Rock Hard, Chilton

by Rob Horning

18 March 2010


I’m very sad to read that Alex Chilton is dead. His music has given me as much comfort as just about anybody I can think of, and in many different ways. When I was in high school and college, I was mainly into the Big Star material, especially Sister Lovers at first. I was fascinated by the feeling of disintegration and fragility captured in those songs; listening to “Kizza Me” and “Kangaroo” gives a sense of a private musical language, unsettlingly intimate and emotionally raw, yet full of weird nooks and unexpected sounds. He tended to push his vocal range into uncomfortable places to get that wounded, straining edge. Every song was full of tension, as if he was questioning whether it was even worth recording them as the tape was rolling.

Then I got into Radio City primarily, which has the perfect gems: “Life Is White,” “O My Soul,” “September Gurls.” And his performance on a simple song like “I’m in Love with a Girl” takes it into goosebumps territory as he lifts his vocals into the higher register and the sense of the words dissolve into pure yearning. I kind of played the album into the ground back then.

At that point the genius of the Big Star records made me receptive to anything he recorded, which led to a minor obsession with his first solo album, Like Flies on Sherbet—something of an acquired taste. It takes the chaos from Sister Lovers and strips away much of the sincerity and emotional confusion, leaving just a residue of sniggering spite but also opening space for the sort of free-wheeling and unselfconscious fun that characterizes much of his later work, High Priest especially. On Sherbet he covers “Boogie Shoes” (the KC and the Sunshine Band song), “Waltz Across Texas” and “Lorena” in a loose, half-assed fashion; the originals seem tossed off in the spirit of Elvis goofing off in Sun Studios. One of my favorite songs ever, by anyone, is on this album: “Rock Hard,” which pretty much says it all. It’s a command. It’s a philosophy. It’s a faith.

In the past few years I’ve been listening to the later Chilton records the most—Cliches, A Man Called Destruction and Set. They are mostly full of covers that Chilton stamps with his inimitable style and are all worth checking out. He enriched the world, and he’ll be missed, probably more and more as people continue to discover his work.

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