Thursday, March 25, 2010

Everything You Need To Know About Alex Chilton

is on Big Star Live (1974):


It's all right here, folks

Big Star Live (1974): "Interview," "The Ballad of El Goodo," "Thirteen," "I'm in Love with a Girl," "Motel Blues"

Alex Chilton is my (anti-)hero and one of my all-time favorite singer-songwriters. So after hearing about his passing last week in New Orleans at age 59, I dug out my fave Chilton mix CD, a disc I promptly rebranded "The Alex Chilton Memorial Mix." Naturally it had a lot of Big Star on it, the '70s powerpop group that attained cult status with rock critics and will forever be identified as the high-water mark of Chilton's career, despite his apparent lack of interest in their after-the-fact legend. (Typical Alex; ever the enigmatic spoilsport and quirky iconoclast snatching ignomity from the jaws of fame, even though it's doubtful he ever got a bigger royalty check than for Big Star's "September Gurls" - a tune famously covered by the Bangles that has been called "the sine qua non of power pop, a glorious, glittering jewel with every facet cut and shined to absolute perfection" - or for "In the Street," which children by the millions know (as covered by Cheap Trick from Season 2 on) as the theme song to That '70s Show).

But my favorite part was a radio station interview followed by four acoustic tracks taken from the 1974 Big Star Live CD, for this "stripped-down, a man alone before the mic and under the spotlight" segment contains everything you need to know about Alex Chilton. It's like a fossil footprint he left behind that capsulizes his passion, his eccentricity, his skepticism, his cynicism, his insecurity, his anger, his bitterness - and, of course, his undeniable God-given talent.


Spotlight on Chilton: Alex explains it all

"Interview"
When a smooth-talking DJ comments, "You're been getting an awful lot of critical acclaim for your new album [1974's Radio City]; it's really good!" Alex sarcastically replies, "Yeah, uh, that's nice...I hope it sells...we've had critical acclaim before."

When the DJ asks him what it was like "in those early days of rock and roll" as a member of The Box Tops, Alex responds, "Pretty scummy...I dunno...about as scummy as now."

DJ: "Really?"

Alex: "Well it was a hard life out on the road and all, driving around in station wagons. It just wasn't any fun..."

DJ: "Did you do a lot of writing for the Box Tops?"

Alex: "No, it was pretty well controlled by some producers we had at the time, who controlled us as well as everything else."

DJ: "The kind of music you play has been compared to the Beatles in the mid-60s. Do you find the music to be timely? I mean, is it anachronistic to be playing this type of music in the mid-1970s?"

Alex: "I don't know. I haven't really decided yet. Somebody may convince me of that yet. I'm just doing what I like to do, you know? It sounds melodious to my ears."

Alex then introduces the first of four numbers he performs on acoustic guitar.

"This first one's from our first album, #1 Record, which can't be found anywhere. It's really rare. In fact, I can't find any around Ardent Records anymore."

(Ardent Records distribution problems at the time were well-documented; despite critical acclaim for Big Star, the band toured behind a record that was almost impossible to find anywhere outside of Memphis, a fact that crushed founding guitarist and fellow songwriter Chris Bell, who fell into a long depression and left the band.)

"The Ballad of El Goodo" (Alex Chilton)

I never knew exactly what this song - arguably Chilton's greatest - was about. Anti-draft anthem? Anti-conformity shout out? Maybe that's what makes it so great, it's generalized simplicity that lets it be whatever the listener wants it to be. It's certainly Chilton's credo, his "Mission Statement" of beliefs, a sort of Bill of Rights for the Individual, an anti-hero code to live by.
"Years ago my heart was set to live, oh
And I've been trying hard against unbelievable odds
It gets so hard at times like now to hold on
But guns they wait to be stuck by, and at my side is God

And there ain't no one gonna turn me round
Ain't no one going to turn me round...

There's people around who'll tell you that they know
And places where to send you
And it's easy to go

They'll zip you up and dress you down and stand you in a room
But you don't have to, you can just say 'No'

And there ain't no one gonna turn me round
Ain't no one going to turn me round...

I've been built up and trusted
Broke down and busted
But they'll get theirs and we'll get ours
If we can just hold on...hold on

Years ago my heart was set to live
And I've been trying hard against strong odds
It gets so hard at time like this to hold on
But I'll fall if I don't fight
And at my side is God

And there ain't no one gonna turn me round
Ain't no one going to turn me round..."

No one turned Alex 'round from his way of living, which he did on his terms and in his way, even if it meant ending his days living in a tent. He thumbed his nose at all pretense, sneered at potential Top 40 idolatry, and scoffed at any suggestion of rock stardom. As Dylan once sang, "To live outside the law you must be honest." Alex was always honest enough to be free - free to be he. The Man Called (Self?) Destruction said it all right here.

