Tuesday, March 30, 2010

In Memorial: Alex Chilton

Remembering Alex Chilton - (1950 - 2010) R.I.P.

It's hard to say where my music taste and appreciation would be if I had not been exposed to Big Star, but I know I wouldn't want to go there.

Big Star's music wasn't pretentious or bloated. Their songs revolved around falling in and out of love, enjoying all the freedoms young summer days had to offer, hanging out with friends, and getting high. Their songs were personable and easily related-to, and that's probably what sunk them in a decade devoted to guitar solos, stadium-filling egos and songs about wizards (ah, rock-n-roll of the 1970's). It wasn't until a decade later that Big Star would influence bands such as The Replacements, The Posies, R.E.M., the dB's, Young Fresh Fellows, and a host of other young groups with a revival perfectly christened "power pop."

In the late 1960's, Memphis-born Alex Chilton first made a name for himself at 16 as the singer for the Boxtops, whose hits included "The Letter" and "Cry Like A Baby." Disillusioned by the recording industry, Chilton struck out on his own, learning how to play guitar by studying Stax Records guitar great Steve Cooper, and eventually releasing two solo albums, Lost Decade and 1970.

Moving back to Memphis from New York, Chilton hooked-up with Chris Bell and formed Big Star. The group released three records (#1 Record, Radio City and Sister Lovers/Third) to critical acclaim and commercial indifference. Internal strife within the band led to its break-up by the tail-end of 1974. Bell was killed in a car accident shortly thereafter.

Chilton again struck out on another solo career after Big Star's break-up, and embraced the looser punk rock movement of the 1970's (he engineered The Cramps Gravest Hits EP and Songs The Lord Taught Us album, among many others). Nearly 25 years later, Chilton reformed Big Star with original member Jody Stephens, as well as The Posies' Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, and released Nobody Can Dance in 1999 and In Space in 2005.

Big Star's career may have been short, but the band's cult influence reverberated, especially in the underground rock arena. R.E.M.'s Peter Buck considers Third on par with The Beatles  Revolver, Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited and Rolling Stones Exile on Mainstreet, while in 1987 The Replacements recorded an ode to their hero on Pleased to Meet Me simple titled "Alex Chilton." In 1998, Big Star's "In the Street" (from #1 Record) was covered by fellow power-poppers Cheap Trick and used as the theme song for That 70's Show. "I'm in Love With A Girl" appeared on the soundtrack for the 2009 film, Adventureland.

Alex Chilton was almost 60 years-old when he died of a heart attack on March 17th, 2010, days before his scheduled appearance at this year's SXSW music festival in Austin, Texas. Chilton was an easy-going, uncomplicated man, whose honesty and heart was reflected in his music. I think it's fair to say that we wouldn't have underground (or as it's now tagged "indie-rock") had it not been for the influence of Big Star and Alex Chilton.

He will be deeply missed.


  1. Very accurate summation of Big Star's music. "In the street" is from #1 record though. NPR was playing an old interview with Alex Chilton from '91 and I found it unbelievable that at that time he was making a living playing state/county fairs as the Box Tops! Crazy world.

  2. Shite! You're right. God, how could I have flubbed that? I was actually listening to #1 Record as I wrote this.

    Thanks for the look-out. I'm fixing it right now.

  3. Wow. I had no idea.
    I play "Thirteen" as a cover to warm up in my band all the time. I wonder if my drummer knows. We were always more familiar with Elliott Smith's cover of "Thirteen" than Big Star's original. But it sure is gorgeous.