When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, we thought we’d lost Alex Chilton. M.I.A. for several days after the storm hit, fans and friends breathed a collective sigh of relief when it was reported that Chilton was alive and well on September 6, 2005.
On March 17th, the inaugural night of the 2010 South by Southwest Music festival in Austin, Texas, rumors of Chilton’s death added a dark undercurrent to the city, the same city where Chilton was to perform on Saturday with Big Star. It would have been the first Big Star show of 2010; the most recent performance anywhere was at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple in November of 2009, a surprise one-off show in honor of the Big Star box set released last year. The news came later, scant and final: Alex Chilton was rushed to the hospital after complaining of chest pains and pronounced dead of a heart attack that evening. He was 59.
Memphis gem Alex Chilton never quite got his dues after a teen-dreamy hit with the Box Tops in the ’60s, and that chip remained on his shoulder for life. Big Star’s 1970s power pop masterpieces were studiously ignored by radio and public alike, though you can hear a Cheap Trick cover of “In the Street” every time FOX shows a rerun of That ’70s Show, which surely drew a snarl and a quick channel-change from its co-writer.
Chilton laid low in the 80s, recording jazz albums and largely tuning out the resurgence of love for Big Star in the ’90s and ’00s. In 2006, an album of covers entitled Big Star Small World featured tributes from Wilco, Whiskeytown, Teenage Fanclub, and the Posies. Even as he toured with the retrofitted Big Star, featuring Posies members Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, as well as original drummer Jody Stephens, we only got the pleasure of guessing what Chilton might be thinking. When Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield attempted to interview him backstage at a show, he stated, “I have to rest my voice” — which Sheffield noted was “a strange claim, since he was smoking a dubious hand-rolled cigarette the size of his head.”
While we’ll never know the exact logic behind Chilton’s tough exterior, the man who substituted his songs for a diary doesn’t owe us much more of an explanation. Sharing everything from the blushing high-school ballad “Thirteen” to the anguished, desperate “Thank You Friends,” the first track on Third/Sister Lovers and dying gasp of his dreams for Big Star, Chilton opened up his heart and no one was interested. None of this was cool in the ’70s, an era of machismo posturing and crotch rock, but in the ’80s, Chilton’s sparkling guitars and honest outpourings were adopted by the likes of Michael Stipe, and his name was immortalized by the Replacements. Going down as a cult favorite and major indie rock influence may have softened the blow for Alex Chilton, but we all know he was robbed. Years ago his heart was set to live.
Big Star at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple, November 2009
The Box Tops – “The Letter”
Big Star -“In the Street”
Big Star – “Thank You Friends” with 1971 footage shot by original members Chris Bell and Andy Hummel
Alex Chilton – Excerpt from Like Flies on Sherbert, 1979
Alex Chilton on MTV’s 120 Minutes in 1985, discussing his EP Feudalist Tarts
Alex Chilton with Teenage Fanclub – “September Gurls,” Glasgow, 1996
Wilco – “Thirteen”