It’s been a few months since I’ve done an Infinite Play column. It’s kind of like an exercise regimen, once you stop it can be tough to start again, no matter how much you enjoyed doing it. So the untimely and unexpected death of Alex Chilton on Wednesday, however unfortunate the circumstances, seems as good a time as any to try to get it back in gear.
Like many of Chilton’s fans in my age bracket, I first heard of him via The Replacements’ song about him, but it took a few years to actually hear what the fuss was about. So when Rykodisc released Big Star Live and the definitive version of Third/Sister Lovers in 1992, I snapped them up. They had clearly lived up to the hype, and I could hear where not only The ‘Mats, but also Matthew Sweet and Teenage Fanclub, both of whom were huge in my life at the time, had gotten a lot of their inspiration.
But I was still missing the first two records. The problem was that they were only available on compact disc, and I didn’t yet have a CD player. Thankfully, my buddy Mike, whose musical knowledge and taste would shame pretty much every member of the Popdose staff (then again, it should be pretty obvious by this point that we have precious little shame), made a cassette copy for me.
Although I knew many of the songs via Big Star Live, to the original studio versions blew the doors off them. From #1 Record’s opening cut, “Feel,” to Radio City’s closer, “I’m In Love With A Girl,” I was spellbound by its fusion of singer-songwriter introspection and aggressive rock, of intricate production and accessible songs. The closest South Florida had to alternative radio at the time was a way left-of-the-dial suburban high school station that signed off around 9:00 (I don’t live there anymore so I don’t know if it’s gotten better). So in the land where Jimmy Buffett and Gloria Estefan were the King and Queen, having the Big Star catalog made me feel like the hippest guy in town (apart from Mike, of course).
So although I’m tempted to pick out a lesser-known song from their catalog, because there are so many brilliantly subtle moments throughout (oh, the glory of the bridge on “When My Baby’s Beside Me”), I have to go with the obvious choice of “September Gurls” from Radio City. When I was listening to it Wednesday night, something about it struck me in a way that I had never noticed before.
We often described jangly melodic rock songs as “Beatlesque,” but the brilliance of “September Gurls” is how Chilton, at his prime, showed he could be three members of The Beatles at once and yet sound entirely original. Its effortlessly catchy melody and singable chorus is straight out of Paul McCartney’s Big Bag O’Hooks; the bitterly introspective lyric, notably the couplet, “I loved you, well, never mind/I’ve been crying all the time” would have made John Lennon take notice. And that bright and shiny guitar tone is straight out of George Harrison’s Sonic Blue Stratocaster on “Nowhere Man.”
Even with the increased exposure this week, it’s hard to envision a situation where Alex Chilton’s death would increase his sales beyond a handful of curious people. But that doesn’t bother me too much. Chilton’s appeal to us music geeks lies as much in his status as one of rock’s greatest cult heroes. But in the 2:49 it takes to listen to “September Gurls,” we can all imagine 73 million tuning in to the Ed Sullivan Show to see Paul Westerberg’s dream of children by the million screaming for Alex Chilton come true.