Notes on Alex: Alex Chilton, 1950 – 2010

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April 17, 2010 by A.C. Rhodes

About Alex

Give Me a Ticket
This is denial – one month’s worth to be exact. With death, denial can be a reaction of shock or refusal to accept what’s put before us. And never has there been such resistance to the finality of Alex Chilton’s physical demise, save for possibly the death of John Lennon. Similarly, to many of us, his voice and words were perhaps some of the very first we heard over the AM radio while running in and out of the house in summer or driving in our parents’ car or under the covers next to a clock radio with nothing but the darkness to add to the pop mystery. If we did see him we viewed him as someone’s cool older brother, future boyfriend prototype or just plain crush.
Let Me Walk You Home
Later, usually through cooler siblings, friends or radio stations, we learned that the boy turned into a young man, to not fade away, only to become more enigmatic in what we would know to be arguably the foremost college rock band. Again, through cooler elders and with the good fortune of underground radio and indie record stores, his voice, music and vivid messages of hopeful, fragile and often failed love and loneliness would waft through our speakers to cheer or comfort us or be a companion to loneliness.
Like any college career, Big Star was too short-lived, but looked back on as fondly as it was experienced at the time, if not more, despite any rocks in the road with the bittersweetness of a first love. And much like some school friends, they change or don’t always act like you remembered them to. In the ’90s, Alex spent some of it volleying around between planned and surprise club dates and county fairs. In the former setting he wouldn’t always play what one might expect or even want to hear. Sometimes his set sounded more like one from Johnny Thunders and other times a lounge cover act. Kicking out the jams had a much different meaning; “Volare,” “Little GTO.” Many audience members dug it, dancing as if in on some ironic joke when really Alex just seemed to have a thinly veiled smoldering contempt.
Thank You Friends
But then he came back with new musicians who some could say had seen their own better days to press on and not go easy into that good night, but one that we would all live to enjoy. These past years as friends and icons fell we could count on Al. He had lived through much of what we had and more; substance use, death of friends and family, love loss and epic tragedies. We thought, took for granted really, that he would stick around, that he would be there to guide us from the kid with the transistor and covers over his head through less than stellar school and work years and the mediocrity of middle age to an older one, perhaps in Vegas at various lounges or casinos.
Free Again
But those day drams were dashed one month ago when he left us as mysteriously and quietly as he often did after his shows. Through many tunes and tears, a vision of him striding down some street with a jacket, jeans worn shoes and a scarf slightly blowing in the wind appears indelibly, along with the possibility of playing for us once again. Until then we have only stories, recordings and our own memories to keep his alive.
Here are but a few from some who knew him well:

Where Are You, Little Star?
John Fry (Co-Owner, Ardent Studios)

An unexpected and unwanted event occurred on March 17, 2010. At about 7 pm, I received a call from Jody Stephens, who had gone to Austin that day to participate in SXSW. He quickly said that he had received a call from Laura, Alex’s wife. He had suffered symptoms at home and been taken to a hospital where he had died in the emergency room. There initially was nothing more to say beyond “What, say that again, are you sure?”
Then we said to one another, “I guess we better cancel everything”. I was about to hang up when it occurred to me to say “It’s your decision, but you guys should talk about it among yourselves. Maybe you want to go ahead with everything as a tribute to Alex.” They called back in a couple of hours and said they were going to perform with guest artists. I think it was the right decision.
There was a tremendous outpouring of love and support from the artist community at SXSW. The media were courteous and respectful in as far as I have seen. We all are grateful.
The band has also decided to go ahead with the already scheduled show at The Levitt Shell in Memphis on May 15. It will be similar to the SXSW show, essentially a Big Star gig with guest performers, honoring Alex’s memory, but playing only the Big Star repertoire, rather than trying to cover ever era of Alex’s long and varied career.
The first time I met Alex was during Box Tops overdub and mixing sessions at Ardent in 1967. For all the years hence, we had been friends and colleagues. He was a brilliant, widely read man, with a vast knowledge of music from many genres, art, literature, politics, and history. Big Star played in London in 2008 and 2009. For some reason, I felt almost compelled to go and see both shows. I am glad that I did. The shows were great. Alex and his wife Laura were so happy together. I ask myself “why now?”, and of course, there is no answer.
During the ’08 show, they had already played many songs from the ’70s albums, and as they were getting ready to play some selections from In Space, Alex joked with the audience. “Now we’re going to play some songs that you may not have heard before from In Space. Just listen, and if you don’t like these now, I guarantee that you will in 30 years.”
Recently, I picked up the Big Star boxed set, looked at the cover photo with their smiling faces, and reflected on the fact that there are now two of these four people about whom I have received shocking sudden death phone calls, one in 1978 and another in 2010.
Alex and Chris are sorely missed, much loved, and deeply respected.

