When news spread across the Internet on Saturday that legendary heavy metal singer Ronnie James Dio had succumbed to his battle with stomach cancer, I scoured every news website I could think, hoping to find solid confirmation of the event. I was not about to take the rumors at face value without some fact-checking, especially given Dio is a musician whom I quite enjoy. Sure enough, metal news site Blabbermouth.net soon gained confirmation from Dio’s wife Wendy that the performer was in fact still alive, albeit not in the best of shape. Unfortunately, that respite turned out to be short-lived: when I turned on my computer on Sunday, Dio spouse was now his widow, sadly informing the world of the singer’s passing.
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Lena Horne passed away on 9 May 2010 at 92-yearsold. Within minutes of the announcement, “Lena Horne R.I.P. 1917-2010” Tweets and links to YouTube clips multiplied across social networks. Through the collective voice of user-generated media, the legacy of Lena Horne suddenly became more vibrant and multi-dimensional than the standard obituaries that rushed to print in the wake of her passing. Elegant, classy, feisty, heroic, Ms. Horne informed a staggering range of individual, personal narratives. To my set of three year-old eyes, she was that larger than life Lady in the record store—her arms triumphantly outstretched on the cover of The Lady and Her Music (1981), an album that documented Ms. Horne’s Tony and Grammy Award-winning one-woman show.
That iconic cover image symbolized a life that blazed trails long before such a concept even entered the public discourse. I implore you, don’t rely on Wikipedia or a pat obituary to grasp the impact Lena Horne had on stage, screen, civil rights, and social justice. Go to the best authority on the life of Lena Horne—the Lady herself.
In the eyes of countless punk rock enthusiasts, Malcolm McLaren has always been seen as a villain, with injecting the urban glam of the New York Dolls with a red patent leather and clumsy politics sheen and being portrayed as an artless svengali by the Sex Pistols in their documentary, The Filth and the Fury, chief among his crimes.
But McLaren, who reportedly died of mesothelioma in New York City this week, was more than just the guy behind the guys. Through a string of genre-hopping musical explorations, he was at best a visionary, at worst a journalist in thrall to the sights and sounds of the streets, whether those found in the Bronx or Johannesburg or Vienna.
I have to confess, I’m not too familiar with the musical oeuvre of the recently-passed Alex Chilton. Most of what I know about the late Big Star frontman stems from laurels handed out by disciples such as the Replacements’ Paul Westerberg and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck. Don’t worry, fellow music aficionados; I do plan to thoroughly acquaint myself with the Chilton back catalogue over the next week. Certainly my primary reason for doing so is to explore the music of one of the most-lauded cult figures of rock ‘n roll, but another reason is because some frequently grumpy yet supremely talented guy named Paul Westerberg wrote a song about his hero that makes a very convincing case for Chilton’s artistic importance by virtue of being so effectively heartfelt in its admiration.
Yes, the Replacements’ 1987 single “Alex Chilton” is mired in a reverb-heavy production that dates the recording heavily and robs song of some of its punch. Its sound is a telling grab for commercial radio airplay by one of the founders of alternative rock, an ambition that would later sink the group for good. Nonetheless, the song overcomes its faults to become of the Mats’ greatest anthems. That’s because it’s instilled with an exuberance and conviction that overwhelms the band’s penchant for self-sabotage. In “Alex Chilton” we don’t get Westerberg the brat or Westerberg the misanthrope (although both personas resulted in stellar moments elsewhere in the Replacements discography). Here we get Westerberg the hopeless romantic, a man who wore his heart on his sleeve arguably better than any other songwriter of his generation. When Westerberg belts out the lines “I never travel far / Without a little Big Star” right before the guitar solo is unleashed, he’s as passionate about his love for Chilton’s music as he is in any of his ballads.
The Replacements practically charge through “Alex Chilton” in an effort to reach the promised land of the song’s infectious chorus. And what a chorus! Setting it up with a surging prechorus where Westerberg contemplates a world in which the underappreciated Chilton’s music was heard by far more souls than had ever actually picked up a Box Tops or Big Star record (“Children ‘round the world sing for Alex Chilton when he comes ‘round”), the band that made such a potent declaration of discontent with “Unsatisfied” sounds like it wouldn’t want to be anywhere else when it hits those chorus hooks. The words are straightforward (“I’m in love / What’s that song? / I’m in love / With that song”), yet when filtered through Westerberg’s ragged-yet-aching pipes they are both an epiphany and a loving statement of devotion.
Really, the appeal of “Alex Chilton” is a testament to both the Replacements and to the song’s namesake. Paul Westerberg’s talents as a singer/songwriter in his mid-‘80s prime were such that he could encapsulate his feelings regarding one of his favorite musicians in just a few choice lines. But he wouldn’t have anyone to focus his pop song hero worship if not for the late Mr. Chilton, a man who judging solely by this song most certainly earned his legend. And if Westerberg can’t go anywhere without some Chilton tunes playing on his stereo, I sure as hell need to start catching up on the man’s legacy.
Man, the American rock and roll scene just got discernibly smaller.
I’ll defer to the bigger Big Star fans (of whom there are many) to properly eulogize this American rock icon.
I’ll simply say, for now, that while many people (understandably) associate Chilton’s best work with the ’70s, he was still making serious noise in the ’90s. Quite by chance, as we eased past Y2K, I stumbled upon the truly bizarre, and beautiful, album he made with Alan Vega and Ben Vaughn, 1996’s Cubist Blues.
If you are a fan, or if you are curious (check out the clip below and I dare you to not be hooked) it comes highly recommended. This is midnight of the soul mixed with ’50s Beat energy and what Elvis would sound like if he had ever tried to channel Jerry Lee Lewis, drunk. Only one million times deeper and darker and, for my money, more satisfying. This is at once deliberate, narcotic and wonderfully disorienting. It’s like you walked into the wrong bar and stumbled onto a one-off jam session featuring a bunch of bruised and wily underground legends, laying it all on the line for nobody but themselves. Which is exactly what this album is.
Back in September 2003 the east coast was about to get rocked by a hurricane named Isabel. We knew it was coming, and it was one even the TV weathermen couldn’t get wrong. We didn’t know how bad it was going to be and fortunately, for D.C. denizens, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. It got darker and later, and once the wind really started blowing and the rain began pounding down, I knew exactly what album I needed to have playing. Cubist Blues came through for me before, and has come through since, but I’ll always consider this an ideal soundtrack for a hurricane.