No doubt about it but Alex Chilton who died last week in New Orleans touched a lot of smart people, many of whom are saddened by his passing at the relatively young age of 59. Some loving tributes here, here and especially here.
Chilton and his band Big Star epitomized what Robert Christgau called “semi-popular” music and had a tremendous influence on bands like REM, the Replacements (who recorded a song called “Alex Chilton”), what came to be called power-pop and any number of sensitive youngsters with an emo bent. No one who talks or writes about Big Star fails to mention their enormous cult following (if it’s enormous is it still a cult?) and their name has become something of a shibboleth among hip young (invariably) men signifying to their peers that they were clued in to the good and the great.
Years ago, one such character insisted on giving me a twofer package of #1 Record and Radio City (vinyl natch) even though I had repeatedly told him I never could listen to more than a side of Big Star at a time and that they invariably sent me to sleep. It’s in a box somewhere. And there it will stay. Yep, Big Star left me cold. I never connected to, what seemed to these ears, horribly tinny sounding records with their sad little songs. Worse yet, Chilton’s voice, once a marvelous baritone with his previous band the Box Tops had mutated into the whiny voice of a teenage boy. It is so unlike the singer in his previous incarnation when he was in fact a teenage boy, on hits like The Letter and Cry like A Baby. It’s the same reason I don’t get Nick Drake or Elliott Smith or Conor Oberst – I don’t connect emotionally, viscerally nor intellectually with these singers or their songs or their voices. A friend, a musician and songwriter, wiser than a warehouse full of Brooklyn hipsters described Big Star thusly to me this week- there is no there there– and I know exactly what he means. Even in there best songs- say September Gurrls and Back of a Car– when you peel away the onion you’re left with, well, onion peel. They never seem to quite to come up with a song that makes me go unreservedly “that was great“.
So why write about this if they leave you cold as poor old Alex ? Well the clue is in the last paragraph- music heads of a certain ilk aren’t the only ones who have shibboleths. I did connect to Chilton’s Box Tops, a Memphis pop/soul group where Chilton sang far better and with more soul than he ever could muster with Big Star, and where he relied on Chips Moman and Dan Penn, Memphis soul legends both, to produce and write songs.
Over the years- and this has happened at least half a dozen times- someone will start up about the genius of Alex Chilton and I usually pipe up with “Yeah I love Soul Deep, I think it’s one of the great songs. Course it’s really Dan Penn’s song and he produced it too, but I think it’s Chilton’s best vocal”. And watch as their (usually) tiny little oh so hipster heads would spin through the Big Star catalog failing to come up with the requisite reference. Hipsters aren’t the only ones who have shibboleths and objects of cultish reverence. Mine just happen to be more of a soulful bent. A worse man me sometimes, I know, and a right bloody mixer. I make no apologies.
Who knows maybe they went and sought out Soul Deep, a song I dearly wish Otis Redding had been around to sing although Chilton does a mighty fine job. I hope they did. I’m sure it would be a revelation. It’s as great a piece of pop as you are likely to find and far better than anything on the three Big Star albums. Maybe I should start a Box Tops cult or a Chips Moman-Dan Penn appreciation society?
Rest in Peace Alex and tell Otis I still miss him……