Goodbye El Goodo
Robert Gordon (Author, It Came from Memphis)

Alex stuck his finger down his throat and gagged, showing me that’s how much he hated Memphis. We laughed about it. He didn’t like me much either (something I wrote perhaps, or his interpretation of my horoscope charts), but that didn’t mean we couldn’t laugh together. He’d boarded a flight for a European tour, and just his luck, the movie showing was The Firm, shot in Memphis—he couldn’t escape the city—and he gagged again.
Alex Chilton became a public figure at the age of 16 when, not long after he’d first seen the inside of a recording studio, a song from that session became a #1 worldwide hit, “The Letter” by the Box Tops. At that impressionable age he became a product packaged and sold, considerable talent yielding considerable profits—for the manager and not the artist. Soon, the monkey walked away from the organ grinder to do his own thing.
His thing: He channeled the future by capturing the underground zeitgeist, three times in the 1970s alone—an audience for the clean pop of the first two Big Star Records caught up to the music a decade after it was made; the third Big Star album was nihilistic and beautiful (hello Elliot Smith and the ‘90s); the shambolic Like Flies on Sherbert deemed hip the wealth and diversity of Americana roots while becoming a punk rock classic. The art of these efforts has become canonized, but the financial return was—again—basically nil. Big pop hit or great art, same result: no money.
Instead of profit, his fans assigned him prophecy. But the Replacements only got it half right in their tribute song. Children by the million might have screamed for Alex Chilton, but he’d never have come running. Waves of admiration and love were an assault, and he was scornful of those who needed to make more of his songs than he did. His lifelong interest in astrology makes sense: What is colder, more beautiful, more distant than the stars? Astrology is the province of the seeker, not the sought.
Alex Chilton’s career in song is a testament to his seeking, to his eye for precise detail, his adventuresome ear, his empathetic heart. In a few lines he could chillingly evoke the angst and maelstrom of young adulthood, touching strangers in a personal way (their responses leading to his notorious friction with some fans). His mind remained curious all his life, exploring politics, the humanities, and sciences with the same avidity he mined R&B, country, classical music and everything in between. He refused to be predictable, and preferred his audience be kept on its guard. In the same late-night radio appearance when he sang Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”—years, of course, before Whitney Houston made a career out of it, he also broke into a filthy racist ballad. His songs were not unlike William Eggleston’s photographs—crisp, saturated, and composed, with an underlying menace, with a throat-aching wistfulness.
Alex was as complicated as Memphis itself. XL Chitterlings, my favorite of his stage names, stole Wilhelm Reich books from the Memphis Public Library because he said no one checked them out, and he gave them to people whom he thought would appreciate them. When a friend heard him explain his world view, he chided him, “You’re right Alex, the world is wrong.” Telling me about this later, Alex added “And, hell. I believe that. The world is wrong, I am right.”
To the end, he did it his way. Apparently he’d been feeling bad for several days, but not so bad he couldn’t refuse advice to visit the doctor. Dead at 59, the loss magnified by its abruptness, the musician is stilled but his great recordings live on. The eulogies will too, much to his likely irritation.

