“One of the most distinctive voices in pop music. He sounds rough and gravelly most of the time, but when he sings a ballad he reveals an unexpected tenderness and sensitivity. He has the mischievous and subtle charm of a young tiger who still doesn’t realize his full strength. Alex plays guitar and bass and is very interested in the production end of the business.” —biography of Alex Chilton from the liner notes of the Box Tops’ Non Stop (1968)
In the fall of 1992 I turned 17, and with a birthday gift certificate to Turtle’s Records & Tapes in Macon, Georgia, I bought the Replacements’ 1987 album Pleased to Meet Me. That was my introduction to Alex Chilton, who died on March 17 at the age of 59, though I had no idea he was anything more than the title of the second track.
About six months later I was at a used-books sale with my girlfriend and her family when I spotted a crate of old LPs. I flipped past one with Chilton’s name across the top and was surprised to discover he was a real person. Out of curiosity I bought High Priest (1987) for 99 cents, figuring the price was right. I never would’ve guessed that it would quickly become one of my favorite albums. But that was Chilton’s enduring legacy — he always kept you guessing.
One of High Priest‘s standout tracks is “Nobody’s Fool,” written by Dan Penn and Bobby Emmons and first performed on Penn’s 1973 album of the same name. Penn was the producer of the Box Tops, the blue-eyed soul group from Memphis that featured a gruff-sounding Chilton on lead vocals. In 1967 they scored a #1 hit with their very first single, “The Letter,” when Chilton was just 16 years old. “At the time I was failing tenth grade and I was going to have to repeat my sophomore year in high school, but I got lucky and had a No. 1 hit that summer,” he told Rolling Stone in 2000. “So my mom and dad were like, ‘Why don’t you go ahead and give this “rock” thing a try?'”
Chilton was the only member of the Box Tops who actually performed on their records after “The Letter” — original members Bill Cunningham, John Evans, Danny Smythe, and Gary Talley were supplemented with Memphis session musicians when it came time to crank out another album (four in the space of two years). Penn controlled every aspect of the group’s sound, and it wasn’t until Non Stop, their third album, that Chilton finally got to contribute a song of his own, “I Can Dig It,” though he rerecorded it on his own two years later (it can be found on the 1996 compilation 1970). Frustrated at being treated like “a puppet on a string,” to quote the Box Tops’ #2 hit “Cry Like a Baby,” he quit the band in 1969.
His choice of Penn’s “Nobody’s Fool” for a cover feels almost like a backhanded compliment to his former Svengali, especially when you consider the lyrics:
No, I wasn’t made to play with
Just love ‘em and leave ‘em
That’s my game, and I’ve got to remain
Nobody’s bread and butter
Yeah, I played it cool
And I’m nobody’s fool
After his stint in the Box Tops, Chilton decided he would never let someone control him again as an artist, though he didn’t mind letting chaos take over in the studio if he felt the end would justify the means. In Back of a Car fanzine publisher Judith Beeman’s liner notes for Munster Records’s 1997 reissue of Chilton’s Like Flies on Sherbert (1979), he’s quoted as saying, “Getting involved with [producer Jim] Dickinson opened up a new world for me. Before that I’d been into careful layerings of guitars and voices and harmonies and things like that, and Dickinson showed me how to go into the studio and just create a wild mess and make it sound really crazy and anarchic.”
Dickinson, who died last August, produced Flies and Big Star’s Third, a.k.a. Sister Lovers (1974), but Chilton also took a shambolic approach to recording, helped in no small part by his increasing dependency on alcohol, for 1975’s Bach’s Bottom. But even after he quit drinking in the early ’80s, he still wanted to capture the spirit of an energetic live performance in the studio. “I am of the belief that you can just take musicians into the studio and let them do what they want to do, and if you don’t belabor the point, they are generally going to do something good the first or second time through,” he said in 1995 while promoting his latest album, A Man Called Destruction.
One of the first songs Chilton recorded after he left the Box Tops was “Free Again” (“Free again to do what I want again / Free again to sing my songs again”). And though many fans tuned out after the breakup of his second band, the Beatles-influenced Big Star, his solo albums proudly showed off the work of a true rock ‘n’ roll rebel, a singer who clearly didn’t give a damn what anyone thought of him, including the ever-growing legion of Big Star disciples.
“He was proud of his songs, he was proud of [Big Star’s] ‘Thirteen’ and ‘September Gurls,’ but he was always kind of frustrated,” his wife, Laura, told the New York Times. “He wanted people to know of other things, other than Big Star.”
