(Photo by Philippe Brizard)
'Invisible Man Who Can Sing In A Visible Voice’
Remembering Alex Chilton
By Chuck Prophet
(posted at http://chuckprophet.com/blog/alex_chilton/)
(Rock 'n' roll classicist Chuck Prophet spent eight years with the acclaimed Green On Red before going solo. His latest album, Let Freedom Ring, is on Yep Rock Records. At ChuckProphet.com he posted this blog about is friend Alex Chilton, who died on March 17, shortly before he was to appear with Big Star at South by Southwest. This was written prior to Chilton's death.)
Tom Waits once described Alex Chilton as "the Thelonious Monk of the rhythm guitar.” He's damn right. I heard it all for the first time live in 1986 at the 688 Club in Atlanta, Georgia. I was 22 years old; a kid in a band called Green On Red and we were playing on a bill with him that night. We were positively bourgeois; freshly signed to Polygram Records with an extra van and a rag-tag road crew. We were living high on the hog, man (or we thought so, anyway). Alex Chilton pulled up the gravel drive to the back of the joint in an old Buick Skylark spitting plumes of blue smoke. He took off the shirt he was wearing, shoving it into the back of his Fender Super Reverb amp, and pulled out the one he wore for gigs. He donned a harmonica rack and tuned up his guitar to the harp, all the while looking at his bass player and drummer (Rene Coman and Doug Garrison). He stepped up to the mike and clicked his heels four times. That was it. I don't know who my fragile busted up little psyche's influences were at the time; Neil Young, Joe Strummer, David Bowie, Tom Verlaine? They all went out the window at that moment; floated up into the ether and stayed put. Alex has remained. I have forgotten many heroes along the way. Put on "Bangkok" and you'll begin to understand why this man, this rock and roll song and dance man, can't be tossed aside. Ever.
That night Peter Buck called out for Elmore James' "Shake Your Money Maker" and Alex twisted the gears on his headstock, went straight into open G, and fucking nailed it. What fucking planet did he come from, this "invisible man who can sing in a visible voice”?
He's done his time, but his time has never been up. Through the Box Tops, Big Star, and on to the days of his solo work, Alex is a true American enigma. He was at once an Anglophile in the heart of Memphis' Stax driven scene and a white boy with as much soul as anyone who ever walked through the doors of that studio on McLemore. Nobody got it. Not the goth kids wanting to bleed all over the upholstery of Sister Lover's Big Black Car, nor the power pop candy boys: they wanted to rub up against the man in the confessional booth of Radio City. They wanted to come in as clean as their momma's kitchen floor and leave, no, steal away with a bit of Alex's dirty soul. Goddamn freaks. Who knew that 10 years later "In The Street,” covered by Cheap Trick, would become the opening track to every episode of That 70's Show, paying a perpetually broke Alex Chilton prime time royalties.
He's from another era, an entirely different time. He just wants to sing "Boogie Shoes" or "Goldfinger.” He defies categorization entirely. ENTIRELY. Isn't that rock and roll? What rock and roll was and should be all about? And the critics; they have panned and adored his work, in some twisted and perverse circular motion. They got their feelings hurt when Big Star didn't become the next Badfinger, and went on to call Big Star's third record, Sister Lovers, shit when it was released and brilliant today. Through it all Alex has remained. Stax was torn down, Elvis is dead, Paul McCartney started Wings for god sakes. But Alex is naming records "Loose Shoes and Tight Pussy,” playing his guitar for whoever shows up, and doing exactly as he pleases. The New York Times once called Green On Red "one of the most important bands of the decade.” When Alex came to Ardent Studios while we were mixing Here Come The Snakes to collect a royalty check for "September Gurls," he hung out and listened for a while. He stood up, with his bag of "vitamins" in hand, and said, "it's good.” Not "it's great" or "it's reminiscent of..." but "it's good.” I could give a damn about The New York Times. Alex Chilton smoked a joint, listened, and said it was good. Alex Chilton. Now when I hear "Flies On Sherbet" I can think of a rock and roll genius telling me "it's good.” That's more than enough for me. Who needs The New York Times when you've got rock and roll; the kind that saves souls, makes kids buy guitars, and makes you move? Really move.
