Another One Gone: Alex Chilton: 1950-2010

The music community of the southern US has taken a real beating lately: first Jim Dickinson, then Vick Chesnutt, now Alex Chilton have all passed away within the last year, leaving a hole at the center of the regions tight-nit musical family that will be all but impossible to fill.

Chilton, who died Wednesday at a hospital in New Orleans, was a pivotal figure in Memphis’s rise in the late sixties from a down and out city living on the fumes of past blues glory, to one of the leading lights in the emerging soul music explosion. With his group the Box Tops, the canny teenager created a series of late 60’s pop gems that beat with a definite soul-blues heart, a rare feat in the days of bubblegum rip offs and acid rock inanity. Box Tops songs such as “Soul Deep,” “The Letter,” and “Cry Like a Baby,” are text book examples of how to craft hook-filled, emotional pop without pandering to an audiences lowest common denominator, a pattern that Chilton would build on for his strongest work in the years to come.

In 1970, having emerged from a period of personal and musical reinvention, Chilton turned his back on the lure of pop fame and formed Big Star, the much-mythologized fetish piece of many a 80’s and 90’s power popper’s dreams. Unfortunately for Chilton and his band mates, during the group’s short, unruly life they were all but ignored, cast adrift in the sea of financial woes plaguing their record label, the once mighty Stax. Under-funded, poorly-promoted and well ensconced in the chemical delights of the day, the band hobbled through two complete albums and one aborted project that was a Chilton solo venture in all but name.

About those albums: “#1 Record,” the band’s debut, is an almost pristine sounding, Beatles-influenced set that highlights both Chilton and band mate Chris Bell’s mastery of 60’s pop music. While the more straight ahead rockers carry a strong whiff of contemporaries like Humble Pie, the ballads are something else altogether. Both stately and low key, songs like “Thirteen” and The Ballad of El Goodo” fuse Fab Four worthy harmonies, glistening, knife -edged guitar work and lyrics that are at once nostalgic for rock’s glorious youth and defiantly set toward the future. “Ain’t no one going to turn me around,” cries Chilton, a lyric that could serve as a motto for his entire career.

If  “#1 Record” was somewhat derivative of the band’s British Invasion heroes, the band’s sophomore effort, “Radio City,” found the embattled group fully matured, their influences integrated into a churning cauldron of sound decidedly their own. Amazingly, this triumph came during a period when Big Star’s personal equilibrium was at an all-time low. Founding member Chris Bell quite half way through the recording and by the time the record was completed the band was a day to day prospect, breaking up and reforming according to the periodic whims and substance-induced moods of the various members.

Still, the record is a marvel. A unified blast of agro-depressive, proto goth sensibilities wrapped around some of the most irresistible, spine tingling melodies ever conjured by human hand, the likes of “September Gurls,” “What’s Going Ahn,” and “Daisy Glaze,” are eccentric pop perfection and worthy of every superlative ever hurled their way. Though poor promotion would be blamed for the album’s lackluster sales, one has to wonder: there is a decided strangeness at work in theses tracks, an unsettling otherness that sets them well apart from groups of the day mining similar melodic territory. Clearly, Chilton was headed into realms well beyond the world of radio friendly pop.

By the time they began their next project in 1974, Big Star was down to just Chilton, drummer Jody Stephens and assorted studio vets. With fellow Memphis madman Jim Dickinson handling production, Chilton gave full reign to his increasingly eccentric vision. The music that emerged from these sessions is unlike any rock music heard before or since: symphonic, ghastly, heartbreaking and exhausted. Shot through with silence and gauzy echo, songs like “Kangaroo” and “Holocaust” almost dare the listener to walk through their haunted corridors and deserted rooms, as the twin specters of death and madness flit about.  “Stroke it Noel,” and “Thank You Friends,” match lyrical snideness with a jarring, almost baroque sense of musical abandon.

Crazed and tender as it was, the album, under various titles, most notably “Third” or “Sister Lovers,” wouldn’t see an official release until 1978, by which time Chilton had embarked on a solo career, Bell was a few months away from a fatal car crash and Big Star was history. Gone and barely remembered by anyone. Not even a footnote in the music history books.

The eventual reissue of the bands three albums, and the impact that music had on the emerging alternative music scene of the 1980’s has been documented ad nauseum. Suffice to say that some of the most inventive and thoroughly enjoyable master works of 70’s pop rock music finally had their day in the sun. As for Chilton himself, well the less said about his solo efforts the better. I’m a true connoisseur of the weird and damaged, but frankly the music he’s made since his Big Star days simply isn’t worthy of the man’s talent. Some people will tell you “Like Flies on Sherbert,” is a warped masterpiece. Don’t believe it. The man sounds thoroughly bored and drained of inspiration. Then again, maybe that was the only route left after three masterpieces were delegated to the bargain bins.

Whatever Chilton’s personal and, in later years, musical shortcomings may have been, the body of work he created with Big Star and, in another life, with the Box Tops, is testament to a truly original vision of American music that never shied away from the creeping horror and ecstatic joys of this world. Anyone who cares about such things, hell anyone who cares about music at all, should beg, borrow or steal these albums immediately. Modern rock would be unthinkable without their influence.

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