Chilton himself told an Australian interviewer in the mid-’90s that “all I was doing was joining Chris Bell’s band, and all I did was to fit in with his concept of the group. The things I’ve been doing since then are more me than Big Star ever was, which is something that disappoints a lot of Big Star fans.”
That statement is borne out by an interview Chilton did with The Bob‘s Dawn Eden in 1987, in which he said that if it had been his band from the beginning, “I would have been writing bluesier things at the time. Another reason why those things are more melodic than later things is because when I was first learning to play and stuff, which I pretty much was then, I could stumble upon a cliché and be really impressed that I could make that sound. These days, I’m not so amazed with the clichés that I stumble upon.”
Chilton had a habit of responding to audience requests for Big Star and Box Tops songs by playing a cabaret number like “Volaré” instead. While some fans took offense at his stubborn refusal to throw them a bone, it was hard not to admire the strength of his conviction, the metaphorical middle finger of his “thanks but no thanks” attitude. Then again, no one expected him to say yes to a Big Star reunion concert in 1993, or to be the instigator of the fourth Big Star album, 2005’s In Space. Not for nothing was Bill Friskics-Warren’s article about Chilton in the Oxford American‘s 2001 Southern Music Issue titled “The Contrarian.”
The seeds of Chilton’s Bartleby the Scrivener-like modus operandi had already been planted by the time he wrote “The Ballad of El Goodo” for #1 Record, Big Star’s first album:
There’s people ’round 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 row
But you know you don’t have to
You could just say no
The song’s chorus repeats the line “Ain’t no one going to turn me ’round” several times, and Chilton added to that sentiment two years later with the chorus of Third‘s “You Can’t Have Me”: “You can’t have me / Not for free.”
The thing is, by ignoring the pop songs of his past that fans wanted to hear, Chilton ended up exposing new listeners like myself to little-known R&B songs he’d grown to love while living in Memphis and New Orleans. In a concert review from April of ’95 the New York Times‘s Neil Strauss wrote, “Mr. Chilton approached each song written by another musician with the adoration and diligence of a fan simply playing songs he likes that he can also relate to his own life, even if they come from a place, time and mind far different from his own.”
If it weren’t for Chilton’s solo albums and EPs from the ’80s and ’90s, I probably never would’ve heard tunes like Ollie Nightingale’s sexually suggestive yet tender “You’ve Got a Booger Bear Under There” (it’s on Chilton’s 1999 album that was distributed in Europe as Loose Shoes and Tight Pussy, though it had the much less explicit title of Set upon its release in the U.S. the following year), Lowell Fulson’s exuberant “Make a Little Love” (“And on my finger is a diamond ring / Two chicks on each arm / And boys, I’m ready to swing”), or Willie Tee’s “Thank You John,” the sweetest song ever written from the point of view of a pimp consoling one of his prostitutes after she’s been roughed up by a john (“I know he wanted to handle you / I could tell by the bruises on your arm … / If he tries this again / He’s gonna shed some blood”).
In 1995 Pulse! magazine called Chilton’s music “strip-joint soul” with a “roots-kitsch kitchen-sink approach.” True to form, even his guitar-pummeled version of the Archies’ “Sugar Sugar,” from the 1970 disc, manages to inject some southern boogie-rock sleaze into the original’s bubblegum arrangement.
Chilton also had a way with jazz standards, as he proved on his 1994 disc Clichés. Accompanied by only an acoustic guitar, he sang impeccable renditions of “There Will Never Be Another You” and “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” channeling his childhood hero Chet Baker. However, his performance of “What Was,” a song first heard in Robert Benton’s 1977 film The Late Show, may be the most haunting thing he ever recorded after Big Star’s Third. “Just remember to remember / What was is just what was,” he sings, a clear indication if ever there was one that Chilton wasn’t the kind to get misty about the good ol’ days.
In a September ’94 interview with Guitar Player magazine — Chilton was by all accounts a terrific guitarist — he said, “When I play my own gigs, Big Star songs make up a very small percentage of my set for a variety of reasons, one being that a lot of those songs are kind of half-baked and not very well crafted. They didn’t go through as rigorous a refinement stage as they should have, and a lot of them just seem kind of young.” He’s also called his old band’s records “brilliant in some ways” and “the gropings of young fools in other ways,” and he once summed up the perennial newest members of the Big Star cult as “confused 20-year-old college students.” (I can tell you firsthand that he was right on the money.)
