Photo: Michael Ochs Archive/Getty
Classic Alex Chilton live moment: 1987, long after midnight, a sleazy rock bar in Roanoke, Virginia. When the man strikes up his best-loved song, the Big Star classic “September Gurls,” some drunk idiot celebrates by throwing a bottle that hits the guitar. Chilton cuts the song dead right at the syllable “Sep—” and snarls, “If I catch the motherfucker who threw that bottle, I’m gonna kill him.” Then, to the band: “OK, on D. One. Two.” They pick it up without missing a beat: “Teeeehm-ber gurls…” A perfect summary of Alex Chilton’s mix of Southern charm and evil charisma.
Alex Chilton, who died Thursday of a heart attack at 59, was one of the all-time great rock & roll songwriters, and the ultimate indie cult hero. He also had one of the strangest careers in American music. At the age of 16, he sang a huge pop hit that’s enjoyed radio rotation ever since, the Box Top’s “The Letter.” But he left the middle of the road for one head-scratching move after another: the Memphis guitar band Big Star, a string of sloppy garage-punk records with titles such as Like Flies On Sherbert and Dusted In Memphis, then an embrace of New Orleans R&B and lounge standards. He famously dropped out in the 1980s to wash dishes in New Orleans. In the 2000s, he toured with the Box Tops and Big Star, never talking to journalists or revealing anything about his private life. The only time I ever attempted to interview him, backstage after a solo show, he just snickered, “I have to rest my voice” — a strange claim, since he was smoking a dubious hand-rolled cigarette the size of his head. But he said everything he had to say in his music.
Everybody has a different favorite Alex Chilton. But mine will always be Big Star. They made three albums in the 1970s: #1 Record (the “catchy pop” one), Radio City (the “twisted Beatle obsessions” one) and Sister Lovers (the “late-night emotional breakdown” one). Chilton’s high, bittersweet voice was full of pain and yearning, even when the chiming Rickenbacker guitars were pure teenage kicks. He sang the acoustic ballad “Thirteen,” probably the most obscure oddity to make Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (it came in at Number 396), along with other gems like “September Gurls,” “Life Is White,” and “Night Time.” He could take a song as dark and fearful as “Blue Moon” and made it sound romantic, crooning, “If demons come, while you’re under… / I’ll be the blue moon in the dark.”
Nobody bought these albums at the time, and radio wouldn’t touch them, but all three became classics. Big Star invented a vision of bohemian rock & roll cool that had nothing to do with New York, Los Angeles or London, which made them completely out of style in the 1970s, but also made them an inspiration to generations of weird Southern kids. Especially girls — for hipster gals who couldn’t necessarily relate to the abrasive machismo of Lou Reed or Iggy Pop, Alex Chilton was a dude who let female fans hear themselves in his music. Nobody was ever better at making Southern girls feel cool.
Like so many other Eighties kids, I first heard of Big Star because R.E.M.’s Peter Buck kept mentioning them in interviews. The Bangles did a cover of “September Gurls,” and the Replacements did the tribute “Alex Chilton,” but it was R.E.M. who really set the table for Chilton’s late-’80s surge in popularity, a moment captured in last year’s movie Adventureland. The scene where Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg bond over “I’m in Love With A Girl” is a completely accurate picture of how it felt to discover Big Star in the Eighties, at a time when “indie rock” didn’t even have a name yet.
Alex Chilton never seemed to have much interest in his career. He refused to milk the Big Star resurgence — by then, he was exploring a whole new sound, the lazy R&B raunch of records like High Priest. He was hilariously surly to fans requesting Big Star oldies. At a summer ‘88 show in New Haven, where some guy up front kept yelling for “Oh My Soul,” Alex just sneered, “Sorry — I don’t think this particular band has the capability to play that particular song.” Any time he faced the camera, he gave a mean glare and clenched his shoulders like a fighter. Despite years of hard living, he always seemed indestructible — and thanks to his music, he always will be.
Note: I didn’t witness that show in Roanoke. I heard about it from a Virginia girl I met in a bar, when the bartender put on Radio City. We both recognized the album, so we traded stories about Chilton shows we’d seen. A couple years later, we played Big Star’s “Thirteen” as the first dance at our wedding. Thank you for everything, Alex Chilton. You will always be the blue moon in the dark.