Thoughts by The Millions, About The Late Alex Chilton

Alex Chilton - Photo by Jim Newberry

As a preface to the little article/remembrance below, know that I seem to be all over the place because my mind still is jumbled concerning Alex Chilton’s death. I could certainly talk all day about how much his music meant to me and how much I am shocked by his passing. Below are just some thoughts running through my head these last few days, nothing more but nothing less……

It’s been a rough few days, that I can tell you with all the certainty I am able to muster. I had always promised myself as a music journalist never to let my own personal fandom interfere with the job, to let it affect me. I made it a personal vendetta never to let my giddyness show when I met someone I looked up to and idolized, whether it be Colin Blunstone, B.B. King, the guys from Sloan or anyone I had written about or reviewed/interviewed and then had the pleasure to actually meet face to face. I had made myself a promise I would never turn into a quivering wreck when one of my heroes passed. Since they were human, I had decided they had a right to eternal peace just as everyone else did and I would neither hold it against them, bemoan the fact they died before their time (whatever that means), or spend days, weeks or months “getting over” it as if I actually knew them or had a personal connection to them in some selfishly imaginary way. We tend to think of our heroes as our friends because their work affects us in untold ways. People die all the time and I felt it was needless to get worked up about it and to just let their music or their art I enjoyed so much allow them to live on as if they would always be there, which, in theory, they would.

But I never counted on this.

The death of Alex Chilton, solo artist, former member of ’60’s vocal group The Box Tops (who had classic hits like The Letter, Cry Like A Baby and Neon Rainbow), and co-leader of underrated/under-appreciated band Big Star, has disturbed me no end since it happened late last week. Now I know how deeply John Lennon’s death must have affected the Baby Boomers who had grown up during The Beatles’ rise in the ’60’s. Though, of course, I had known who Lennon was, knew about his contributions to music and knew just about all of his musical output to the point I could recite the lyrics to every Beatles song on cue like some sort of performing monkey, I was too young to be mortified by it, to be too depressed as I didn’t understand the ideas behind the songs, I just knew them as songs, you know? But, Chilton’s death – this is a totally different matter altogether. The stuff Chilton wrote and sang about, at this stage of my life, I am very familiar. The seeking of love, the losing of it, the utter depression and uselessness of fighting for your dreams and sometimes falling short and the brief exhilaration in between when the little things come together as they tend to do every once in a while are all found in the incredible songs Chilton and his co-horts put together as part of Big Star. The songs so very few people have had an opportunity to hear as despite his huge influence among the music community, your average Joe probably only knows The Lettr the huge hit song Chilton sang when he was in The Boxtops and all of age 16. Written and produced by others, Chilton had often expressed frustration at the possibility for only being remembered for that one brief moment of fame. He needn’t have worried, as it turned out, but still, Chilton’s death is in a different sort of league than Lennon’s. Where Lennon’s death was reported, discussed and dissected ad nauseum in TV shows, magazines and newspapers for weeks and months afterward Chilton’s will no doubt have a much smaller media window. That is, if the window is opened at all for someone known to most as a one-hit wonder singer for a mostly-forgotten ’60’s band. For someone who wrote some of the most beautifully fragile and wonderfully painful pop songs ever, it rankled as he contemplated his accomplishments and boiled them down to one song. To me, it is one of the biggest injustices in a business where talented people languish in the shadows because they don’t have the “look” or do not fit into a cookie-cutter mold labels and managers love because they already know how to market a certain product. Where lives are shattered as greedy men in suits promise artists their every dream only to drop them the second their art is deemed by bean-counters as unwanted and unsellable. Would Lennon and the rest of the Beatles have succeeded had they started in the early ’70’s? Most scholars say they wouldn’t have had a chance past 1971. After the dreams of the ’60’s died, rock and roll became a business. If there was one thing about Chilton, it was his reluctance about and distrust of the music business. The Box Tops had proven to be an exercise in humility for him as a teenbage star as he wasn’t allowed to contribute his own songs exceot for a B-side or two or an album cut on their last LP and the vision for the band belonged to his producers. He was nothing but a vocalist in a band who was told what to sing, where to sing, how to sing, how to dress, and how to act. All this, only to be spit out when the band broke up and to find himself back on the streets of Memphis with no deal and no prospects. The only thing Chilton had going for him at that time was a steadily building angst he was about to unleash on the world as a member of Big Star. When Chilton ran into Chris Bell, Bell was fronting a band called Icewater and looking for someone with music business experience who could help guide him and his band to the next step. Seeing a bit of himself in Bell and immediately noticing Bell’s potential and the potential of the band as a whole, Chilton joined forces with Bell and they decided to name themselves after the Big Star chain of supermarkets in Memphis. thinking the name would be a great calling card for rock musicians who would soon take over the world.