His songwriting slowed down considerably after Big Star fizzled out in ’74, but Chilton still managed to crank out memorable melodies for songs like “All of the Time” (from Bach’s Bottom), “Bangkok” (a 1977 single), and the gorgeously cracked “Like Flies on Sherbert.” He also recorded a demo for Elektra Records in ’77 that contained three of his best post-Big Star pop songs, “She Might Look My Way,” “Windows Hotel,” and “Shakin’ the World.” Elektra took a pass, however, and Chilton shelved the three songs for good.
When asked by The Idler‘s Kira Jolliffe in 1996 which of his songs he was proudest of, he responded, “Maybe the tune that I like the best, which didn’t really have a great performance on the record but the tune’s good, is [High Priest‘s] ‘Thing for You’ … Usually when I write a song and I don’t like it, it’s because there’s something in the tune that just seems so awkward to me and lays such an egg and is so lame that I really can’t dig that bit of it, and that kind of ruins the whole thing for me. That particular tune doesn’t take any really false steps.”
He also told Barney Hoskyns, in the February 2000 issue of Mojo, that “My Rival,” from Like Flies on Sherbert, was the first song he wrote where “the whole way through I knew what the words said and I knew what it meant. Before that I’d write things that were an ethereal, nebulous string of words that really didn’t mean anything.” But that doesn’t mean Chilton’s problems were solved, at least if you asked him. As he told The Idler, “I don’t think I became a good songwriter.”
Again, he liked to keep people guessing, so it’s hard to say if he was serious about his output prior to “My Rival” or his opinion of Big Star’s songwriting craftsmanship — “Thing for You” is good, but it comes nowhere close to a track like Radio City‘s “Life Is White” — but the songs from his solo career certainly showcase a wicked sense of humor that wasn’t as readily apparent on Big Star’s LPs. The bluesy originals “Lost My Job” (“Guess I gotta go steal and rob”) and “Under Class” (“Dressed in rags, everybody knows I’m trash / Totally bereft of any cash”) — from 1985’s Feudalist Tarts EP and 1986’s No Sex 12-inch single, respectively — are complemented nicely by the AIDS paranoia of “No Sex”: “Can’t get it on or even get high / C’mon, baby, fuck me and die.” Even when the world was falling apart around him — or when he was causing it to fall apart, judging by articles about his drinking, drugging, and hell raising in Memphis in the second half of the ’70s, before he got sober at the age of 30 and washed dishes in New Orleans to get back on his feet — Chilton could still find something to laugh about.
It’s hard not to think that he could have kept writing melodic pop songs for years after Big Star broke up if only he hadn’t felt dishonest about it. Chilton was 13 when the Beatles arrived in America and he loved their sound, but he was still a jazz musician’s kid at heart, growing up in a city where rhythm and blues reigned supreme. Writing Beatlesque songs came naturally to him, as did singing the bubblegum soul numbers Dan Penn fed him in the Box Tops, but we’ve all known someone who had a talent he or she didn’t care for. If it comes too easily, where’s the challenge?
Besides, if you’ve ever seen an AARP-card-carrying Todd Rundgren performing “Hello It’s Me,” a song he wrote as a teenager, just to satisfy his fans, you can understand why he looks embarrassed. “There’s nothing more powerful in music than influencing or touching somebody at a particular time and age in their life,” Big Star drummer Jody Stephens told Magnet magazine in 2002. “Between the ages of 17 to 22 are pretty emotionally charged years — at least they were for me. I was pretty unsure of myself. But music empowered me, gave me a self-assuredness I didn’t have otherwise. Then the song would end, and all that empowerment would go away. That’s why you had to keep playing the song over and over and over again.”
And you can certainly keep listening long past 22, but to keep writing songs that reflect the mind-set of those high school and college years — “teenage abandon,” as Laurent Brancowitz of the French pop band Phoenix called it recently in the New York Times — can’t be too fulfilling, not to mention playing them in concert over and over again if the hormone-driven emotions that inspired the songs have long since vanished. When I saw a reunited Big Star perform in Atlanta in February of ’96, Chilton looked like he was having a good time, but his eyes only really lit up when he sang Eddie Floyd’s “I’ve Never Found a Girl.” The rest of the set list was just helping him pay the bills.
