Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton

“Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes 'round They sing "I'm in love. What's that song? I'm in love with that song." (from “Alex Chilton” by The Replacements) My five month old cell phone fried itself dead. Traffic in downtown Austin crawled inch by inch. A friend, who called himself a “capitalist,” called long distance to tell me Obama’s health plan was going to bankrupt the country. But all of that paled in comparison to the strange news that on the first night of South By Southwest 2010, the great Alex Chilton had died just before leaving New Orleans to come to Austin to play a Big Star reunion. Or as the more cynical among us had it, another Big Star reunion.

Chilton of course was the man behind the Box Tops and their immortal blast of dark Sixtyish pop, “The Letter.” Produced by Dan Penn, the single which was written by Wayne Carson Thompson became a hit in 1967 when Chilton was 17. The group which began as a quintet, and which had reportedly been taken of advantage of mightily by unscrupulous managers, promoters and other assorted music business scum, switched producers from Dan Penn to Chips Moman in 1968, but finally sputtered out after much turnover in personnel in 1970. Chilton went on to form Big Star in 1971 but it only lasted three storied years. During that time they made three records, the first #1 Record, remains the best but a botched distribution effort by Stax Records killed any chance of success. Their sophomore album Radio City was another fine collection of power pop tunes that worshipped the Beatles and the Beach Boys, but like its predecessor, it too died when Columbia Records who really didn’t get what the band was about in the first place, again fumbled the distribution. Back then when there actually were record stores (ahhh, those were the days), one of the labels most important functions was literally getting the records into the stores. After this second disaster, two original members bassist Andy Hummel and guitar player Chris Bell quit the band. A final record, later titled Third/Sister Lovers was cut but not released until 1978. Produced by the late Jim Dickinson, the finished record had been shopped to labels at the time but no one showed any interest.

Influential beyond their catalog of work in way that perhaps is equaled only by the Velvet Underground, Big Star was last year the subject of a first class Rhino boxed set, Keep an Eye on the Sky with notes by my good friend, Bob Mehr. Their music, which was darker the most power pop and featured an anti rock star bent of no solos and lots of ensemble guitar rock playing, is in many ways the first alternative rock. REM and many other acts always point to Big Star as one of their primary inspirations. The Replacements immortalized the band’s leader in a tune, “Alex Chilton,” from the record that the Mats made in Memphis, 1987’s Pleased to Meet Me. The band also had a look that was ahead of its time. Somewhere between those foil glam suits Stewie and Woody wore in the Faces and a Memphis Mod meets bar band chic kind of vibe. It was nothing if not unique.

I remember years ago here in Austin at SXSW, having breakfast with Jim Dickinson. Or as much breakfast as I could choke down after being up and also out all night; time my friends magically slips away at SXSW. In any case, the memorable quote I remember was, “Alex Chilton has had sex with every woman in Memphis,” which was followed by a smirk where plenty of Dickinson’s gold teeth were visible and a knowing roll of the eyes. Chilton was truly one of the great rock stars. The kind chicks cannot resist. Age 59 is entirely too soon. I met the mang twice, most recently after one of the Big Star shows with Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer of The Posies filling in. He was polite but no great talker. At least to press. The other time was an interview that I remember being semi difficult, full of very short answers, and not a lot of willingness to talk about the subject of Big Star. I don’t blame him actually. Big Star is a term that sets off alt rock nerds to an annoying degree. While the records are very good and all, they ain’t Exile or The White Album or Blonde on Blonde to name just a few genuine five star records. I was however in a room last night full of people who were smiling and schmoozing and generally buzzing just because it was the first night of SXSW and the news that Chilton was dead moved through like a wave until the band heard and announced the it from the stage. I later heard an older man who’d obviously had too much St. Patties day cheer, mumbling, “He’s gone, He’s gone.” While some of the blogs today are ridiculous, “hole in our heart” reads the title of one overheated entry from San Jose, the guy was a quiet giant in his own way. It’s sacrilege I know, but it’s tempting to say that “SXSW has claimed another victim.”

JCS's picture

I would trade the entire mess of the White Album for Big Star's "Oh My Soul" and if you look where Big Star was with their second album and compare it to the Beatles and Stones sophomore work, well, Big Star is light years beyond.

John in d.c.'s picture

Your post needs editing and is all over the map, but I feel ya, bro.

Dick Gentry's picture

That's the best of several tributes I've read. Yes, we had the Big Star albums when they were new and they were great but you're giving them their due w/o going overboard. So rare today in media. Thanks for the balanced work and enjoy Austin while you're down there. Come back sometime when it's not crazy w/SXSW. It'll still be weird and fun.

jay's picture

its obvious you know nothing about the box tops, big star, the quality of the music, or its place in rock history. go back to writing about speaker wire.