“I’m in Love with That Song”: Remembering Alex Chilton

Big Star
Keep an Eye on the Sky

When Paul Westerberg mused on the Replacements’ Alex Chilton tribute song, “if he was from Venus, would he feed us with a spoon?” it didn’t seem that far-fetched. After all, this was a man who’d gone from reluctant teen idolatry in the cracked blue-eyed soul of the Box Tops, to simmering cult status with the shambolic, soaring power pop of Big Star, to a weird, warped version of Americana in his bizarre solo career, with a smattering of offbeat bits in between. So, really, was is that crazy to think that someday he’d meet us on the moon?

Speaking to John Fry — Big Star’s longtime engineer and founder of Ardent Studios, where the band crafted their three classic ’70s LPs — late night on March 17th, I was frantic to squash circulating reports that Alex Chilton had passed away. Informing me that his phone had been “lighting up like a Christmas tree” over the preceding few hours, and being in the position to illuminate the validity of these reports, John regrettably confirmed what I’d feared to be true about Chilton’s untimely death. Stunned by the now-solidified news, I commenced in spinning Keep an Eye on the Sky into the wee small hours, Colorado Bulldogs by my side, on-and-off crying sputtering from me like a sprinkler system on a suburban front lawn.

It’s impossible with Chilton’s music to not become personally engulfed; it’s impossible to not feel, to some degree, an impenetrable attachment to it. The quintessential outsider, his music spoke to generations of fans who encapsulate those wrangled emotions — feelings that blanket every lost, wandering young adult at some moment in his or her life, yet when implemented into such stark, crumbling beauty, reveal themselves as far more insular, arcane and, quite frankly, more interesting. That generally seems to be the modus operandi of pop music created by those who struggle with their own placement in society: by taking these commonplace conflicts that roil within us all and twisting them into anthems of alienation — anthems that eventually, through their sheer power, become empowering — they take on wholly new, rich abilities to conquer and comfort. Alex Chilton was unparalleled in capturing this elusive, inspirational efficacy.

The first time John and Alex — who went on to work with each other for years following their initial acquaintance — had ever met was around 1967 at Ardent Studios during recordings for the Box Tops. Ruminating on his first recollection of a teenage Chilton, Fry recalls the young upstart sitting on the floor in the corner of the control room, waiting patiently for someone to call him in to record his vocal part. Fry appends that, knowing these people and having these relations with them, is sometimes hard to grasp, and these memories bring that into focus to a level that is stirring. We, as an audience, can similarly share the jarring effect that their music has on us, and hearing this, I can’t help thinking that this image — this picturesque moment of an Alex Chilton still wet behind the ears tucked into a recording studio awaiting his time to shine (and still not knowing it) — serves to represent the status he’s come to procure for so many of his fans over the years.

Chilton knew no other life or passion. He was diverted from a normal life or educational path, with the Box Tops blowing up on the national music scene when he was a mere 16 years old. Dropping out of high school to pursue their success (a success that eventually trapped Chilton), he was forced to resort to self-education; he later went on to acquire his GED and attend college, yet that initial experience of self-sufficiency at such an early age is embroiled in his artistic make-up. Extremely intelligent, widely read and well-versed in all sorts of classic pop culture and even politics, that sharp sense and aptitude is present in his songwriting and in the spirited defiance that runs through the character that shines through his artistic personality. Even when constructing songs of big, big hooks and clever simplicity, there’s always been a slanted, enchanted engagement to the way those feelings are conveyed. Chilton proved that pop music needn’t be self-important or smug to be brazenly smart.

For all its inherent ability to quell our most primitive fears and apprehensions, a deep current of self-loathing courses through the veins of Chilton’s music. Working with his songwriting partner in Big Star, Chris Bell — sadly, also taken from us far too early in a car accident at that storied age of 27 — together they utilized a method of collaboration that filtered out each other’s more radical tendencies. Chris Bell helped to constrain Chilton’s melancholy from dampening the anthemic guitar crunch of Big Star, and Chilton helped to tone down the bombast that infused Bell’s heavy-handed, hooky refrains. With Bell’s departure, Chilton’s subsuming strands of emotional extremes had no reining force to temper their edge, and Alex was left to indulge his increasingly misanthropic, self-serving impulses.

Following #1 Record — their debut album of strict, disciplined teamwork — Big Star slowly, surely began to implode. Although their sophomore record, Radio City, still shared Bell’s sensibilities and displayed his prominent influence on his partner, you can begin to feel in its eased up, less streamlined approach that Chilton is unraveling. More aware of his innate melancholia and the very human fracas that was previously managed seamlessly into Big Star’s peerless pop, it becomes more and more obvious that personal demons begin to consume the music that had once been used to battle them. Where Big Star as a collaborative effort was tightly-wound and spinning off more crisp melodies over the span of a song than most acts could accomplish across an entire disc, Big Star as Alex Chilton’s songwriting vehicle becomes an exorcism of introspective anguish, his wistfulness turning from bittersweet and empowering to consoling in its doubts, welcoming in inhabitants broken and battered with a warm, somber embrace.

Continuing on that path yet shaking free the lingering regulation and curbing from his partnership with Chris Bell, Big Star’s harrowing third and final album is where it all fell apart. John Fry relays to me that, in all but name, the record was for most intents and purposes a solo project for Chilton. With even Jody Stephens delegated to sporadic drumming parts on only the occasional track, session musicians were pieced together to flesh out the splintering, dissolving glory that once propelled such revitalizing classics as “September Gurls” and “In the Street,” now merely memories from an entirely different band. Even Alex’s sweetly melodic, boyish voice is transformed into a dejected beast of burden, crying out tales of rejection and isolation with an equally devastated soundscape. Barren musical environments now breed what feels like disaffecting, harsh last gasps of a spent, desperate man; loose ends that act as martyrs of once enlivening, effortlessly spangled jewels of crowning pop music mirror an almost bizarro Big Star, beaten and weary, sadly beautiful yet hardly able to keep itself together.

