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.”