I don’t mention music much on this blog even though it’s been a big part of my life since I was but a young’un.
There are times that I just feel compelled to express my shock at the passing of someone who’s been such a part of my adult life.
That would be Alex Chilton.
Our paths only personally crossed a couple of times apart from the couple of times I saw him live as a solo artist in a small bar in downtown Memphis, at a free show on the Mid-America Mall with an awesome but short-lived and little-remembered late 70s group of his, The Yarddogs, once with his legendary band, Big Star and once with Tav Falco’s Panther Burns at The Antenna Club.
Although we had many common friends and acquaintances, I only had two encounters with him, both in the 70s.
The first was at a party at my house – yes, it was one of those epic affairs – rife with all sorts of questionable behavior, loud music and friends of friends of friends who might show up for a few minutes to hang out. It was one of those big communal houses so each of the 4 of us had a bunch of friends who might show up that the others didn’t know. Hell, sometimes none of us knew some of the couple of hundred people that might waft through during one of these parties.
Anyway, this was right before I got punk/new wave music and I was still in my “progressive” phase, so this must have been around ’75. I had a huge record collection (for the time) and I did radio at the local college radio station. I was quite proud of all of my import records – stuff like Henry Cow, Greenslade, Brian Eno, Caravan, and all sorts of obscure stuff. My crew was also big on stuff like Zappa, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Miles Davis and the like. But I had also loved a band called Big Star since the first album came out and I was one of the handful of people who actually bought the first album, #1 Record, in the early days (although I must confess that it wasn’t until probably ’73 or so when I finally found it in the cutout bin – that shows you how few people actually bought it when it first came out). A dj named Jon Scott played it a lot on the local “underground” station when it was first released in ’72, so it became part of my musical DNA pretty early.
Anyway, who should show up at the party but Alex Chilton! This was a mindblower. Motherfucking Alex Chilton! The legend! The guy who sang, “The Letter” and “Soul Deep”. The guy behind Big Star! I was fairly hooked into the music scene due to my increasing visibility on the radio dial, but this was a bit beyond my level.
Anyway, he said a few pleasantries and, as I remember, grabbed a beer. At the time, some guitar wanking was going out over the JBL L100s powered by the “high end” Crown DC300 amp and Dual turntable that provided the tunes. He made a face and asked if he could look through my collection. Proudly, I showed him to the 300 or 400 lps that I had. I said, “I’ve got the 2 Big Star records. Can I put one of them on”? He scowled and grunted “No”. As he pulled out records, he either scoffed, grunted, made a face, mocked or just looked plain bored until…as I looked down, he pulled out The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and demanded that I put it on. Through my buzz, I remember being a little hesitant because, as much as I loved that record, it really wasn’t “cool music” at the time (in terms of the type of party that we were having). But, who am I to turn down a guest’s request – especially if the guest is Alex Chilton?
So, on it went. It sounded great, but some people seemed taken a bit aback, not that I cared.
As “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” faded down, I looked around and Alex was gone, his job done.
The second and last time I saw him, it was probably a year later. My roommate Mike had an absolutely gorgeous mint ’63 Sunburst Stratocaster (remember, the guitar was only about 10 years old at the time and wasn’t worth the $20,000+ that a mint copy would fetch today). In fact, Mike decided that he wanted a gold top Les Paul and decided to sell the guitar, so he put an ad in the paper. I think he was asking the princely sum of $400.
One day the door rang and there was Alex and his girlfriend Lesa at the door. He asked if the guitar was still for sale. This was during a rather rough time in Alex’s life (listen to the 3rd Big Star album and you get a hint of some of the demons that he was facing) and he didn’t look so good. They were both thin as a rail and just had an unhealthy look about them (but of course, I probably didn’t look all that great myself as I was burning the candle at both ends myself).
Anyway, he asked if the guitar was still for sale and I said that I thought so but wasn’t sure. I told him that Mike wasn’t home and would be home later. He asked if he could see the guitar and I brought it out to him while he was still standing on the porch. He looked at it, strummed it and handed it back to me. He asked if I thought that Mike would take less for it. I told him that I didn’t think so since he had bought a new guitar and was needing the funds to pay for it. I told him that Mike would be back later tonight and that he was welcome to come back.
I never saw him again, although I spoke to him briefly at that solo performance at The North End (I think that was the name of the club he played).
But he has been part of the fabric of my life since I was 17 and heard Jon Scott playing “Don’t Lie To Me” over nighttime progressive radio (and, of course, I knew the Box Tops). I’ve carried the Big Star banner through thick and thin – before it was fashionable and after it was mundane to be a Big Star fan. Even during my “progressive rock” phase, I was playing Big Star on my show. In fact, one night, I was playing a Big Star song and Peter Holsapple, famed North Carolina artist who has played with REM, actually called me up one late night to say that he was passin’ through Memphis, heard me playing Big Star and had to call to say that he enjoyed it (this was before he was Peter Holsapple, if you know what I mean). I followed his solo career off and on over the years and loved his sense of both anarchy and reverence for rockabilly, punk, country and old classic tunes from earlier in the century. I loved his wobbly aesthetic and was gratified to see that he had finally come to terms with his legacy.
I’ve fallen in love to Big Star, I’ve thought I was in love but wasn’t to Big Star, I pined over ladies to Big Star, I drowned my sorrows to Big Star, I had my heart broken to Big Star.
And now I’ve had my heart broken one more time.