That was one of the many small but significant personal anecdotes shared by those who knew him best during a pair of South by Southwest tributes to the late Box Tops/Big Star leader, who died March 17.
Chilton’s unexpected death at age 59 in New Orleans naturally put Saturday’s originally scheduled Big Star panel and showcase performance into jeopardy. But the principle figures involved – among them current Big Star members Jody Stephens, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow – decided to carry on and turn both SXSW events into Chilton tributes.
Saturday afternoon’s panel, dubbed “I Never Travel Far Without a Little Big Star,” did focus on the band’s life and legacy, which was on the original to-do list. But in light of Chilton’s death, the panelists also worked in some interesting personal Chilton memories and information from various stages of his life.
Commercial Appeal writer and panel moderator Bob Mehr, who wrote some of the liner notes for last year’s Big Star boxed set, Keep An Eye on the Sky (Rhino), started things off by talking about the Memphis, Tenn., home of Chilton’s parents. Mehr described it as “almost like a salon for artists” that shaped Chilton’s artistic sensibility.
“We practiced there from time to time, and certainly the photo on the back side of #1 Record was taken in the living room in Alex’s home in the window seat,” recalled Stephens. “Just walking into the house, it felt like a pretty artistic environment.”
“The house was kind of a center of culture, I guess you could describe it,” said Ardent Studios owner John Fry (who first met a teenage Chilton at a Box Tops session) via a Skype connection. “He was exposed to a lot of intellectual views and political discussion and all that, and he stuck with that his entire life. You would not see him without a book and a couple of newspapers.
“As the whole Box Tops franchise went on,” Fry added, “I think Alex made no secret of the fact that he was frustrated because he was writing songs – good material – and little if any got recorded.”
During his Box Tops days, Mehr said, Chilton hung out with Dennis Wilson as well as Charles Manson, a friend of the Beach Boys drummer at the time. Stephens, in his dry, deadpan style, promptly launched into a funny story about Chilton doing a grocery run for Manson in San Francisco. Manson’s list included a gallon of milk, but Chilton elected not to buy one because of its weight.
“Charles was really upset about that,” Stephens said. “I’d loved to have seen the look on both of their faces.”
On the much-analyzed relationship and dynamic between Chilton and fellow Big Star singer/guitarist Chris Bell, who left the band after the first album, original Big Star bassist Andy Hummel said, “It’s really surprising … you had a couple of really alpha guys here – guys whose talents run along very similar lines, yet at least [during the time when we worked on #1 Record], they worked together very, very seamlessly.
“I don’t recall ever sensing a whole lot of conflict or anything like that” between Chilton and Bell, Hummel added. “Everybody was pushing forward for this common objective, which was to get this album built and engineered and performed and released.”
Posies co-leaders Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, who have been Big Star members since the band reformed in 1993, said Chilton was the type of guy who let other people figure him out. He wasn’t the cheerleader type, although he would be complimentary – not directly to those deserving the compliment, but to third parties instead.
Whenever Chilton was backstage with friends after a terrible show, he could sound like he was giving praise when he was really being sarcastic.
“He had a number of good lines, one of which was, ‘Couldn’t have been better,’ ” said singer/songwriter Chris Stamey, who worked with Chilton during his solo years. “Another one was, ‘I’ve never seen anything like it.’ ”
Those Stamey memories prompted laughter from the audience, as did Stephens’ claim that Chilton was “the only guy I knew who got grumpy when he smoked pot.”
There were some light moments as well during the Chilton tribute concert several hours later at Antone’s in downtown Austin, Texas. After brief opening comments from Stephens, publicist Heather West read a long, heartfelt statement from Chilton’s wife, and it included his attitude toward death. The subject “didn’t interest him,” which prompted a few chuckles from the rapt audience.
Then the show started with the current three Big Star members playing “Back of a Car.” After that, the parade of guest musicians began, with the best performances coming from Stamey (who sang “When My Baby’s Beside Me”), Sondre Lerche (“The Ballad of El Goodo”), John Doe (“I’m in Love With a Girl”) and Chuck Prophet (“Thank You Friends”).
After the show ended, Stephens had the final word, thanking the audience for celebrating Chilton’s life and music.
His hardcore fans have never been blasé about either one.