The covers of Big Star’s Radio City and Chilton’s Like Flies on Sherbert come from photographs taken by William Eggleston, a longtime friend of the Chilton family. His color-saturated images, the first color photos to ever be shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, are currently on display in a retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago. My girlfriend, a lecturer at the museum, took me to see Eggleston’s photos last weekend, and I was struck by his philosophy that “nothing is more important or less important” when it comes to choosing subjects for his photos: a dilapidated burger stand or a stationary tricycle is just as worthy of attention, and can be just as beautiful, as a billowing white cloud reaching upward toward the sun.
Chilton expressed the same philosophy through his choices in cover songs. Carla Thomas’s “B-A-B-Y” and Ronny & the Daytonas’ “G.T.O.” (titled “Little GTO” on Chilton’s 1989 Black List EP) were no more important than the Carter Family’s “No More the Moon Shines on Lorena” or Danny Pearson’s “What’s Your Sign Girl” (Chilton was a serious student of astrology, but it’s hard not to laugh when he sings, “If your sign matches mine / Think of what we’ll have / We’ll be making babies together / Forever”), just as High Priest‘s Alvis Armstrong-penned gospel number “Come by Here” was no less important than the Rolling Stones’ “Singer Not the Song,” though for Chilton it was all about the songs, and the excitement of turning audiences on to them. He was “the invisible man who can sing in a visible voice,” as the Replacements stated in their quasi-tribute song.
“A lot of the time, I guess, he sees himself as an interpreter,” Posies and postreunion Big Star member Ken Stringfellow told Discoveries in 1996. “Because I think a lot of the artists he admires were interpreters — you know, people like Chet Baker.”
By April of ’95 I was 19 and in my freshman year of college, but I still hadn’t attended a rock concert. Chilton was touring behind A Man Called Destruction at the time, so I drove to Carrboro, North Carolina, to see him play. (Side note: I bought a T-shirt from Ardent Records that spring featuring Chilton’s name and the album’s title. Six months later a girl in one of my classes looked at the shirt, then looked at me and said, “Your name’s Alex?” Unfortunately, I wasn’t quick enough to respond, “No, it’s Destruction.”)
Lantz, the classmate who went with me, wanted to hang around after the show was over, and he eventually struck up a conversation with Chilton’s bassist, Ron Easley. Lantz didn’t mind being pushy for a good cause, so he pressured Easley into letting us into the dressing room so we could meet Chilton. I immediately reminded myself to keep my comments to a minimum.
Chilton looked tired, which was understandable, so I just asked him if the band was still going to be on Late Show With David Letterman the following week, as Ardent had advertised on the merchandise re-order form that came with my Destruction T-shirt. He smiled and said it’d fallen through, and with that I decided I’d let the man get back to his salad and Diet Coke. I never would’ve expected him to be a salad-and-Diet-Coke kind of guy, but it’s nice to remember him that way. He always kept you guessing.
“I wish I could meet Elvis / And see what’s behind that crooked smile,” Chilton sang on 1970‘s “I Wish I Could Meet Elvis.” He did, after all, grow up in the shadow of the king of rock ‘n’ roll. But if rock ‘n’ roll really is about breaking the rules and defying expectations and not backing down from what you believe in, then Alex Chilton was without a doubt the real king of rock ‘n’ roll from Memphis, Tennessee. Now the king is dead. Long live the king.
This week’s featured concert took place on April 8, 1996, at the 13th Note in Glasgow and was rebroadcast on BBC Radio Scotland’s Beat Patrol. It’s a rare instance of Scotland’s own Teenage Fanclub, whose Big Star fandom extended to naming their fourth album Thirteen, backing Chilton on various covers (the Everly Brothers, Otis Rush, Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs, T. Rex, Doris Day, etc.) and originals, including “September Gurls.”
I’ve Never Found a Girl
My Heart Stood Still
Any Way the Wind Blows
Walk Right Back
Have I the Right
The Dark End of the Street
What Do You Know About Love
All Your Love (I Miss Loving)
Life’s a Gas
Waltz Across Texas
Hey! Little Child
In 1993 New Musical Express pressed 5,000 copies of a seven-inch collaborative single by Big Star and Teenage Fanclub to benefit Bosnia-Herzegovina war victims. Big Star rerecorded the A-side, a cover of the Olympics’ “Mine Exclusively,” in 2005 for their fourth album, In Space, but this is the version that really cooks.
And finally, one last bit of black comedy from the king …
Alex Chilton on the upside of death (from an October 1978 broadcast on KUT in Austin, Texas)