A Long Goodbye: Alex Chilton

A parting post for 2011, unrelated to education or technology, except for the recording, playback, and transportation technologies that helped with my “edification by puzzlement,” to use the evocative phrase of James Fernandez…. It’s an elegy for one of my favorite musicians, but for me it also stands for many other things, as all deeply felt things do.

Reposted with a few revisions from a burst of writing I did yesterday on the Steve Hoffman forum:

You know, I was really so wracked about Alex Chilton’s death, and then Andy Hummel’s right after it, that I haven’t been able to think straight about any of it until recently. I too was (and am still) one of those Alex fans people complain about. My brother and another close friend used to kid me (ok, mock me) in the late 80’s because of my Alex/Big Star fixation, then in full flowering because I’d seen Alex eight or nine times in that decade. I didn’t have to go too far to find him. For awhile there he was gigging the mid-Atlantic area three or four times a year, it seemed. He played Charlottesville at least three or four times while I was in grad school at UVA. I saw him in Roanoke once and put my wife up to asking him about “I Am The Cosmos,” which I’d just heard courtesy of a friend at Back Alley Disc in C’ville. I figured Alex might open up a little more to a beautiful woman than to me at that point, and he did–he told her he thought it was a really great song, and told her the story of how he first met Chris back when he’d go hear him play in the Jynx back in Memphis.

So many memories of that decade, finally getting to meet and occasionally interact with someone whose music had been so important to me.

Sometimes Alex would be prickly, or would say things that made no sense to me at all. He seemed so casually dismissive of the best of his own work, and would spend so much energy on what seemed to me then like hipster piffle, songs like “Volare.” That song still seems like hipster piffle to me, I have to say. But in that same show, at the 9:30 Club in D.C., he did a breathtaking electric version of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” How could someone go from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again so quickly and perversely? I was deeply puzzled and in truth torn about it all. In my mid-20’s, seeing this musical hero every few months it seemed, and trying to figure out my own artistic and professional story: I could feel broken-hearted, inspired, and deeply intrigued at every show he did. And of course mixed emotions are perfect fuel for any obsession….

Other memories: Going up to Alex the first time I saw him, at the C&O Club in C’ville, and getting him to sign his new album, “Feudalist Tarts” as well as “Radio City” (photo above).  My friend Robin McLeod, the fellow who’d introduced me to that Big Star record about ten years earlier, was standing next to me. Alex was slumped in a chair–he’d been battling the flu–but was very polite. When I praised the sound of “Radio City,” he said “Well, that’s because of John Fry; he’s the reason the record sounds so good.” When I told him how much the record had meant to me, he said, “Thanks–I want you to listen to some of the material in the second set tonight; there’s some real melodic stuff in there.” I remember Alex with his three piece (Doug Garrison, drums and Ron Easley, bass) playing “You Get What You Deserve” (also at the C&O club in C’ville)–only time I heard him play that. When he got to the bridge and the “oh, oh-oh, ohhhh” part, I was dancing madly and grinning like a fool.

Once I went up to him during a set break and asked him why he didn’t play more of his Big Star material onstage. (Before the Big Star 2.0 reunion, I heard him play “September Gurls” and “In The Street” most every gig, “When My Baby’s Beside Me” two or three times total, and “You Get What You Deserve” exactly once.) He said, “well, the music’s pretty good, but the lyrics just lay an egg for me.” I asked, “Even something like ‘O My Soul’? I love those lyrics.” He said, “Nah, Chris didn’t finish that song before he left.” I said, “Well, I guess it’s also pretty hard to play a song like that live.” (I was really fishing at that point–plus the 1974 WLIR concert hadn’t been released yet.) He looked at me and said, “It’s not the hardest song on the album.” I asked, “What is the hardest song?” He said, “Daisy Glaze–we tried to learn it in rehearsal this afternoon–heh, forget it.”

I just couldn’t help myself. I knew his power pop radar was intact. I could tell it from the way he played Lou Christie’s “I Wanna Make You Mine” and the melancholy, soulful “Nobody’s Fool,” a song written by his former producer and vocals mentor Dan Penn. But then he’d riff on something interesting but ultimately unsatisfying, like “Boogie Shoes,” and I would try to resign myself to enjoying what I could and giving up on the bigger hopes.

But other times, the hope flared up again, very intensely. I remember Alex coming up to me out of the blue at the 9:30 Club to chat; we talked about record stores and radio stations in Memphis, and I told him I had made it to the short list for a job at what was then called Memphis State University. He said “Hey, that’s cool, maybe you’ll get it and move to Memphis and I’ll see you around there.” I tried to stay calm throughout the conversation, but it was tough. I gave Alex a cassette of some Son House after one of the shows, and he said he’d never heard any Son House before. I hope he liked it. I met Anna Lee Van Cleef, his girlfriend at the time and photographer for “High Priest,” after another show, the one Chris Stamey opened for. Chris was showing folks his new Wurlitzer electric guitar (a beauty), and Alex was holding court across the room, sitting next to Anna Lee (also a beauty).

Alex smoked a lot of pot those days, or so I was told, and it wasn’t like we were going to have a real intense or focused conversation anyway, but still, every one of those short little fanboy encounters was very important to me, as well as deeply puzzling and strangely worrying.