Unfortunately, mainstream success (as it is normally quantified anyway) was not to be, at least during the band’s lifetime. For most of Big Star’s fans, that turned out to be the most appealing part of the band. Big Star, in many cases, was an almost anti-Beatles. Obviously heavily-influenced by those mop-topped lads as well as the Kinks, early Who, and a bunch more, Chilton and Bell managed to absorb the nuances of writing great pop songs with an experimental edge to them yet sound as if it was written directly for the listener and not the world at large.

Indeed, as well-crafted, wonderfully written and even deeply personal as The Beatles songs were to me and so many others, Big Star’s were even more so to me as they seemed written for and about me and my life where, as much as I liked them, there’s no mistaking the Beatles’ songs were written for mass consumption. You can talk to me all day about how experimental and groundbreaking those late-era Beatles’ songs were – there’s no doubt. But they were also polished into a high gloss at a time when people were waiting for any scrap of music those four former Mop Tops could commit to vinyl. Since those Liverpudlians landed in 1964, the hysteria created would never again to allow them any sort of conceit about recording their songs under any kind of cover. What made Big Star great to so many people is that it was almost a private thing. For a long time, the records were tremendously hard to find and the only way to hear the band’s output was to have it played for you by someone in the know, like being initiated into a special club with Big Star’s music being the secret handshake. My own personal discovery of the band was probably as typical as anyone’s. I was riding to a gig with one of the guys in a band I was helping out. He had asked me if I had ever heard Big Star and I said I had heard OF them but had never personally heard their music myself except for a cover or two. Immediately he pops in a homemade cassette he had made of his favorite cuts from the band’s three albums, heavier on cuts from Third if I remember correctly. Immediately, I became enthralled with their music. It was like love at first listen. The music spoke to me in a rare way where you know what you’re listening to is special and it’s hard to put into words why because the songs touch on subjects you really are not too comfortable speaking with someone else about, but I believe my friend understood as he was a huge fan himself.

To listen to a Big Star album was like eavesdropping on a conversation between four best friends with their own language you somehow understood. I am sure Big Star wanted a hit and wrote with the hope mass acceptance would come but, to me, those albums were like a letter written as if for only me to read. The strange thing is, everyone who heard their music felt exactly the same way.

Though I never really understood Chilton’s latter day career and all the weird albums he made with the lounge-y feel and the obscure covers, as a fan I afforded him those conceits because he seemed so happy and carefree on those albums compared to the moroseness of some of the Big Star songs, where he seemed to be clinging to life so precariously. It was almost as if he didn’t want any more big expectations about his career. When everyone expected him to go right, Chilton went left. Just like he became a power popper after his tenure with the white-soul Box Tops. Just when someone thought they had Chilton’s number, he started using letters. He had to. Big Star had become both his crowning achievement and his biggest obstacle. As the legend of Big Star grew, everyone was watching, expecting “genius” or “the perfect popsong” (or whatever you want to call it) to come pouring out of him as if he could make it happen on command but when he was writing those perfect songs, the world didn’t give a shit. The albums didn’t sell, the radio hits never happened, and despite a cult fandom among musicians and music nerds clamoring for any scrap of Big Star they could get their hands on, he found himself at the bottom of the ladder – the equivalent of a subway busker, singing standards and obscure soul and country covers for his supper at little shitty dives all over the country, few knowing who he was and those who did wondering how a one-time one-hit wonder with the soul-deep voice could let his career get to this point. But, after years in that place with all expectations removed by this time, he found himself again. He took those old songs, the songs he loved to sing and play, and gathered strength from them to the point where he reunited Big Star in the early ’90’s for a one-off gig that became an ongoing committment thanks to the sympathic participation of two of his biggest fans, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies.

Eventually, Chilton learned a concept some businessmen refer to today as maximizing his potential. Not only did Chilton tour with his old band The Boxtops on oldies package tours through the US and abroad, but he also worked his solo cabaret style act all over the world and did many gigs with the reformed Big Star, releasing both a new Big Star album in 2005, a new Box Tops record in 1998 and a steady stream of solo albums during that time as well.

Though always mercurial and wary of most facets of the music business (he pretty much refused to give interviews in the past five or six years) he seemed to be in the happiest years of his life, his status as an underground legend secured and even winning some mainstream fans thanks to his music being used on That ’70’s Show and several movie soundtracks. Though Chilton would occasionally still mention in interviews about how his career would be relegated to The Letter, I would think over these past few days he would be touched at the response to his passing and surprised by how much notice he has gotten and how fondly he is remembered. Without Chilton there would be a lot less great songs, not just his own but from the many bands his work has inspired and from the aspect of musicians realizing that just because you’re not at the top of the charts, doesn’t mean you can’t influence and touch people with your art. Chilton was as influential as any artist you could name, yet your average radio personality wouldn’t know who the hell he is. It’s both touching and sad, that, but Chilton will no doubt be remembered long after this and I for one always see my self enjoying his timeless music. If you haven’t heard any of his work, I would suggest doing so – it just may change your life. I know it has mine.