Thank You, Friend: Musicians Remember Alex Chilton

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Alex Chilton, who passed away last week, influenced countless fellow American rock musicians. We asked a number of them to reflect on the man and his music. Superdrag’s John Davis was moved enough to write the elegaic “Cerulean Blue (For Alex Chilton),” which you can download here or below. For more on Chilton, read the extensive Big Star career overview we did in 2002 (as part of our special American power-pop issue), our Big Star Over/Under and our review of Saturday’s Chilton tribute concert at SXSW.

John Davis (Superdrag)
In Tennessee, to those who know, Big Star’s music is a matter of state pride. Power-pop groups, ours included, from Memphis to Bristol have worn their influence like a badge of honor. I got into them in reverse, though, having no idea where they were from, initially, thanks to Teenage Fanclub. I had read a review of Bandwagonesque lambasting it for its slavish imitation of Radio City; I thought the Fanclub record was amazing, so I figured if it was nothing more than a pale imitation of Big Star, well … Big Star just might be the greatest band of all time. Close enough.

The Live set on Rykodisc was the only one I could find at first, but I was hooked instantly. I had to special order that Fantasy Records #1 Record/Radio City disc. Hearing those records for the first time definitely changed the game for me; I believe Superdrag was formed a couple of months later, as a three-piece, a la the WLIR live set.

Fast-forward about three years, we got on the bill with Big Star, Yo La Tengo and Perfect for a two-night stand at Tramp’s in New York City. Just being in the same building with that many of our heroes—Alex Chilton, Jody Stephens, Jon and Ken from the Posies, Tommy Stinson, Ira, Georgia and James from Yo La Tengo—well, excuse my slang here, but we didn’t know whether to shit or go blind. I kept trying to figure out what we were even doing there! When I met Alex, I think he probably defaulted into his well-worn “dealing with starstruck fanboy” mode, because I was definitely geeked out beyond belief to be sitting across a table from him, waiting around to do a soundcheck. In retrospect, though, he was more gracious than he had cause to be, with me stammering all over the place. Sue me, I was, what, 22?

After the gig the second night, I guess I had calmed down sufficiently to where he didn’t mind chatting with me for a little while. He even signed a cigarette pack for my girlfriend, Wendy, now my wife. We’ve still got it tucked away somewhere. Both their sets at Tramps were blinding, amazing; the Posies guys filled the breach left by Chris Bell and Andy Hummel as well as anybody ever could’ve. It was transcendent. I hope it was as joyful for Alex to play those sets as it was for the rest of us in the room to hear and see them.

Five years later, we got on the bill with Big Star again, this time in Nashville at Uptown Mix, an outdoor concert series that used to happen in a parking lot by Vanderbilt University. Somehow I think I got more nervous about that gig than I did about the first two. But we got through the set and, again, listening to those four guys (Big Star Version 3.0?) play that music just felt like a huge celebration. And it wasn’t just the overpriced draft beers or the herbal jazz cigarettes—it was the power of those Bell/Chilton songs to set our souls free. Only the most sublime works of art can have that power.

I’m not sure why Alex’s death came as such a huge shock to me; I mean, like a lot of the greats, he really lived it back then and probably just wore his heart out way ahead of its time. 59 is still too damn young to die. I was definitely filled with a profound sadness, even though I only ever spent a sum total of about five minutes with the man in person. But isn’t it mysterious how, even under those circumstances, a singer can still feel like an old friend, just because you’ve heard their voice coming out of your speakers a thousand times or more?

Even though Superdrag is a Tennessee band, too, through and through, it’s not for me to draw parallels between Big Star and us. It’s been done before, but not by me; I would never presume to equate us with them in any way, shape or form. But I will say that we loved them every bit as much as they loved the Beatles or the Kinks, and we were and still are very proud to have come from the same part of the world they came from. A friend of mine said [the night Alex died] that she had always just thought of Alex Chilton “like a mountain, like he’d always be there.” I replied, “The tunes are the mountain.” And they’ll always be here.