C’mon a My House
John R. Lightman (Musician, producer and former Big Star bass player)

I played bass with Big Star, following Andy Hummel’s departure, as a trio with Alex and Jody in 1974. For the past 30 years, I would visit with Alex whenever I’d go to New Orleans, and we’d play some music and talk. Usually, when I’d walk into his house, he’d be playing a CD of Jimmy Elledge singing “Ain’t It Funny How Time Slips Away.”
Alex was intelligent and interested in many areas of knowledge. He had strong musical opinions. For example, he much preferred Beatles albums before Rubber Soul to the ones that followed. He never bought into any of the hype surrounding any musicians, including himself. He said that he only considered three or four of his Big Star songs to be great.
Alex lost the sibling to whom he was closest as a boy: his older brother, and he sublimated that pain and created beautiful songs. He was what I would call a musician’s musician, an inspiration to anyone who knew him or heard his music.

Hot Thing
Chesley Pearman (artist, musician, writer for The Local Voice)

Alex was a trip. And I’ve actually tripped with Alex. I’ve seen him sail a beer bottle the full length of a long room at a soundman who couldn’t get the monitors the way Alex wanted them. I’ve also seen him just show up at my door in Oxford, at the old A-frame, to hang out, get wasted, play guitars, and be the greatest guy you would ever want to hang with. He asked me one time if he could just pitch a tent in my backyard and move out there.
He was one of the friendliest, funniest, and unpretentious guys I’ve ever known – especially given the genius that he was. It took me months to hunt him down and get him on the phone when I wanted to book him into Syd & Harry’s. It took me hours on the phone to convince him to come and play Oxford the first time. I have some great stories about him, but maybe some other time.
He was truly a wonderful guy, and I’m really sad that he’s gone. But his music is still here, and like another of his fans said: ” I never travel very far/ without a little Big Star…”

Thing For You
Adam Hohenberg (Filmmaker)

I’ve just been reminiscing about Alex and it seems that he was accorded more praise in death than in life. I mean it’s wonderful to see it, but rather ironic. I mean, it was great to see a two page article in the LA times with a gallery of eight more photographs. Growing up in Memphis I was not totally into the music scene… but the way Memphis was and still is, these people are accessible. I realized when Lee Baker died that I had seen him play more than anyone and Jim Dickenson was in that band with him, so I had seen them more than any other bands.
But the thing with Alex is that I remember he liked young girls and my sister was best friends with this girl who knew him and he decided he was going to come over and pick up my sister without calling and just take her out. She was seventeen or eighteen, this was around ’77, and I just remember him knocking on the door – I think it was rather late around 9:30 on a school night – and thinking ‘what’s that noise?’ She was very shy and virginal and looked like she was fifteen. I had no sense of who he was. I remember him giving me the demo LPs, Radio City and Flies on Sherbet as he would a kid and signed them – “here, let me give you one of these” – just like a really nice guy.
I didn’t know him first-hand from the Box Tops or even Big Star, but what I knew was Panther Burn and Tav Falco and just his punk phase; peeing off the side of the stage and the Antenna Club. And the next thing I know I’m at Sarah Lawrence and met this kid who played guitar and I asked what music he was into. And he said that “Alex Chilton is the best musician there is.” He didn’t know Alex was from Memphis and I looked at him and kind of froze like he was joking. It just confirmed that in Memphis we can take it for granted – it’s not like New York or LA or other cities where you can go hang out with them and there’s that kind of familiarity. I’ll have lunch with Jody Stevens.
My father was in Alex’s father’s generation and kind of a wild man; a successful business man, but knew Alex from back in the day and would go to see him even when he was 70. He likes to dance and would stay by the side of the stage. Once Alex yelled out to him and my dad invited him for a hot tub at his place and the next day Alex went over and hung out. I think the fact that he was open to life in a way others may not have been made his art better, that he was connected to real people. He would be open to going to this guy’s house that was 70 years old thinking he was interesting and having a hot tub rather than hanging out with girls or someone his own age.
And thinking back on it I think he always wanted to be smaller than what he was and in this respect I think he failed because he turned out to be an important person, he felt weird about it and the more he tried the more he became a cult figure. It is amazing that he could sustain that level of creativity. So now it’s a point of rediscovery for me. I want to go and revisit his life.