(Alex Chilton, born December 28, 1950, is survived by his wife, Laura; a son, Timothy; and a sister, Cynthia.)
Susan Cowsill, the Watson Twins and Andy Hummel, with Big Star, pay tribute to Alex Chilton with ‘September Gurls,’ South by Southwest, March 20, 2010, Antone’s
Remembering Alex Chilton at SXSW:
A Personal Encounter, In Which Moby Grape Figures, Too
By Billy Altman
This event at Antone's during South by Southwest had been planned as a reunion of Memphis' Big Star, the much-fabled early '70s band which, though little heard by the public during its brief existence, inspired countless power-poppers and alt-rockers in its stead. Sadly, though, on Wednesday, just before he was due to leave his New Orleans home to fly to Austin, 59-year-old former leader Alex Chilton collapsed and died of a heart attack. Still, as they say, the show must go on, and with drummer Jody Stephens and longtime Big Star subs Ken Stringfellow (guitar) and Jon Auer (bass) from the Posies on hand, numerous guest vocalists appeared to pay tribute to a fallen friend. It was a heady cross section of performers, including REM's Mike Mills, the Lemonheads' Evan Dando, the Meat Puppets' Curt Kirkwood, the Dbs' Chris Stamey, Amy Speace and Susan Cowsill.
It's a decidedly bittersweet way to end the festival—and especially so for me personally, since I was one of those who helped get the Big Star mythology going. Back in 1973, under the guise of holding a Rock Writers Convention, the group's label Ardent Records paid for music journalists from all over the country to come to Memphis and hear the band play. Invited from college in Buffalo, NY, as a result of the notoriety I was getting as founder and editor of the original Punk Magazine (our first cover boys were the Seeds), I spent the entire convention like a kid in a candy store, meeting and hanging with writers whom I'd long admired, and a number of them—Sandy Pearlman, the Mad Peck, Lenny Kaye, Richard Meltzer, Nick Tosches and especially Lester Bangs—would become close lifelong friends. (Not long enough, Lester.)
I can still vividly recall watching Big Star perform on a riverboat the final night of that convention in May '73. They blew everyone away—no mean feat, considering they were playing for a private audience of snotty rock critics—and we all spent the next few months singing their praises in print as loudly as we could. To many of us, Big Star seemed to represent an ideal—an honest, better approach to music than the drab pop, laid back country-rock and noodly progressive rock all around us at the time, and we really hoped we could help them become the very embodiment of their name. That never happened, of course. Alex Chilton always remained far better known to most people as the lead singer of the late '60s pop group the Box Tops he always claimed he had little nostalgia for than for either Big Star or his many decades of work as a solo artist. And we all carried on, to the various points of our compasses.
I was not expecting this flood of memories and mixed emotions to hit me right in the middle of the Big Star show at Antone's, but that's precisely what happens when Jody Stephens sang lead on "Way Out West," his bright, shining moment in the sun from that magical Radio City album. I decided it was best for me to leave the crowded club right then and there, before the inevitable "September Gurls" singalong finale I knew is coming. I made my way over to East 6th street, where, to a tiny audience at the Dirty Dog, Jerry Miller and Don Stevenson were playing songs by their old psychedelic San Francisco band, Moby Grape. In 1967, they were the ideal rock and roll band: five musicians, all of whom wrote and sang, playing full throttled music that knew no boundaries whatsoever.
Well before Big Star, the Grape drew critical accolades, but under the weight of the hype and the drug-laced lifestyle of the day, they never made it commercially, either. Yet here, 40-something years on, lead guitarist Miller was still bursting with energy and Stevenson, while not behind his drum kit anymore, remains in fine vocal form. Aided by Skip Spence's son Omar, who sounds enough like his late dad to make it work, they played "Hey Grandma" and "Omaha"—songs I heard them do at the Café Au Go Go in Greenwich Village in, yes, 1967. They may be broken dreams, but they never die, do they? Now, as then: Rock on.