The Big Star Who Rarely Was: Remembering Alex Chilton, Memphis Muse.

“I don’t have words at the moment. I am in shock. Numb hands. Deeply, deeply sad. One of my favorite people, one of the most unique. Alex: Take Care. Wherever you are now.”
This was the Facebook status line for Ken Stringfellow (of Posies/Disciplines/later period Big Star), this afternoon, the day after the music world lost a big star who really wasn’t: Alex Chilton.

Alex Chilton (December 28, 1950 – March 17, 2010)

A Memphis native, Chilton died on March 17th, in New Orleans from a heart attack. He was 59 years old. Despite having a band called Big Star, (who were obscure in their time), who in turn had albums with titles like Radio City (not played on radio in its day) and #1 Record (it barely charted), Chilton was far more influential than he was famous, although I hazard that pretty much anyone of the so-called “rock era” would know the voice of a 16 year old Chilton fronting The Box Tops on a succession of memorable real hit records such as “The Letter,” “Soul Deep,” “Cry Like A Baby” and the lesser remembered “Sweet Cream Ladies, Forward March,” and “Neon Rainbow.” A reunited Box Tops played “Neon Rainbow” in May 2009 at the Spring Arts & Music Festival in Hoboken, New Jersey. Here’s a clip of that, with a longish spoken intro, but the song is pure flower power, and actually rose to #24 on the charts, largely on the back of “The Letter.”
But among people like me, and there have been a lot of us coming out of the woodwork in the last 24 hours, it was Big Star that really established the Alex Chilton legacy.
It was a legacy which inspired everyone from Teenage Fanclub, Matthew Sweet, The Posies and of course Paul Westerberg, who wrote about Chilton in one of his most famous tunes with The Replacements.
Today, Paul Westerberg released the following statement to the media: “In my opinion, Alex was the most talented triple threat musician out of Memphis — and that’s saying a ton. 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.”
Like a lot of people my age, I missed Big Star the first time around. It took songs like “Alex Chilton,” Westerberg’s tireless mention of Big Star in interviews, along with a similar verbal reverence from R.E.M., particularly Peter Buck, and the early 90’s success of Teenage Fanclub and Matthew Sweet to really get the gospel out to us.
Personally, I can’t recall exactly where I first heard the actual music. I’ve narrowed it down to a mixtape – made for me by either Moe Berg or Johnny Sinclair (both from The Pursuit of Happiness), or by Bob McKitrick, who played bass for us in my band The Gravelberrys. But when I heard it, it hit me. Soul deep. This, to me, was the missing link between post-Beatles Badfinger guitar pop and Memphis rock and roll. Way ahead of its time. I recognized the song “September Gurls,” which I’d heard as a cover by The Bangles, but hearing the original, with it’s tinny trebly guitars and swooshing harmonies over a lazy rhythm section featuring the sloshing beat by drummer Jody Stephens and bassist Andy Hummel, set me off on a voyage of deeper exploration.
Yesterday, Jody Stephens spoke with Entertainment Weekly’s Clark Collis and said that, just as Stringfellow did, he felt “numb” over the sudden death of his bandmate, with whom he was scheduled to appear at SXSW this week, with Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow who have been backing Stephens and Chilton since their early 90’s rebirth, as heard on the Columbia Live At Missouri University album.
“It took me completely by surprise,” Stephens told Collis. “I saw Alex in November and he looked great. Good shape. Great spirit. Alex was doing wonderfully. Yesterday, I get a call from his wife and, you know, he’s passed away. I spent the rest of the day and this morning just feeling numb. It’s a shocker. You really have to bare yourself emotionally to be in a band. And when you do that, it opens up stronger bonds. There’s a profound relationship.”
In the grunge context of 1992-3, Big Star made way more sense than they had in 1971, the world had caught up with the band, who had by then broken up.

Left to Right: #1 Record, Radio City, Third/Sister Lovers (CD reissue)

Of course by then also, original member Chris Bell had died (in 1978, in a car accident at age 27). Largely owing to the renewed interest in all things Big Star, Bell’s solo album, I Am The Cosmos got its first CD release, by Rykodisc, in 1992.

Chris Bell: I Am The Cosmos (click on this to hear the title song)

In a November 1999 feature about Big Star, rock writer Barney Hoskyns kidded that just as the standing joke goes that anyone who heard the Velvet Underground in the ’60s formed a band of their own, then everyone who heard Big Star in the ’70s became a rock writer. Maybe that’s true, as I double as a journalist now. In the Hoskyns piece, Peter Buck declares that Big Star “served as a Rosetta Stone for a whole generation,” while  Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake adds that his own band were “struck most by the clean sparkle and Byrdsiness of the sound, and by the way the guitars had been produced. On those Big Star records, the chords are really brilliant against the melodies – it’s a really interesting choice of chords, because they really move around a lot. And obviously the vocal harmonies, those really nice simple harmonies.”But that was obvious when you heard “What You Do To Me” from Teenage Fanclub’s album Bandwagonesque.

It seems like Alex Chilton never got the respect he deserved in life, that happens sometimes.

If you’re curious, and you’ve never heard Big Star, allow me to be the one who does for you what someone did for me 20 years ago, turn you on to some groovy stuff. If you want, why not buy the recent 4 disc box set: Keep An Eye On The Sky (click on the album graphic below to go to an Amazon video link).

Now that he’s gone, have a look back at his stuff, and pay your respects to the Big Star who rarely was, ladies and gentlemen, the muse of Memphis, Mr. Alex Chilton. Thank you, friends.

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7 Responses to “The Big Star Who Rarely Was: Remembering Alex Chilton, Memphis Muse.”

  1. Yeah- incredibly sad news. it’s weird that your previous post was about Lennon, because that’s the only other guy i can think of whose vocals combined pop sensibility with naked rawness.

  2. OH MY! I’m blown away by how cool this website is, and how cool the photo’s are. THANK YOU!!!!!!!

  3. OH MY, this Blooooooooog and ALEX tribute is way, way cool Paul! Can I subscribe to this lovely, dark side of a blog??? Me Jean

  4. Nova Heart Says:

    Another great piece!

  5. A very good friend of mine used to crew for The Cramps. Alex produced Gravest Hits. He’s has lots of colourful stories about Chilton jumping on thier tour to mix live sound.

  6. Your big star etymology might be a little sketchy, but mine is not. Thanks Paul for pointing the way. Not just Big Star either, etched in my memory is listening and re-listening to drums and wires one Xmas day long ago. Feel lucky to have grown up with you and Peter as my musical springboards.

    Great article, great blog.
    Love DMac

  7. Great band – thanks for writing!

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