“Cerulean Blue (For Alex Chilton)” (download):

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Doug Gillard (Guided By Voices, Cobra Verde)
I saw Alex in 1986 on the Feudalist Tarts tour. I was able to go backstage and had him sign a Xeroxed copy of the Third/Sister Lovers LP, the version with him and Jody Stephens big on the front, which I’d borrowed from my friend Jeff Curtis. He grimaced a little that it was a Big Star LP, but maybe it was more that it was some Xeroxed copy. I was also lucky to hold Cleveland pal Dan Petricig’s original pressing “Bangkok” seven-inch at a party he threw once.

I was the only opener for an Alex show in Cleveland in 2005. It was the thrill of a lifetime for me to just be on the same bill as the man. I was lucky enough to have Tony Maimone as my bassist that year, and he was so happy to be playing the show that he did something he never does: He made a minor flub on bass! Backstage, Alex was calm and happy. I was trying not to go up to him, but he came over and said, “Good set, good playing,” and that he liked my songs. I was floored and thanked him. He was extremely kind. His set with his trio was what I expected: jazzy standards, covers (“Rock With You”), a few Big Star songs, but always jaw-dropping guitar chord playing. What a treat.

Tommy Keene
I saw the Box Tops open up for Gary Puckett And The Union Gap in 1967, when I was eight. Having covered his songs both on record and onstage (“Hey Little Child,” “Nighttime,” “In The Street”), it’s pretty obvious Alex was a major influence. The boxed set pretty much spells out why. It’s like the Holy Grail of American power pop. Oh, and about my version of “Hey Little Child”: Alex told the guy at the label it was the first time he had ever been paid for someone doing one of his songs.

I opened up some solo shows of Alex’s in the late ’80s. Those were interesting gigs; I’m not sure what a lot of the hipster kids thought about hearing tunes like “Volare” and “Little GTO.” Some of them were probably confused, but I thought he sounded great. I didn’t have a lot of interaction with him, but he was a gentleman.

Mac McCaughan (Superchunk, Portastatic)
Alex Chilton dying is one of those things that we will keep reliving because it’s still so hard to believe and just won’t quite “sink in.” When I saw him live for the first time, it was around the time of Feudalist Tarts and you couldn’t get #1 Record or Radio City easily on LP, as they hadn’t been reissued by Line or Big Beat yet. Essentially, I was seeing this legend play the Cat’s Cradle or the Brewery, but he was playing this pared-down R&B set of covers and a few of his own songs (“No Sex,” certainly, and probably “Bangkok” and other solo stuff) but no Big Star and no hint even of what Big Star had been.

It was a little confounding, and though I came to appreciate that side of Chilton, it didn’t prepare me for when I could actually get copies of the three Big Star albums. It’s fair to say they blew my mind in that way of “how could these record exists and sound like this and I have lived this long without hearing them?” I think all three are perfect in their own ways (with Third/Sister Lovers maybe the deepest well of the three for me), and while I think many fans wanted him to go back to that sound and style and voice, I can understand why he walked away (not even counting relationships/drugs/poverty)—because, really, what else could he have done to top it?

Carrie Brownstein has a great explanation of what it was like to find those records on her blog at NPR: “Musicians and fans have always passed around Big Star songs and albums like a secret handshake. When you found out someone hadn’t heard #1 Record or Radio City, you were so excited to provide that missing link, to pass on all the glimmer, the jangly guitar, the big chords, the melodies, the American anthems that let you keep your teenage self—for some of us long since faded—close, etched upon your skin.”

Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, Minus 5)
Just last week, I’d been listening to the CD of the first two Big Star albums non-stop in the car, marveling at how current they sounded. Not many records from the ’70s sound like they haven’t dated at all. I was thinking about how this group made three albums, all masterpieces, and how difficult it is to pick a favorite. When I started the Minus 5 in 1993, Third/Sister Lovers was the acknowledged blueprint for where I wanted to go with the project. Simply said, if not for that album, there wouldn’t be a Minus 5. Now, that wouldn’t change the world, but it sure is important to me.

