In Memory of Alex Chilton (1950-2010)

Mar 18, 2010 4:00pm

Alex Chilton may not have been the most well-known artist or songwriter, but his impact was undeniable.  As a scrappy, sixteen-year-old kid, he fronted The Box Tops, whose hits included “The Letter” and “Cry Like A Baby.” After having massive mainstream success, he and his friend Chris Bell formed the legendary group Big Star.  The group didn’t really see much commercial success at the time, but they built their name and their legacy by being critical favorites.  Bell left the group before they recorded their second record, “Radio City.”  Sadly, he was killed in a car accident in 1978.  But Chilton continued to build on their vision without him, releasing a third album (the strange, yet alluring and much delayed “Third/Sister Lovers.”  He then broke the band up.
  In later years, Chilton reformed the Big Star with original drummer Jody Stephens and Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies.  They toured extensively, releasing a comeback album, “In Space” in 2005.  Recent years saw the band finally getting the respect they deserved.  Just last year, their first two records, “#1 Record” and “Radio City” were reissued. (You can get them together on one disc.) Not only that, a retrospective boxed set, “Keep An Eye On The Sky,” which included alternate takes and a live performance was released last September.   Their music was everywhere.  In the nineties, their song “In The Street” was used as the basis for the theme to “That 70′s Show.”  Their song “Thirteen” was even more ubiquitous, with a number of high-profile placements. 
  Chilton left a small treasure trove of great pop tunes.  At his peak, he was an ace songsmith, equal to Lennon and McCartney.  “September Gurls” is a flawless example of power-pop.  Many have credited Big Star with creating that sub-genre.  During the years of Big Star’s hiatus, Chilton released a string of often baffling solo albums, perhaps designed to maintain his cult status.  
  This Saturday, the band was supposed to appear at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas.  They had been gaining buzz again,   performing and touring like a band half their age.  Chilton, himself, looked twenty years younger than he was.  He seemed young and vital still.  It’s a shock that he’s gone.  His cause of death seems to be a heart attack.  He was just 59 years old.
Personally, his loss hits me pretty hard.  I’ve been particularly obsessed with Big Star’s legacy recently.  A few months ago, I took an extra step and picked up both “#1 Record” and “Radio City” on vinyl and have been listening to them in regular rotation ever since.  Alex Chilton was a true musical inspiration.  He was cool. He was calm. He was a real artist with integrity.  When you thought you knew what he was going to do next, he threw a curveball to maintain a sense of mystery.  He was a master.  Paul Westerberg was right when he idolized him in the Replacements’ song that bears his name.  
  Chilton’s loss is a tragic blow to the music world.  The only silver lining is that maybe all the current fuss around Big Star will cause more people to pick up their much buzzed about records.  The music of Chilton and Bell will influence generations to come.  Indeed, Chilton was a legend from Memphis who set out to do something big.  I would like to think at the time of his death, he understood the immensity of his musical influence.   “#1 Record” and “Radio City” are both timeless classics, along with Chris Bell’s lone solo album, “I Am the Cosmos.”  Now both friends are gone and we are left simply with their music.  Words cannot express the appropriate level of sadness.

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