The Alex Chilton panel at SXSW: "Those whom he touched, were touched immutably"
If the Big Star show that became a tribute to the late Alex Chilton on Saturday in Austin had the weight and solemnity of church, the panel about the band and its lost leader offered the insight and revelation of the best kind of school. Neither setting might have been sought out by the iconoclastic artist they honored, but each added something to the necessary process of mourning and commemoration for Chilton, who died unexpectedly of a heart attack Wednesday, before he was to depart for Big Star’s showcase at South by Southwest.
If I’d had to choose one event to attend, it would have been the panel. As soothing as it was to hear Chilton’s best-known Big Star songs performed by musicians who’d worked to bring his hidden but crucial role in indie rock’s history to light, listening to stories from intimates that painted a larger picture of the man was more revealing and rewarding.
Chilton wasn’t just a genius writer of Beatles-inspired power pop songs. He was a lifelong epicurean and cultural adventurer who sought to brighten the corners of American popular music through his own work. With a father who played jazz and a mother who ran an art gallery out of the family manse, Chilton found his path early and never strayed from it.
"The house was a center of culture,” said John Fry*, the owner of Ardent Studios, and, as panel organizer and music journalist Bob Mehr put it, the “George Martin” to Chilton and Big Star partner Chris Bell’s Lennon and McCartney. “From a very young man, he had a lot to draw on. And he kept that going; you would never see him without a book and a couple of newspapers.”
Frye, beamed in through a Skype feed, joined Big Star drummer Jody Stephens and original bassist Andy Hummel, “Big Star 2.0” members Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, and power pop scene veterans Tommy Keene and Chris Stamey to remember Chilton from that arts-soaked childhood until the end of his 59 years, when he was living with his wife, Linda, in an old house on the edge of the French Quarter, jamming with local jazz and R&B elders and teaching himself transcriptions of baroque classical compositions on guitar.
“I was talking to [Wilco leader] Jeff Tweedy after Alex died,” Stephens reported. “He said that Alex was Alex all of his life, which very few people got to do.”
What does this mean? A lot, in the music business. Chilton’s early success as the teenage singer for the Box Tops could have resulted in a career like that of Kinks leader Ray Davies, with ups and downs but more commercial success than Chilton enjoyed. Instead, Chilton responded to typical music-industry banality and narrow-mindedness by constantly testing himself and his audience, going further into tricky spaces.
Big Star is usually talked about as a great band cursed with bad luck and contentious interpersonal relationships, but Hummel remembered Chilton and Bell working well together in the early days . “You had a couple of really alpha guys, but during that period they worked together really well,” he said. Fry added that the making of Big Star’s first album was a “happy, optimistic time.”
As the 1970s wore on, things went wrong. The Memphis scene collapsed after Stax Records went bankrupt. Chilton suffered a bad romance and a “decadent” personal phase, as Mehr put it. With Bell and Hummel gone but Stephens still on drums, he eventually made “Sister Lovers/Third," the most adored Big Star album. Emotionally uncompromising and somehow both raw and elegant, the songs on “Sister Lovers” show the full potential of post-Beatles American rock.
No one got it. “We took 'Sister Lovers' to every record company,” Fry recalled. “Nobody would touch it. It was like it was radioactive. I remember what [Warner Bros. executive] Lenny Waronker said: “John, this music disturbs me deeply.” ("Sister Lovers" found a European release in 1978, but was a kind of secret treasure, shared mostly on homemade cassettes, until Rykodisc rereleased it in 1992.)
Discussing “Sister Lovers,” the many music writers and hardcore fans in the room chuckled knowingly, secure in the sense that we were all smart enough to get this “difficult” record. But Chris Stamey, the musician, producer and independent record man who helped bring Big Star to indie rockers’ attention, objected.
“It’s very sophisticated music and solidly played and recorded,” he said. “I would like to have Carl [Marsh] redo the orchestration and perform it. It’s the concert music of our time.”
Stamey met Chilton in punk-sparked late 1970s New York, when he came to promote some solo music and ended up sleeping on a cot in Stamey’s for months on end. They worked hard, and Stamey learned a lot, the younger guitarist and songwriter recalled. Chilton played regularly at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City; inspired by Lou Reed, he started writing more story songs. “It was not a drunken weekend that lasted a year,” Stamey said.
During this time Chilton started becoming known for pulling out lost rough diamonds from the dirt of American pop and performing them, something he kept doing even when Big Star reunited just a few years ago. Stephens remembered playing a reunion show and Chilton vamping the band into the doo-wop chestnut “Duke of Earl.” He couldn’t believe they were playing that song, he said, but it sounded good.
“Alex rarely did things arbitrarily,” Stamey said. “You just might not have the key to the code.” The unctuous soul number “What’s Your Sign, Girl?” for example, became a favorite because Chilton actually cared about astrology.
Though he was famous for being a tough nut to crack, this group of friends and colleagues remembered Chilton as complex but never inconsistent. His inability to fake emotion may have been a downfall in the glad-handing music business, but ultimately his bandmates appreciated it. The backstage scene after a not-so-great gig was tough for Chilton, Stamey recalled, but he came up with one-liners to deal with it. “He’d say, ‘It couldn’t have been better!’” Stamey cracked, and the other players on the panel guffawed.
Always full of surprises, whether getting into noise rock with Tav Falco's Panther Burns in the late 1970s or crooning “Volare” in front of bunch of confused hipster clubgoers a decade or two later, Chilton remained uniquely baffling until the end. He apparently loved performing with his oldies act the Box Tops at events like the Italian Fair in Memphis; though he sometimes scoffed at the cult of Big Star, he enjoyed the reunion, and Auer and Stringfellow heard through the grapevine - Chilton wasn’t much for direct compliments – how much he appreciated them. Auer smiled, remembering a time he’d asked Chilton to chose between several songs during a rehearsal.
“Amongst,” Chilton replied. Auer wasn’t sure how to respond.
“It’s 'amongst,' when there is more than one choice,” the stickler said. “Not 'between.'”
Alex Chilton lived a life “amongst,” and those gathered to honor his memory gave full voice to that variation. The panel ended with a remarkable e-mail message from Tav Falco, the Wildman singer and performance artist whom Chilton roped into a band in 1978 in Memphis.
It read, in part:
“Godhead on the one hand, destroying angel on the other….Lord help you if you were caught in between. His tones were golden, and he knew that…better than anyone. Was he resentful because he had given so much, and had received less than the key to the temple of abiding good fortune and fame immemorial? Was he content in his rickety 18th-century cottage on the edge of the French Quarter surrounded by a cognoscenti of musicians who celebrated him as we do now? Did he draw all that he could take from his talents? Did he quaff draughts of indolence? The answers mean little, and the questions even less.
What matters is that those whom he touched, were touched immutably. His legacy is of the mind, of the soul, of earthly pleasure, and of just and lost causes. He left us that redeeming spark of wit and flame to keep us going when we were hovering down in the foxhole of doubt and uncertainty and dodging the adverse missives of Lady Luck…comforted in thinking that Alex would have liked that, or he would have appreciated this, or he would have been elated by this or that, or let’s do it the way Alex does it. His opinion, his tastes, his love is what matters in the end.”
[Correction: The original version of this post misidentified the name of Ardent Studio's owner. His name is John Fry. We have adjusted the text accordingly.]
-- Ann Powers
Video: Alex Chilton and Sid Selvidge shot by William Eggleston.