Music Features

Thank You Friend: Alex Chilton 1950-2010

Before sitting down to write about how Alex Chilton’s music affected my life, I decided to go back and revisit Bruce Eaton’s entry in the acclaimed 33 1/3 series about Big Star’s classic second album, Radio City. My copy of the book was in admittedly poor upkeep, wearing the unflattering consequences of surviving in the back of my packed Jeep during a trip from Memphis all the way to Santa Barbara, California, and then back east to Austin, Texas. I bought the book in the Stax Museum after a very gracious tour of Stax and Ardent Studios by one of the very masterminds behind Big Star’s sound, Ardent founder John Fry.

Looking back, I sometimes ask myself how I ended up in that position – standing in the hallways of Ardent Studios with Fry and Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, flanked by walls decorated with framed album covers of landmark records like The Replacements’ Let It Be, Led Zeppelin III and Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul. The answer, as Eaton writes in his graceful eulogy of a fantastic album, is in the sound. He explains early on regarding the baggage of artist backstories and hearsay, “If you can accept the premise that genius almost always comes with a price tag, then you’re free to concentrate on why you ultimately care about the artist. In one word: music.”

Oh boy, did I care about Big Star’s music from the first moment I heard it (Ballad of El Goodo was the first Big Star song to enter my ears, and it floored me). I was a fan far before I was a critic, so I guess you could say I avoided approaching Big Star in the kind of methodical way Chilton would have hated – he notoriously gave the media a 30-plus year cold shoulder before he died. Instead of being analytical, I opened my senses to Chilton’s voice, to the clangy chime of the guitars, to the almost unfairly perfect hooks. I was in love, and better yet, I felt that this love was exclusive. I literally did not know a single other person who knew who Big Star was, and like any new love, I wanted to show it off.

It would be after several years of absorbing the nostalgic bliss of I’m in Love with a Girl and the thuggish force of Kizza Me that I would find myself in the unusual position of interviewing some of the very players in this story of prevailing genius. After meeting Fry and Stephens and speaking with original Big Star bassist Andy Hummel over the phone, it wouldn’t be a lie to say that I suddenly felt a unique, personal connection to the band. Although I never had the privilege of meeting Chilton (again, in so many words Fry told me not to bother trying), I know now that it would have only supplemented the relationship I had with his songs. Again, Eaton nailed it in his book: the songs say everything you will ever need to know.

Chilton’s songs were very telling, especially in the often-overlooked third Big Star album, titled Third/Sister Lovers. Third was one of those albums, like Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, in which the narrator is being almost uncomfortably honest with the listener. Chilton uncompromisingly pours his pains out into the grooves with Third, revealing more harrowing insecurity and unfettered emotion than one could ever ask for in an interview. Take Holocaust, a beautiful wreck of minimalist piano and slide guitar that sounds like the charred aftermath to some recent catastrophe. Chilton sings bleakly, “Your mother’s dead/You’re on your own/She’s in her bed” before the loose melody all but disintegrates into aimless noise like a wax sculpture melting away, with Chilton concluding, “You’re a wasted face/You’re a sad-eyed lie/You’re a holocaust”. It’s songs like this, bordering on the avant-garde, that reveal a depth that Chilton did not share with many of his power pop peers.

Of course, what people will always remember most about Chilton is his ability to craft the perfect feel-good summer soundtrack song. There are so many on a mere three Big Star albums that it’s hard to keep track: In the Street, When My Baby’s Beside Me, Watch the Sunrise, September Gurls, O My Soul, and Back of a Car are just a few of them, and if you are here as a Big Star virgin, stop reading right now and listen to all of them. Right now. I mean it.

Sure, I wish I could have met the man who wrote many of my favorite songs, and regarding a greater selfish disappointment, I wish I could have seen the unit play at South By Southwest, as I had anticipated. But life and death tend not to accommodate the convenience of others, and I know that Chilton’s passing much more deeply affected the lives of his own family, as well as Stephens, Hummel and the Ardent team. But I hope that they, as I do, can take comfort in knowing that part of Chilton will – to use an irresistible cliché – shine on like the band’s namesake. Alex Chilton was a better friend to me through his music than he ever could have been had I known him. I’m thankful for that. Like all Big Star fans know, I can only make it my duty to spread the word to others.

Chilton didn’t die in Memphis, as Paul Westerberg once remarked would be cool. But something tells me that many years from now, when many lesser bands have come and faded away, people will still be listening to Chilton’s music and saying, “I’m in love with that song”.