There seemed to me to be something about the deep structure of the universe that the music of Big Star communicated, something sad and powerful and joyful and melancholy and wry all at once. To me, Alex had been a channel for this communication, and I was trying to figure out how all that happened, trying to explain something to myself I suppose. Later, as I began to discover the heart and soul that Chris Bell had given the band, as well as the crucial roles Jody and Andy had played in the whole undertaking, I began to understand how complex that channeling really was. But I never really changed my mind about what was being channeled. I don’t think I will ever change my mind about that.

The last time I saw Alex was in 1994 at the Fillmore in San Francisco, where my friend Robin was living at the time. The reformed Big Star was playing there at exactly the time my family and I were traveling back east to my new job in Virginia. Robin and I got to the Fillmore early so we could stand near the front. We heard the opening act (can’t recall the name, alas), then heard Counting Crows (playing under a false name, for reasons I can’t recall–probably contractual). Then we saw both bands helping to set up the equipment for Big Star. I thought at the time that this was their way of paying tribute to the band. It was a moving sight. Then Big Star came out. It was an amazing set, start to finish, and I was in truth more than a little shaken up to hear all those songs that had shaped my life, songs I never imagined I would hear live. But the moment that sticks in my mind the most is the moment the band came out on stage. For a second or two I made eye contact with Alex, and I thought perhaps he recognized me when he nodded slightly. Robin saw it too, and thought the same thing. I can hope it’s true.

The recent box set got way under my skin, absolutely. The photos are truly magnificent. The bookended photos of Chris and Alex on the CD portfolio are especially poignant.

Three days ago, Alex would have been 61 years old. Almost two years later, I’m still saying goodbye.

How strange, or maybe not: writing the above sent me back to Bruce Eaton’s blog, which I had not visited since just after Alex’s death, and where I found a ton of great stuff, including fantastic interview material from Andy that didn’t make it into the book, as well as a post with a link to a completely fantastic tribute to Alex.

Feeling a little less alone, now, after reading these words by Barbara Mitchell:

There are tortured artists and then there are conflicted ones. Alex was definitely the latter. He lived off of – and simultaneously tried to destroy – his own legacy. The guy was a monumental talent and an honor to work with. He was also perverse, arrogant and a provocateur extraordinaire. And sometimes an utter sweetheart. A Sphinx without a riddle, as former Chills guitarist Steven Schayer described him. [emphasis Mitchell]

I wish I could have known him a little better, even if I couldn’t ever get the riddle straight, much less the answer. Funny how we all think we’re looking for answers. Maybe it’s really the riddle that’s hard to find, or even accept. Maybe during my 1980’s search for Alex Chilton, the riddle I was looking for was my own.

December boys got it bad.

Happy New Year.

7 thoughts on “A Long Goodbye: Alex Chilton

  1. I want to thank you for introducing me to Big Star. I listened to #1 Record and Radio City over and over again as I studied for exams the spring semester of my freshman year.
    If I close my eyes and let myself go with the music I can still remember the magic of that spring semester; the closing of my first year of college and how my mind was on fire with beautiful ideas about life and learning. I’m glad Big Star is forever part of that soundtrack. Thank you Gardo.

  2. @Shannon: One of the great consolations of returning to Mary Wash that term was finally meeting you face to face. It was a very difficult semester: DTLT was there, all of what I’d worked for was beginning to take off, and it seemed that all I could do was watch from the other side of a glass wall. I was deeply grateful to be back, and deeply hurt to have been divorced from the leadership I had worked so hard to build. But I got to meet this young woman whose blogging had spoken directly to my heart … and not just to mine, either. To think that I was able to give a little back fills me with delight. That Big Star was part of that will always be very precious to me. So you’re welcome, and thank *you*. Hard to believe that was five years ago. “I can’t be satisfied; what you want me to do?”

  3. Count me as another grateful member of the Gardner-Turned-Me-On-To-Big-Star-Club! Happened in a food court at the Pittsburgh Airport in transit from a Milton conference in Murfreesboro TN. A Diskman and a pair of headphones. “September Gurls,” “Mod Lang,” and “Way Out West.” That’s all it took.

    Gardner, thanks for the post. Beautiful! Debt immense….

  4. @Louis I remember that moment, that CD player, that airport. I remember what the table looked like in the little bar-and-grill area. Robin had hooked me a decade or so earlier with “September Gurls,” “Way Out West,” and “O My Soul,” in that order. I wanted to wring some changes and I had been listening obsessively to “Mod Lang,” the first Big Star song Paul Westerberg ever heard (Paul told me that himself), so I gave that one a chance. The way Fry’s Fairchild compressor makes that chord bloom at the end of the solo just wrecks me, as if the universe gave one more windmilled strum after Alex had finished with it. I thought you might enjoy it. So glad that one made an impression. I never travel far without it.

    @Barbara Light, heat, and soul. I’m honored you’d comment. And I’m eternally grateful for what you wrote. Really, I have no words–it’s that intense, reading your words. Thank you. There’s a light that never goes out.

  5. @Jim There already, my friend. I think it was the first Pandora station I created. Found a ton of cool music that way. Great to know it’s a favorite for you too!

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