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.