Friday, March 19, 2010

Something I Didn't Want To Read Anytime Soon: Alex Chilton's Obit

I generally prefer to avoid posting something about a death, since wonderful, beautiful, inventive amazing people die every day - and, bluntly, I am "Way Too Damn Lazy" to write blog postings about even a fraction of 1% of them. Sadly, here's an untimely passing I'm compelled to call attention to.

One of the most inspired, original songwriters and impassioned performers in rock n' roll, Alex Chilton, succumbed to a heart attack on March 17 at the age of 59. He was a rare talent who could seamlessly jump from rock to psychedelia to folk to jazz to blues to Beatle-esque pop to Memphis r&b (at times in the same set) and sound great in every genre. And Alex' best known work, with The Box Tops and Big Star, is strictly the tip of the iceberg.

Alex was slated to appear with Big Star on Saturday night at the South By Southwest Music Festival
in Austin, Texas.

Big Star, 1971: Jody Stephens, Chris Bell, Alex Chilton and Andy Hummel

Although most of us (myself included) didn't hear Big Star, which Alex co-led with the very talented singer-songwriter-guitarist Chris Bell, when their albums were first released, barely distributed and never, ever played even on FM radio back in the early 1970's, the band would be hugely influential on the music that followed: without Big Star, there's no R.E.M., no Replacements, no Marshall Crenshaw, no Beck, no Wilco, etc.

Keith Spera in the New Orleans Music News has done an excellent job delving into who Alex Chilton was and how he loved New Orleans, where he lived for the last 28 years of his life. There is also a good tribute written by Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney for NPR Music, the official obit from NPR, which also includes links to various interviews and other pieces, as well as a good article in the San Francisco Chronicle by Aidin Viziri.

I add to this the following excerpts from Chris Talbott's article for the Associated Press."It was Chilton's work with a second Memphis band, Big Star that cemented his legacy as a pioneering voice for a generation of kids looking for something real in the glossy world of pop music. The band was never a commercial success, but R.E.M. counted Chilton as an influence, the Replacements name-checked him with their 1987 song "Alex Chilton," and his band still provides a template for musicians today. "In my opinion, Alex was the most talented triple threat musician out of Memphis — and that's saying a ton," Paul Westerberg, the former Replacements frontman, said in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "His versatility at soulful singing, pop rock songwriting, master of the folk idiom, and his delving into the avant garde, goes without equal. He was also a hell of a guitar player and a great guy."

Original Big Star member Jody Stephens and Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer of The Posies, who joined Chilton in the reformed group (a.k.a. Big Star 2.0), all plan to play Saturday's show as scheduled. Stringfellow said the band will likely invite special guests to join in, but that details were just starting to be worked out.

"That Alex died two days before we were going to play, it has dropped the bomb on South by Southwest in a lot of ways," Stringfellow said in a phone interview from Paris. "We have a lot of fans there. I hope this show will be a good release and a kind of way to memorialize Alex. He deserves that and a lot more."

Paul Westerberg, author of the aforementioned fabulous song about Alex, has posted links to a host of tributes here on his website. No doubt many more are forthcoming, especially at SXSW over this weekend.

Here are three songs from the August 2008 concert by Big Star 2.0 (Alex, Ken Stringfellow, Jon Auer and Jody Stephens) at the Rhythm Festival in Clapham, Bedfordshire. There is no band that synthesized protean elements of American folk-rock and pop - Gram Parson's songwriting and Roger McGuinn's jangly guitar sound from The Byrds, plus Arthur Lee's cryptic lyricism and the vocal harmonies of Brian Wilson/ Beach Boys - with British Invasion soundscapes (from The Beatles to The Move to The Kinks to The Small Faces to The Who to early Pink Floyd) quite like Big Star. It is also noteworthy that Big Star, devoted to succinct pop songcraft, existed completely apart from the pronounced early 1970's bent towards flashy, highly theatrical "stadium rock".

Also posted on youtube were the following home movie clips of the 1971-1972 Big Star lineup, shot by Andy Hummel and the late Chris Bell, with "Thank You, Friends", one of Alex' best tunes as the soundtrack. It is just one of many Chilton songs that has grown on me over the years.

Always musically curious, he loved all kinds of genres and incorporated all of it into his unique approach. Thus, like Elvis Costello, he remains close to Mr. Blogmeister's musical heart. Only Alex Chilton could pull off rocked-out versions of both "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" and "April In Paris" in the same set as covers of "There Will Never Be Another You", Michael Jackson's "Rock With You" and "Can't Seem To Make You Mine" by Sky Saxon And The Seeds in its full psychedelic era rave-up splendor - or even attempt to.

The most interesting pieces I have seen thus far about Alex have been Robert Cass' Bootleg City article and Michael Baker's The Glory and Grandeur That Is Defeat: The Music of Alex Chilton, a fascinating 2004 study (in two parts) from the enjoyable Perfect Sound Forever online magazine. Baker is a highly opinionated, entertaining, wonderfully florid and very good writer, as well as one deeply knowledgeable music geek.

I'll simply close with both the painfully obvious understatement that Alex Chilton, still underrated after all these years (only in his earliest incarnation with The Box Tops was he ever a pop "flavor of the month"), left a highly original, often inspired legacy - and three great recordings of his. First, a cover version of an irresistible Byrds-Beatles style song by Scottish rockers (and frequent collaborators of Alex) Teenage Fanclub, then a caustic lil' number which ventures successfully into Jimi Hendrix "The Cry Of Love" territory. The third song is a well-known jazz standard and Nina Simone signature tune.

R.I.P. Alex - you are much missed!


Anonymous said...

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paul etcheverry said...

Thanks for the kind words.

paul etcheverry said...

Just listened to the "Don't Lie To Me" clip again. I swear this song sounds like it was written specifically for Rod Stewart and The Faces (A.K.A. The Small Faces: Ron Wood, Ronnie Lane, Ian McLagen and Kenny Jones - with Rod in the place of diminutive, incendiary and bluesy "Humble Pie" frontman Steve Marriott).