"Thirteen" (Alex Chilton-Chris Bell)

"This one really is anachronistic," Alex explains as he introduces the next song. "I wrote this one when I was 13. In fact it's called 'Thirteen.'" You can tell, as it's full of the innocence, passion, and yearning of Youth, but already anticipating the anger ("Tell your dad get off my back"), disappointment, and frustration of adulthood ("If it's no then I can go..."). Adolescence, in other words. "Thirteen" was later famously covered by Elliott Smith.
"Won't you let me walk you home from school?
Won't you let me meet you at the pool?
Maybe Friday I can, get tickets for the dance,
And I'll take you, ooo ooo

Won't you tell your dad get off my back?
Tell him what we said 'bout "Paint It Black"
Rock and roll is here to stay,
Come inside now it's ok,
And I'll shake you, ooo ooo

Won't you tell me what you're thinking of?
Would you be an outlaw for my love?
If it's so then let me know,
If it's no then I can go,
I won't make you, ooo ooo"

"I'm in Love with a Girl" (Alex Chilton)

Alex is at his most sentimental, teetering on cornball, in this simplistic emo ballad. Still, there's that certain Chiltonesque chill in the breeze, a sort of melodic-melancholy that you can hear in the song's fade-away close, "I didn't know it could happen to me..." that makes it seem as if he's sad that he's glad, as if he's anticipating the inevitable heartache. As Allmusicguide's Bill Janovitz observes:
The last song on Big Star's legendary album, Radio City, is a graceful country-folk ballad that has Alex Chilton alone with an acoustic guitar singing about a newfound love: "I'm in love with a girl/The finest girl in the world/I didn't know I could feel this way." After a power pop record filled with emotional and sexual frustration and angst that almost leads to misogyny, "I'm in Love With a Girl" serves as the calm after the storm, Chilton's high, shaky voice singing a wistful melody over a sparse guitar strum. He sounds as if he was taken by surprise by a love that crept up behind him, especially on the song's — and thus the album's — last three lines: "I didn't know about love/All that a man should do is true/I didn't think this could happen to me," the last of which rings out a capella, as if an apologetic explanation for the whole album.


"Motel Blues" (Loudon Wainright III)

Perhaps no song captures the "scumminess" of rock and roll that Chilton referred to in his DJ interview than this song, a cover of a tune by Rufus' dad, Loudon Wainright III. Or the loneliness ("...driving around in station wagons" town-to-town, eh Alex?). "Motel Blues" was also the start of the carefully selected Chilton cover song modus operandi, something that came to define his later career when the originals became scarcer and Alex seemed to revel in unearthing obscure, indigenous R&B nuggets from his native Memphis and new adopted spiritual home, New Orleans. Don't forget, this is the man who covered The Troggs "With a Girl Like You," the Stones' "Jumping Jack Flash" and "The Singer Not the Song" (the B-side of "Get Off of My Cloud"), Domenico Modugno's 1958 Italian hit (and later car commercial jingle) "Volare" (aka "Nel blu dipinto di blu"), and then whole albums-worth of cover songs - including "The Christmas Song" and J. S. Bach's "Gavotte" (!) - on Cliches (1993) and Set (2000).
In this town television shuts off at two
What can a lonely rock & roller do?
The bed's so big and the sheets are clean
and your girlfriend said that you were 19
The styrofoam icebucket is full of ice
Come up to my motel room and treat me nice

I don't wanna make no late night New York calls
and I don't wanna stare at them ugly grassmatt walls
chronologically I know you're young
but when you kissed me in the club you bit my tongue
I'll write a song for you, I'll put it on my next L.P
Come up to my motelroom and sleep with me

There's a Bible in the drawer, don't be afraid
I'll put up the sign to warn the cleanup maid
Yeah there's lots of soap end there's lots of towels
never mind the desk clerk's scowls
I buy you breakfast, they'll think you're my wife
Come up to my motel room and save my life

That last line makes me think of Paul Westerberg's recent op-ed piece in the Times in which he recalled the two friends cracking up discussing Alex's predicament in trying to lure girls back to his...tent. Had he succeeded, one thing is certain: it wouldn't have saved his life. The scummy rock and roll lifestyle ("Rock Hard") finally caught up with his rock and roll heart.

The world lost a true music maverick and renegade rock & roll spirit on March 17, 2010. He was due to perform at Austin's South by Southwest Festival where, in the words of Ardent Records founder John Fry, "You can't throw a rock...without hitting someone who was influenced by Big Star."

"If he died in Memphis, then that'd be cool...," Westerberg sang in "Alex Chilton." Well, the Big Easy was Chilton's last resting place, and that's pretty cool, too.

***

OK, I lied; there is something else about Chilton you need to know that I left out: check out Scott Wallace Brown's excellent rumination "Meditations on Chilton: Part I - "What's Your Sign[ifier], Dude? ".

Related Links:
Of course, if you're a niggling stickler for a God-is-in-the-details examination of Alex Chilton and Big Star, you'll want to avail yourself of the following books:

It Came from Memphis (2001) by Robert Gordon
Big Star: The Short Life, Painful Death, and Unexpected Resurrection of the Kings of Power Pop (2005) by Rob Jovanovic
Radio City (33 1/3 series) (2009) by Bruce Eaton

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