My favorite Alex Chilton live moment occurred sometime during the ’80s at the (long gone but much lamented) Backstage in Seattle. Chilton, in the midst of a good-humored R&B set with his nifty three-piece electric combo, lurched into an appropriately creepy version of Porter Wagoner’s “The Rubber Room.” Alex, playing a Les Paul Jr. borrowed from the opening band, took off into an extremely long, out-of-this-world solo. When he finally came back to earth, it seemed like he had lost himself so deeply in his playing that he wasn’t entirely sure what song they had been playing when he started! A very enlightening moment from a very enlightened man.

Robert Pollard
Alex was the greatest American rocker and, by the masses, the most criminally ignored. I love him, and I’m sad.

Steve Scariano (Finn’s Motel, Prisonshake)
I guess I’m one of that legion of people Bob Mehr wrote about in his must-read essay, The Great Crusade: Birthing The Cult Of Big Star, in the Big Star boxed set. The first I ever heard of the band was in 1973 when I read a review in Phonograph Record Magazine of Big Star’s (now legendary) appearance at the Rock Writer’s Convention. What was described sounded like a band I might go for, so I went searching and soon found #1 Record in the “2 for $1” bin at a local discount department store.

Took it home and my then-16-year-old mind was completely blown to smithereens by the record! And what was also so powerful and important about that record or me was that being at that age, this was some of the first music I had discovered completely on my own and free of any influence from older siblings, friends or the radio. I took a chance on something all by myself and boom—it was so great and it was all mine!

Later, I heard Radio City, and that was that. The course of my life was truly changed forever. So much so and like so many of the people Mehr writes about in his essay, the power of that record was so great, I was drawn like nothing before in my life to try to find the source, no different than a blues man wanting to go to the Crossroads.

I darn near played Radio City every day. A couple of years later, I worked up the nerve to call Greg Shaw at Bomp! magazine. Somehow I was able to con him into thinking I was some kind of writer (I wasn’t!) and that I could get an interview with Alex Chilton. Greg said, “We’ve been trying to get him for years. If you can pull that off, sure, I’ll print it!” And so like so many others at the time, I found the Chilton family’s listing and gave the number a call, and the next thing you know I’m talking to Alex fucking Chilton. The first thing he asked me was the date of my birth. “Ah yes, the Year of the Monkey,” was his reply. I made my interview proposal, and he said, “Sure, I’d love to be interviewed. It might help me get some of these new demos I’m working on get looked at. Please come on down.”

In September 1976, I went to Memphis, checked into a hotel and then went to meet and interview Alex. When he let me into his tiny studio apartment in Midtown, he was wearing a long old-school nightshirt and nothing else. His apartment had no furniture. There was a turntable, a few records and his Strat strewn across the floor and nothing else, so we had to sit on the floor. Alex sat crossed legged about two feet across from me, with his night shirtpulled up a bit and his stuff hanging out for all the world to see! Needless to say, I was already pretty freaked out enough about being in the same room as my hero, but never bargained that his thang would be in the picture, too, and no less than five minutes after meeting him.

After a few minutes of introductory conversation, Alex said, “Hey, you should see Ardent. Let’s go down and do this there.” I quickly agreed that it was a great idea. On the short drive from his crib to Ardent, Alex had me pop a cassette into my car stereo. He said, “These are some new demos Arista just said no to.” I pop the tape in, totally losing it in anticipation thinking I’m going to hear something new along the lines of “Back Of A Car” or something, and out comes “My Rival.” It was a cassette Alex had recorded with one mic in his living room with him on electric guitar and some friend banging on a coffee can, and up to that point in my life one of the strangest and most primitive sounding things I had ever heard.

That afternoon, Alex gave me a tour of Ardent and then we sat at the fountain in the courtyard, where he patiently and enthusiastically answered every last fanboy question I had about every song on the first two Big Star albums. As I was turning off the tape recorder when we were finished, Alex said, “You know, we made another album.”

What?” was all I could muster in reply.

“Well, it was just me and Jody, but we kinda were still calling it Big Star. It’s different than those other two records.”

When I asked if I could maybe hear it, Alex said, “No, I don’t think that would be possible.”

