March 17, 2010
R.I.P. Alex Chilton
Just found out that Alex Chilton died of an apparent heart attack today in New Orleans. He was scheduled to do a Big Star show at SXSW this weekend.
I'm having a momentary flashback to Katrina, when his absence was flashing all over the internet for about 48 hours before he was pulled off the roof of his house. This, apparently, is "actual fact", as they say.
It's odd, almost as if there were something in the air: I found a bunch of old Chilton records online & have been listening to him heavily since late last week. Tonight as I made dinner, I was listening to a bootleg of a show he did in Bloomington in '84, cracking up to him doing an impersonation of Paul Schaffer doing an impersonation of Jerry Lee Lewis. He came to Bloomington several times, and there are tapes of every show (before anyone asks, I only have the one). In every show, you can hear some drunken idiot yelling for "Dateless Nights", a song he did with Tav Falco's Panther Burns. That drunken idiot was, of course, me. The first show, he just blows it off. The second show, he says "Did someone actually request 'Dateless Nights'?", shows his band the changes, and then struggles through a version. The third time, I was sitting up front, he got about halfway through the show and asked for requests. I said "Dateless Nights" barely above conversational level, and he wheels around and says "Ha! We're ready for you this time", and then ripped through an incredible version of the song.
He was the soundtrack to one of my courtships . . . hell, at least one . . . out on a rooftop in the middle of the summer, well after midnight, staring into the night sky while Sister Lovers played on repeat in the background. He was around on my binges. He was there when I dried out. He was there on my drives. He was there when I was alone, he was there when I was hanging out. He was there in the quiet dark, he was there in the sunny celebrations. He was there, he is still here, and he always will be.
I don't know anyone who is serious about music that isn't down with something that Alex Chilton did, from the Box Tops to Big Star, to the overwrought and degenerate punk singer/songwriter shtick in the late 70's, to the rockabilly trash he did with Tav Falco, to the later Southern R & B that became the centerpiece of his 80's comeback. I once had a good friend and bandmate back in the 80's who derided me for listening to that "hack Beatles paisley pop shit", so I bet him that I could make him a tape of Chilton's stuff and he would become a fan. He listened to the tape nonstop for a month, and never made it past Like Flies On Sherbet on the first side. Ten years later, he was forcing the band to do a cover of "Alligator Man", and is a huge Chilton fan.
Chilton's best music was probably behind him, but when you set the bar that high, you can fall several notches and still be making vital music. About ten years ago, I happened to grab Set on the way out of Louisville straight through to Tucson. That record, a fairly inauspicious collection of covers all recorded in one night (and, according to Chilton, all first takes), not only became the soundtrack for that 30 hour drive, but something I have listened to over and over again through the years. It all comes down to soul . . . Chilton had it.
Alex, you will be missed. Very much.