic for the early 1970s. The style hadn’t caught on by the ’80s, when those Replacements bashed out their own catalog of Chilton-inspired classics, more great, personal pop that was never especially popular, and in sales terms indie rock – Big Star’s direct descendant -- still isn’t much of a market force today. (If it seems to be, that’s because its fans are well represented around the ol’ online cracker barrel.)
Whatever the cause, #1 Record flopped, as did Radio City, ’74’s spectacular follow-up.
But if they hadn’t, and if he had become a star, it’s unlikely Chilton would have become the legend so often eulogized in the last weeks.
After Radio City, Chilton gave up on number-one records. A third Big Star LP, Third, was so prickly and uncommercial that four years passed between recording and release. Erratic solo records followed, frustrating – and sometimes inspired – music that, as Cohen said, few critics or record-buyers much enjoyed.
Still, slowly, Big Star’s rep swelled, thanks to the endorsements of musicians and writers. Rock aesthetes seek out and treasure the music that influenced the music they love. In Big Star they discovered not only durable and moving music but also the perfect form of the genre now called “power pop.” Residual checks started turning up: The Bangles recorded “September Gurls,” from Radio City, and a Cheap Trick cover of #1 Record’s “In the Street” opens each episode of the sitcom That 70’s Show.
That TV theme has been played more than even “The Letter.” Chilton is best known for an early hit he didn’t write, and a great record he wrote but didn’t sing.
Unlike forebears Paul McCartney or the Rolling Stones, who grew old and embarrassing, Chilton never lost that trait that rock aesthetes most value: a refusal to compromise to sell music. By the mid-1980s, to fans of the Replacements, the Pixies, and others, hitlessness had become proof of authenticity.
This is the legacy of Alex Chilton: the idea that unpopular pop matters as much as what the big stars churn out for the kids. It’s also yet another irony of his life, death, and art. From hipster blogs to C-Span 2, fans honor the man for his commitment to honest music that never settled for the merely popular. But they love him for those early attempts at honest-to-God hits, when he gave his all to record great popular music.
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