Ken Stringfellow (Posies, Big Star)
Alex saw things that people didn’t bother to see. He said things that people didn’t bother to say. In this way, he pissed people off by not agreeing with their expectations of how the world was supposed to fit together. And for this, he was considered volatile and abrasive when in reality, he was just … Alex. Alex never lied, never bullshitted. He told you what he was willing to do and be. I admired him for that even more than I did his musical skills, and they were immense. But for me, Alex was just a great example of someone who was true to himself. And that deceptively simple way of being has a huge impact.

Matthew Sweet
I won’t ever forget the feelings evoked for me when I heard Big Star for the first time. I was a junior in high school (1982) and was experiencing my own brutal life-angst. I had started writing—well, trying to write—songs and had very recently discovered the dB’s, Mitch Easter and R.E.M. To me, these people had the uniquely American pop sound I was longing for, melodic and inventive, and so they quickly moved front and center as my new musical heroes.

It wasn’t too long before an older friend suggested I check out Alex and Big Star. In the many years since, it warmed my heart that Big Star seemed to gain the praise and recognition they had been deprived of initially, and it’s hard to imagine now how relatively unknown they were then.

There were so many things I admired in Alex’s work: his gift for melody, his fearless forays into full-on pathos, his sly and sometimes shocking humor and his stunning personal songwriting, springing from a seemingly private emotional world.

Not long after I moved from Nebraska to Athens, Ga., in 1983 to “go to college,” Alex came to town. He was playing guitar with Panther Burns, and although they were scheduled at the 40 Watt Club around 10 or 11, they rolled in, super drunk, as the club was about to close. R.E.M. had a rehearsal space in a nearby warehouse, so the party moved there at about 2 a.m. I can’t really remember who else was in the band, but Alex started to play old Memphis jams and revealed something I hadn’t quite realized: He was a killer guitar player. He jammed for what seemed like hours into the night, and the party only swelled.

During a break, I approached Alex in the near-dark parking lot, where he was alone, smoking a cigarette, with his Mosrite guitar lying on a car hood in front of him. I felt frozen. Here was my absolute idol in the flesh.

“Cool guitar,” I ventured to say.

“Yeah, it’s not mine, I just borrowed it from somebody to bring for the gig.”

I tried to play it cool and be on my way. “I love your records,” I nervously blurted out. “And you are fucking amazing on lead guitar!”

Alex said, “Thanks, man,” and took a long drag.

Back onstage, Alex started another song, one I never thought I would hear anyone perform anywhere: “Past, Present, Future” by the Shangri-La’s, an amazing three-girl group from the early ’60s that I happened to love. They were like bad-girl rockers back in the days before such things. Most known for the hit “Leader Of The Pack,” they had quite a few amazing records, and to see and hear Alex make this song his own and pull it off seriously spoke volumes about the vision of the man and stays as a very strong memory for me. Alex is gone, but I’ll never forget him.

Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate, Baseball Project)
When I was 20, I was so moved by Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers album, I found it absolutely necessary to jump on a Greyhound bus to Memphis merely to soak up the environment and maybe meet the man who could make such beautiful, vulnerable, transparent and honest music.

I not only experienced the city but also was welcomed by Alex Chilton himself. I spent a full week that summer in 1981 buying beers and smokes for Alex, talking about love and art and philosophy and life—everything but his actual music, as it turns out—over many late nights. One evening, we heard that Jerry Lee Lewis was on his deathbed in a Memphis hospital, so we parked across the street, drinking beer and toasting his health.

Thirty years later, Jerry Lee is still here, and now Alex is gone.

That night, Alex invited me back to his parents’ place, where he was living at the time. I looked in awe at the gold records for “The Letter” and “Cry Like A Baby” as I walked in. What can I say? I was a fan. And he made me some very tasty grits for breakfast the next morning.

Since then, I encountered Alex here and there. We played a festival together in Norway in 2007. The next day, (my wife) Linda (Pitmon) and I met up with him at the Oslo Airport and helped him find the gate for his flight to Paris. He wanted to talk about our dates of birth, astrological signs and compatibility. His curiosity almost caused him to miss his plane.