In retrospect, John tells me on the morning after Chilton’s death that he can now see how reflective Alex’s music was of the outside world. As much as he may have fought against it, he subconsciously — through his own personal issues, and the music in which he uprooted them — documented the society he could never fit into, through allegories and unwitting allusions to his environment. As detailed earlier, #1 Record captured a moment in Big Star’s early history, entrenched in a youthful energy; a moment where everyone involved was getting along and optimistic about their future as a group. Around the time Radio City was released, Big Star had come to the realization that commercial prospects weren’t exactly hounding their tails, and with Bell exiting the band, the music becomes looser, more ragged. As the band collapses under its own weight in a downward spiral to the end of their initial run, Third/Sister Lovers illustrates not only their own doom in a fashion all too stark and discomforting to ignore, but the doom of the atmosphere that birthed their creativity, as Stax, Ardent and the Memphis music scene, in general, begins to plummet commercially and economically turn to ruins.

At a time when we’re not only mourning Chilton’s loss but living in such a strange, paradoxical world, it’s important to take note of how intuitive his music was to his era and surroundings, and value what a tremendous perspective he was able to share with us. Returning to his records now and recognizing that deep-seeded, natural instinct, it somehow makes our current path in life feel less treacherous, and for that, we are forever in Chilton’s debt.

Following Big Star’s demise, and the shaky commencement of his solo career, Chilton spent time in the early 1980s estranged from the music world, taking jobs as a tree-trimmer and a dishwasher in New Orleans. John Fry tells me that the New Orleans move was never pre-meditated — family concerns with his brother passing away, and subsequently the responsibility of taking over his property, in some regard played a role in it — yet in the long run, it feels all too appropriate for this child of classic American music. Growing up with his father, a jazz musician, and enshrouded in the burgeoning soul and R&B scene of the time (Fry tells me that Jody, Andy and Chris were the Anglophiles of the band, while Alex held a deep reverence and affection for classic American forms), his new residence in New Orleans helped provide a catalyst for the direction his solo career would take. Generally ignored by the public at large, Chilton — as always — chased his always-fluttering muse as he staked artistic territory in a melting pop mixture of freaked out, minimalist jazz, burning, hot-rod R&B, and crackling, rumbling country/rockabilly.

Taking all of this into account, it’s easier to absorb how much of a factor time played in Chilton’s music. Time, of course, is a vital aspect of any artist’s work but plays a particularly strong role in the roads Alex set out on. Following the cultural revolutions of the 1960s, and his time spent in the Box Tops, Big Star was clearly in debt to the pop music created in the decade that preceded them, yet for all its influence, in spirit felt like a reaction to it. Self-awareness and subversion were hardly the standard by which to measure your success, yet Big Star never heeded to commercial guidelines, even as they chased its fleeting, intangible ghost. There was no other era aside from the post-60s/pre-arena rock-70s period in which Big Star flourished that you could be as stringently loyal to your artistic instincts while striving for that big break that always felt just out of reach without some sort of backlash. Even taking his post-Big Star career into consideration — following punk’s successful hybrid and refashioning of pre-’60s rock and roll — Alex’s infatuation with pre-Beatles pop music seemed all the more twisted not for the veneration he so clearly had for it (it had spurned that same punk movement, after all), but for the manner in which he weaved that affection into his wrecked, rough-and-tumble solo work with such an utter disregard for the movements that not only surrounded him but were so obviously influenced by his own previous work.

Following all of the spiralling, winding directions he so gleefully set after with absolutely no concern for to the viability they held for his career commercially, it feels somewhat understated the amount of acclaim and notability he receives in today’s music scene. From teen heart throb to power pop cult icon; from self-imposed studio creature to blue-collar everyman; from music’s ultimate outsider to the ignored hero of the alternative rock scene, playing so rigidly against type at the height of the movement he helped spawn’s popularity; each oddball, offbeat step Alex Chilton took feels somehow appropriate in the bewildering context of his life as an artist and, most importantly, a human being with the utmost, untarnished integrity.

In recent years — after culminating quite a reputation for his erratic moods and difficult nature — John Fry admits to me, with a certain verve of hope in his voice, that Alex had seemed to have been sorting himself out as of late. He details to me that he’d even appeared to be having a consistently good time at the Big Star shows he’d seen him at within the past few years, with a cheerful demeanor both before and after he’d preformed (which wasn’t always the case). With an upcoming showcase at SXSW and a triumphant homecoming gig at the Levitt Shell at Overton Park scheduled for this May, it wouldn’t be totally speculative to hope that Alex Chilton had maybe even been embracing the public legacy he’d been kicking against for so long.

In an interview around 1992, Chilton admits to being “constantly surprised that people fall for Big Star the way they do,” going as far as to discredit his former band of their greatness and importance. “People say Big Star made some of the best rock and roll albums ever, and I say they’re wrong.”

But Mr. Chilton, we aren’t wrong. Not only do we have your timeless, iconoclastic music to remind us of that, but we have your enduring, deathless spirit. Even in your loss, so many of us never travel far without a little Big Star, and if that isn’t “great rock and roll” personified, then I don’t know what is.

Still, if he’d died in Memphis, that’d have been cool, babe.