December Boys: On Life and Alex Chilton

When I heard that Alex Chilton died last Wednesday, I didn’t play his music. I didn’t nod mournfully over “Thirteen”. I didn’t light a candle and meditate to “Thank You Friends”. I didn’t pillage the Big Star catalog searching for answers or epitaphs. For the first time since the first time I heard Alex Chilton, I didn’t want his music. Instead, I half-watched a British Office episode and turned out the lights.

Alex Chilton spent his musical life testing the limits of his enormous gifts and the patience of his devoted fans. He was a conflicted artist, equally talented and mistrusting of his talents. Music came easily, so he made it harder. He was a peerless melodist who sometimes deliberately wrote inferior melodies. He’d create something beautiful, then distort it, stretch it, pull it and modulate it into something unexpected and anguished. He’d rattle off a brilliant riff only to play it on a detuned guitar. Perhaps his most famous song, “Thirteen”, started as an experiment to write, sing, and play like a 13-year-old, a challenge to himself, as if to give his muses a head start, as if to handicap his own success. His art was erratic, honest, scattered, beautiful, frustrating, challenging, and — when he’d finally give in — effortlessly brilliant. He had a #1 hit at age 16 — the only man that year to dethrone the Beatles — then spent much of his career trying not to be so successful again, as though he didn’t trust anything that came so easily.

You can hear this conflict in his solo records. You can hear it in his raw, precociously soulful vocals in the Boxtops. You can hear it (perhaps best) in the enigmatic, maddening masterwork of 3rd/Sister Lovers. You can hear it in his production credits for cacophonous, grungy, underground bands with few pop aspirations. Everyone has a favorite Alex Chilton, a stage of his career that they most relate to and a shade of the chameleon that looks most like them.

But for me, Alex Chilton will always be Big Star.

(Side note: this is not to say “Big Star was Alex Chilton,” which would be totally untrue.)

I’ve written extensively about Big Star in this space, mostly from a critical perspective. I’ve written about individual songs; I’ve tackled their career and legacy; I’ve gushed, I’ve analyzed, I’ve rinsed, I’ve repeated. But if all criticism is indeed autobiography, it’s time I owned up to mine: I write about Big Star not out of objective critical appreciation, but out of subjective, unconditional, schoolgirl love. It’s the best kind of love: not for the music that enriches life, but for the music that guides it, affects it, and becomes an irrevocable part of it. Ever since I met Big Star, they’ve affected my life. In fact, the story of #1 Record/Radio City has helped define my own.

My family moved from Memphis to Arkansas when I was in college. I’d grown up in Memphis; it was home, and a home I loved. I didn’t know Little Rock, and didn’t know Nashville (yet), and was suddenly displaced from Memphis. I split time between three cities and the same 400 ugly miles of I40, and no place felt like home. Before one of those drives, sophomore year, I got #1 Record/Radio City. I still don’t know how I first acquired it — who gave it to me, or who put the idea in my head. I could guess that it was my brother’s recommendation, but I’m not sure. It was just there one day, in my car. I hit play. I hit play for the next 400 miles, and then the next, and then the next.

I played it every time I crossed the De Soto bridge, heading west into Arkansas. The road is straight enough and the land is flat enough that you can watch the Memphis skyline recede behind you, an inch at a time, drifting out of the rearview until only the Pyramid’s silver apex remains. Then it sinks into the mud and grass and all that’s left is sky. The bridge of ”El Goodo” would harmonize “hold on,” I’d fix my eyes forward and keep driving.

”Thirteen” played one night on a TV in a dark room. I’d fallen in love, or out of love — I can’t remember — and heard it in the background as I washed dishes. I remember wishing I were 13 again. I remember wishing I’d known the song when I was thirteen. I wanted to be thirteen when the song itself came out, picking out the chords in my bedroom before an unimpressed girl. I wanted to write something as simple and good as it was. I wanted to write something that could transport anyone of any age in that time and place when the world is small, and it’s love and a record spinning.

Big Star kept playing.

”Watch the Sunrise” played in the spring mornings of 2006, driving around coffeehouses and barrooms of the south and Midwest, show to show, day after red-eyed day. Big Star played in band rehearsals, in my constant request to “get some ‘O My Soul’ on those drums.”

One day after graduation, a friend told me “life starts now”. He slapped the side of my car and took a deep breath; he looked happier than the world can afford, and “What’s Going Ahn” rang through the background of my car.

In a few hard-luck months in 2007, I lost a lot: some love, some loved ones, some direction, some of myself. I didn’t play “Try Again” those days, but didn’t need to. It played on infinite repeat; the dual voices of the guitars sounding like a prayer and an answer.

Today, when something great just isn’t right, I hear the opening chords of “September Gurls” and know I’ve been there before. I hear “I’m in Love With a Girl” all the time, every time I am, or anyone is, or anyone should be. It plays on. If I’m broken down, busted, defiant, nostalgic, euphoric, lonely, out of place, a December boy in a September world, I remember there was one before me, and millions more just like him. I hear it and know I’m not alone.

What I’m trying to say is this: the music of Alex Chilton and Big Star has always been there for me. Some music — the best music — gives so much that you end up feeling like you owe it something in return. In many ways, I owe Alex Chilton — and Bob Dylan, and John Lennon, and others — every time I write a song. I’m always trying to give something back, even if it’s just a fraction of what I’ve received.

To me, that’s the defining quality of Alex Chilton’s work with Big Star: it gives so much. We’re told every day that the world is a selfish place: co-workers look out for number one; strangers are rude, thoughtless, and indifferent; acquaintances are self-involved and dishonest; friends are solipsistic, impatient and loved ones can disappoint. We’re told this constantly — it’s in our punch lines, it’s in our headlines, it’s the unhappy ending of our most treasured movies. And yes, even our favorite artists (including Chilton) can create self-alienating art, leaving the audience disconnected and alone. When it comes to love and music, it’s easy to find the worst in people, to be let down and to have a bad day. It’s so easy.

But #1 Record and Radio City — the Alex Chilton I’ll remember best — takes the harder road of redemption every time. It’s without self. It simply gives, and gives, and keeps giving. It doesn’t just go out of its way to find the silver lining; it creates the silver lining. It makes hope when there is none. With every passing verse and refrain it gives the listener more and more commiseration, friendship, hope, love and enduring beauty. These are songs that defiantly remind us that we’re not alone. They remind us that feeling alone is as universal as a schoolboy crush, or spending a Saturday night in the back of a car.

More than anything, that remains Big Star’s legacy. It’s what makes artists as disparate as R.E.M. and the Butthole Surfers cite Big Star as a major influence. It’s what will last long after its members are gone. It’s music that becomes a part of us, and of our collective story.

As for me, I’m all right. I’m typing in my apartment and it must be spring in New York, because I’ve opened the window. I haven’t been home in a long time. It’s been a while since I’ve seen that skyline sink into the rearview. I don’t know when I’ll get back again, and I miss it more than I can say. Sometimes we revisit a place, or a song, to re-experience our first love of it. We go hoping to feel the same thing. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. When I heard Alex Chilton died last Wednesday night, I couldn’t play his music. It would’ve sounded too much like home.

But it’s playing now.

Chris Milam is a singer/songwriter in New York City who frequently writes about music from an artist’s perspective at his own site,