Last year, I saw Big Star play in Brooklyn. Alex and I talked for a while after the show. We exchanged phone numbers, and I was looking forward to seeing him when we were in New Orleans for Jazz Fest next month. My hero had become my pal, and that made me very happy. I’ve heard that was the last Big Star gig, and I’m glad he went out on such a great show before a wildly appreciative audience.

In a very sad month where I lost one of my oldest and best friends, Mary Herczog (check out her wonderful and inspirational website), and am still taking in the horrible suicide of another friend, Mark Linkous, I find myself shattered by the untimely death of a man I didn’t know all that well, a man I wish I had had the chance to know a little bit better. I wish I could have seen Alex play a show when he was 90 years old. (I guess I would have been approaching 80, if my math is right.) He was a guy who had so much enthusiasm and talent. His passing is a great loss for his fans, for music and for people like me who drew so much inspiration and solace from the beauty and love that he chose to make so public to anyone who cared to look within.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted March 23, 2010 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    i think that every kid wanted to keep Big Star as his “little secret band”, and i can remember keeping those records close to myself – only turning on the very worthy. i remember one female visitor to my room wanting to hear that “BIG” (think of the cover) record, again – and not correcting her, but letting her rave about “BIG” to everyone, later. yeah, i was a music snob.
    it was later, when Big Star became pervasive, after i had been let into the inner sanctum as alex’s friend, that Big Star became even closer – because alex eschewed that band, for a decade. it’s no secret that he wasn’t a very nice person for years – and understandably so. so more did i value that, for some reason (i don’t smoke pot), he liked me.
    flash forward to Big Star finally getting it’s due, alex – with his royalties and publishing restored – suddenly became the nicest guy you could ever meet or play with. he found love and true love, smiled a lot and laughed, and wrote phenomenal songs. he addressed his past and came to terms with his legend. he was supportive of the local kids, and, ALWAYS, one kick-ass guitarist. he once told me that “there is nothing like a new guitar – nothing!” – he didn’t mean “new” but a new one to him – one he loved. he really just loved playing.
    i was lucky enough to hang with him at mardi gras, when he was feeling good, at the Saturn Lounge in new orleans. thank goodness i went out that night! 59 is a fine age to go out – we all gotta. it’s just that alex was so young! that is prb why everyone is so shocked. my heart goes out to his widow, laura, and peggy, his ex, and many others who were closer than i. but, mostly, i will never be able to buy that diet coke for such a good friend. my life is white.

  2. Steve Frisbie
    Posted March 23, 2010 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    to the Steves,

    so much is being said nowthat Alex is gone, but your stories are filled w/ details so private, revealing and hilarious. Thank you so much for sharing these stories.

  3. Nancy Baird Manus
    Posted July 16, 2010 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    I FOUND OUT YESTERDAY ABOUT ALEX,WENT TO JUNIOR HIGH WITH HIM,HE DROPPED OFF THE PLANET,DIDN’T SEE HIM AGAIN TILL EARLY 80’s,TOOK HIM OUT TO LUNCH AT A SMALL RESTAURANT ON LAMAR,THEN TO HIS GIRL FRIENDS HOUSE. HE WAS ON HARD TIMES THEN. LIKE MOST OF US BACK THEN. HE WANTED TO ALWAYS PLAY THE GUITAR,BUT DIDN’T,WHEN I KNEW HIM.FIRST I REMEMBERED HIM AS LEAD SINGER FOR “THE BOX TOPS”, I THOUGHT WOW,HE’S MADE IT! I WAS AND STILL DO PLAY THE DRUMS AND PLAY THE GUITAR.YEP,NO MATTER HOW OLD YOU GET YOU STILL PLAY ANS ACTUALLY GET BETTER. HE WAS A GOOD FRIEND,AND I’LL MISS HIM!

  4. Nancy Baird Manus
    Posted July 19, 2010 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    KNOW ALEX WILL LOVE THIS SONG,EVEN THOUGH HE LEFT FOR LOUISIANA. “WALKING IN MEMPHIS”!THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS ARE STILL WITH YOU OUR FRIEND.

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