Thursday, March 18, 2010

Children By the Millions Weep For Alex Chilton

People die. Those who have touched you in some way, those who you knew well, relatives and friends. I remember when Johnny Cash died. I wrote "CASH" on my knuckles in magic marker and went to work that way, and people thought I was insane. When Joe Strummer died, I called in sick to work because I knew I couldn't handle speaking to hundreds of people at my workplace who couldn't fathom why I was upset about some "80s rockstar" dying. Sharif still didn't like it.


Johnny Thunders, Richey Manic (?), Stiv Bators, Waylon Jennings, Porter Wagoner, Buck Owens, Joey and Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone, the list is probably longer. All of these artists have touched me deeply in my life, and the work they produced in their time on this god forsaken Japanese Standing Toilet of a planet has helped me to keep breathing for 39 years. Not just me. Alot of us.

Today I found out that Alex Chilton died. My wife can tell you that I actually cried. Then I forced her to go on iTunes and play "Ballad Of El Goodo", "Back Of a Car", "Hey Little Girl", "September Gurls", "O, Dana" and the Replacements' "Alex Chilton" over and over.

I'm not making this about me. I'm just showing you how much I actually care about the man I'm about to write about.

Alex Chilton. A genius. A punk. A sonofabitch. An icon. A loser. A legend.

This is a man who, at sixteen years old, had a nationwide number one hit that you'll still hear on Classic Rock stations to this day. "The Letter." He joined the Box Tops as a young Memphis teen obsessed with soul music. The group scored with "Cry Like A Baby" and "Soul Deep" before Alex was 18. He was singing then in an effected, gritty, gruff soul style that he pulled off well. But nobody knew his real voice until he joined a little Memphis pop rock combo that were eventually to be named Big Star.

The Box Tops with Alex on vocals at 17 years old:

While they were active and performing, nobody gave two shits about Big Star. They seemed, at the time, like a seventies radio-styled derivitive of the Beatles. Perhaps sub-Badfinger. Had anyone cared to listen to more than 30 seconds of any of their songs though, either penned by Alex or Chris Bell, they would have been overwhelmed with the singular, atmospheric, unique emotional pull of Chilton's riffs, harmonies, lyrics and vocals. Here was a true unique voice in the wilderness that nobody gave two fucks about hearing. As Mott the Hoople, another criminally ignored, genius band once sang, "We're not bleeding you, we're feeding you/But you're too fucking slow."

Big Stars' perfection would be vindicated by time, however. Every 90s pop punk and power pop band would loudly sing the praises, twenty years later, of those four forgotten records from the early 70s. The reputation grew long after the band was history. Teenage Fan Club, the Replacements, The Posies, The Pixies, Green Day, Jellyfish, REM, Nirvana, good ol' Cheap Trick, Elliot Smith, Material Issue, Wilco, Bright Eyes, etc etc on and on...the artists were fans even if the unwashed masses never knew.

And what was so great about Big Star? Everything. How can you explain the feeling you get when winter turns to spring and the breeze is blowing possibility at your face? How can you explain being in love? How can you describe teenage frustration that lasts long into adulthood and hope and fear and pain? How can you explain why you like rock and roll? Can't do it. So I can't explain how great Big Star were to you. You'll just have to listen. This song is my song that I dedicate to my wife. Only because she was born in September and I was born in December, and the song states that. This song means quite abit to me. Years before my wife, I longed to meet a September Gurl that fit this song. Finally, I got one.

I loved you, well, nevermind/I've been crying all the time/ December boy's got it bad....

After Big Star never sold any records and broke up in the mid 70s, Chilton embarked on a solo career, producing his own great stuff, and other bands. It seemed everything he touched was doomed to be under appreciated in its time, and considered a classic later on.

Here's something Chilton produced that some of you may be familiar with.

Chilton produced the Cramps (legends after their own time as well) and other groups while also recording his own solo genius with albums like the classic "Like Flies On Sherbert".

He was able to eke out a small living with his music for many years, before Big Stars' posthumous popularity exploded in the 1990s, via the many bands who had been influenced by them.

Here's one, a very important one. And hearing this song at 17 years old in 1988 was my first hearing of the name "Alex Chilton". Yes, it made me wonder who he was. Thank God I actually followed up and found out.

Although Chilton's Big Star co-writer Chris Bell had died much earlier in a Memphis drunk driving wreck, Alex was able to put together a new line up of Big Star featuring members of the Big Star worshipping band the Posies. Big Star kinda sorta reunited in the early-mid 90s and produced the amazingly Big Star-ish sounding "In Space". It was great. It didn't sell. Just want to reiterate. It was GREAT. Again, this song reminds me of my wife. And it probably reminds every brainy, rootsy power pop fop out there of any "too much to handle" girl they were ever lucky enough to come across. God this song is painfully beautiful.

Then what? The embarrassingly shitty sit com "That 70s Show" adopted "In The Street" by Big Star as their theme song, albeit covered and given a sort of clumsy Nuge-metal treatment by longtime Big Star buds Cheap Trick, with heavily altered lyrics and a ham fisted 90s metal production that kinda grosses me out everytime I hear it. Ok not kinda. Totally grosses me out. This brought Chilton a blessed paycheck however, so thank god.

Here's the real deal playing the real song on the Tonight Show (look how Alex tries to sell it, confused that his 30 year old throwaway song now means something to somebody):

So the reunion was an on again off again success, and Alex also spent a bit of time participating in a reunion of his even older band, The Box Tops.

2009 (note Alex's hilararious into of this song) :

The fact is, Alex struggled from the late 60s until 2010 to get the genius of his music across in a world that doesn't like genius, or feeling, or anything thats real. And maybe he didn't get the big paychecks he deserved. No, he definitely didn't get those. But he left his mark on this world. And on me. And probably, whether you know it or not, on you.

He died in a New Orleans hospital room on March 17th, 2010. On the Eve of yet another sell out Big Star reunion tour. That voice is silent now, forever. That guitar sound is only an echo. That songwriting id is only available via reissues. Alex Chilton is gone. And a bigger star than ever.

Alex Chilton was beset by demons his entire life. Demons I know well. Depression, anxiety, chemical dependence. Love lost and found and lost and found and lost. You can hear it in the songs. And the songs of every skinny sensitive white boy from a small town in America who longed to be a bad ass ever and anon.

My fave Big Star song: