I never met Alex Chilton, but I felt like I knew him.
Isn’t that always the way it is with your favorite musicians? Though you may never get a chance to make their acquaintance in person, you often feel like you know them intimately - through their music. Alex Chilton’s singing, songwriting and guitar playing on the first three Big Star records are the stuff of legend, and it was through his work on the seminal # 1 Record, Radio City and Big Star Third albums that Chilton and I became close.
Unlike some, I can’t recall the specific moment that I first heard Big Star, although I imagine it wasn’t until around 1985 or so, when I was bitten hard by the power pop bug. I do remember picking up a double-album vinyl reissue of # 1 Record and Radio City and thinking “this is the same guy who sang lead on those Box Tops hits?” I marveled – and still do – at how Chilton was able to move past his gravel-voiced teen soul years and completely reinvent himself as a power pop artist. He came off as sort of a more eccentric, Memphis version of John Lennon, with the sweet-voiced Chris Bell riding shotgun as McCartney on the near-flawless jewel that is #1 Record. Infused with both a sassy rock spirit and a gentle, almost spiritual feel, it was one of those records that influenced countless numbers of folks who heard it and “got” it.
After Bell split, Chilton took up the reins of the band and proved himself to be a certified power pop original (and one with unerring melodic instincts) on Radio City. While the almost ridiculously complex “O My Soul” was surely one of the oddest choices for a single ever and the bizarre, all-too-brief piano ballad “Morpha Too” came from way out in left field, tracks such as “September Gurls” and “You Get What You Deserve” were straightforward gems that still sound wonderfully fresh nearly 40 years on. The “tormented Alex” that would come out in full force on Big Star Third reared his head on “What’s Going Ahn” and “Daisy Glaze,” both of which were brimming with palpable desperation. But as if to prove he didn’t take it all too seriously, he and the boys rocked like mad on “Mod Lang” and “She’s a Mover.” A very different album than the first, but just as essential.
An important distinction should be made at this junction regarding Big Star’s influence on power pop. Unlike contemporaries such as Raspberries (who often aped The Who and Small Faces) and Badfinger (obviously Beatles-influenced), Big Star really didn’t sound exactly like anything that had come before. Sure, there were hints of ’60s British melodicism and some lovely harmonies, but do “O My Soul” or “What’s Going Ahn” or “Feel” or even “September Gurls” truly sound like anything else? Nope. In addition to being power pop pioneers, Chilton and the gang were also innovators.
After the loss of bassist Andy Hummel, Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens regrouped with a gaggle of Memphis sidemen and cut Big Star Third, which found Alex Chilton reinventing himself yet again – this time as a somewhat disturbed, depressed, sad-pop auteur. Was this due to drugs? Possibly. Maturity or personal upheaval? Maybe. An over-the-top attempt to throw off the yoke of power pop and dig deeper artistically? Perhaps. Whatever the case, Third features some of the scariest – yet somehow also some of the prettiest and most accessible – tunes of Chilton’s career. The anguished “Nightime” (where Chilton wails “I hate it here/get me out of here”), the bizarrely fascinating “Kangaroo” and the almost horrifyingly vivid “Holocaust” showcase an artist seemingly close to the breaking point. Conversely, the joyous “Thank You Friends” and the decidedly non-ironic “Jesus Christ” seem relatively “normal,” with personal faves such as “O, Dana” and “Take Care” falling somewhere in between. As a musical snapshot of a moment in time, Third is fascinating, engrossing and highly listenable.
And then, for all intents and purposes, Big Star was done. There would be reunions, tours and even other records in the ’90s and beyond (God bless Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies for helping to make this happen), but nothing would come close to touching the magic of the Big Three – # 1 Record, Radio City and Big Star Third. Even though Alex Chilton participated in the “new Big Star,” he would forever remain ambivalent about the importance of the original Big Star records and the attention they would receive, and also unwilling to wear the crown as one of the kings of power pop. “People say Big Star made some of the best rock ‘n’ roll albums ever,” Chilton told Mojo magazine last year. “And I say they’re wrong.”
Obviously, I would disagree with Chilton’s assessment and dismissal of his work, as all three Big Star records are among my all-time favorites. I’ve cried at the sheer beauty of “The Ballad of El Goodo” and “Try Again.” (And when I shuffle off this mortal coil, I’d like them played at my funeral.) I’ve screamed along with “Don’t Lie to Me.” I’ve looked back fondly at my teenage years while listening to “Thirteen.” I’ve gotten chills while listening to the yearning “What’s Going Ahn,” I never tire of those “September Gurls” guitars and don’t even get me started on how much Chris Bell’s “You and Your Sister” means to me. At darker moments, I’ve related to “Nightime.” And last year, when feeling an overwhelming sense of dread while watching my mother pass away at her home, I could not shake the lyrics to “Holocaust”: “Your mother’s dead/you’re on your own/she’s in her bed.”
I guess what I’m saying is I can relate to these songs on a very personal level, which is what has helped make them such an important part of my life. And now the man who played such a large part in creating these beautiful, harrowing, uplifting and singularly unique tunes has left us, and there is not only a void in my life, but I’m sure in many of my friends’ as well. For that I will mourn, but I will also continue to celebrate the many musical gifts that Alex Chilton left us with.
It was good to know you, Alex. Take care.
“This sounds a bit like goodbye
In a way it is, I guess
As I leave your side
I’ve taken the air
Take care, please, take care…”