A Rock Remembrance
Paul Rock (CAA story analyst and Wild Honey Co-owner)

In the fall of 1994, my partners (Andrew Sandoval and David Jenkins) in Wild Honey Productions and I set out to produce a tribute to Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys for December at the 200-seat Morgan Wixson Theatre in Santa Monica, Ca. Having previously staged a successful Beach Boy tribute/gathering in my rented Hancock Park house (my first meetings with Baby Lemonade (Arthur Lee’s band in future years) and the Wondermints (Brian Wilson’s current band after their stellar performance in ’94), we set out to create a bigger and better event to honor our musical hero.
In the months leading up to the ’94 show, I learned that huge Brian Wilson fan Alex Chilton would be playing a solo show at the House of Blues just a few days before our show. My friend and sometime employer Glenn Morrow at Bar None Records put me in touch with the talented Ben Vaughn who gave me Chilton’s phone number. Several nice phone conversations with Alex yielded lots of interest, but no commitment. He was very interested in whether Brian would be attending and or playing.
Meanwhile, I contacted my fellow Brian Wilson nut David Leaf, Brian’s confidante and friend, about the show and he passed the word to Brian and Andy Paley (Brian’s collaborator on his ’98 solo record). Again, lots of interest, but no commitment in the weeks leading up to the show.
Two days before the show, David Leaf called me and dropped the bomb: Brian would be performing a short set at the show. He would need a grand piano. No problem! I passed this good news to Alex when I flagged him down at the House of Blues. Again, no commitment, but more interest. He told me he had family to visit and didn’t know if he could make it.
The night of the show. The audience is seated. Brian has sound checked and is backstage. I’m serving up drinks and handling assorted the fallout from Brian’s decision to go in the middle, not the end of the evening. Suddenly, I look up and Alex is standing in front of me. He’s ready to play, but he needs an acoustic guitar. I send him down to McCabe’s Guitar Shop (several blocks west of the theatre) and they lend him one. We are good to go. Easy to please, Alex has no problem following Brian… he just wants to hang with Brian backstage.
Backstage Brian and Alex have a spirited discussion about “The Letter” and other assorted matters. During is slot, Alex nails “Solar System” from The Beach Boys’ Love You record and with some lyrical help from the audience, he makes a nice stab at “This Car of Mine”. No ego, just bliss for everyone involved. Alex was a sly gentleman and a huge music fan.
Several weeks later, Alex calls to thank me again for giving him one of the best nights of his life. The pleasure was all mine, since I had two of my musical heroes on the same stage playing at our little homemade show. I will always remember Alex with great fondness and get chills when I listen to his records.

Alex’s Happy Song
Scott Miller (Game Theory, Loud Family)

I spoke to Alex only a few times, mostly in a single backstage encounter in Memphis in 1984, and the first thing I feel obliged to report is how entirely good-natured he was. I didn’t know better than to do a fair amount of geeking out about Big Star Third, to the point of having him help me get lyrics right, and he participated in this discussion with no hint of annoyance or attempt to change the subject. I realize there was such a thing as him behaving antisocially, but if I’d never actually met him, I’d assume from what I read that he was antisocial day in and day out. There’s a big difference.
Alex had a precise and literary mind, and the closest facsimile of a literary life available to him in his formative years was Memphis’s community of the musicologically hypereducated, a seductively rich atmosphere in the midst of which there was far too much positive reinforcement of colorful excess. He had a black sense of humor that, in the patterns I’ve seen it deployed, I think perversely indicated that he liked you, or was considering liking you. If you were overly sensitive to crossing the line, it was an unfortunate fact of life that he was going to have to put some distance between you and him, because crossing the line was what he did.
We can learn from the personality traits of great originals like Alex that originality, in the first instance, is contentiousness: an arbitrary rejection of some habit of mind. But just as Alex spent occasional defining moments in opposition both musically and personally, he spent the whole rest of his day being pleasant and loving life, both musically and personally. It’s no accident that his later musical career is difficult for most people; he directed his affections to neglected corners of the musical landscape, where affection was needed most. My heart goes out in gratitude to Jody, Jon, Ken, John Fry, Laura, who seems thoroughly wonderful, and everyone who gave Alex a good life, and I’ll testify again to what a supremely successful artist he was — I would guess one of the ten best American composers in history.

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