…But What’s That Song?: Remembering Alex Chilton

This Saint Patrick’s Day, Alex Chilton died.  I sit here right now as I watch American Idol feeling a little pissed off that no one knows who he is, so I’ll do my best to correct that by writing an article.  The first contestant tonight, Lee DeWyze, sang a song made famous by The Box Tops, who Alex Chilton sang for at age sixteen, entitled “The Letter”, but while I thought this would make a fitting tribute to the recently deceased, the show was somehow ignorant of Chilton’s death.  I guess that I’d expect about as much from a show that blessed its contestants with what Seacrest described as “the tutelage of Miley Cyrus”.

Along with his less spoken-of career with The Box Tops, Alex Chilton was the backbone of cult favorites Big Star.  Despite never finding commercial success like The Box Tops did with their aforementioned number one jam, Big Star quickly became critical darlings.  However, after their first masterpiece in their set of three, 1972’s #1 Record, Chilton’s songwriting colleague Chris Bell left the band, frustrated with their lack of commercial success.  However, listening to #1 Record, you might find it hard to believe that it wasn’t a huge hit.  Along with power pop progenitors like  the Paul Simonesque“Thirteen” and the uplifting “The Ballad Of El Goodo”, “In The Streets” shows up in the third slot, and it might be the most famous song that Alex Chilton has ever written thanks to Cheap Trick’s cover of the track in the intro of That ‘70s Show.  The show, which launched the careers of now-stars Topher Grace, Ashton Kutcher, and Mila Kunis, was jokingly referred to as “That $70 Show” by Chilton, thanks to the seventy dollars in royalties that he receives each time the show airs, which, thanks to its cable syndication, would amount to a lot of money.

Two years later, Chilton returned with an album that’s as twisted as it is catchy, ‘74’s Radio City.  With Bell gone, Chilton’s gift for melody was allowed to blossom even further, but for some reason this collection that spans less than forty minutes feels like it’s going to collapse.  On the legendary song “September Gurls”, the chorus goes “December boys got it bad”, and on the frankest song of all time, one that you might remember Kristen Stewart’s character spinning on her vinyl player in the teenage romance Adventureland, Chilton declares “I’m in love with a girl/Finest girl in the world/I didn’t know/This could happen to me”.  Songs as boldly honest as “I’m In Love With A Girl” are few and far between, and the track captures the essence of why Alex Chilton was so remarkable.

Big Star’s third and final album, alternately titled Third or Sister Lovers, was released after a few years of the record company stalling release in correct anticipating of its commercial failure.  To make matters more difficult, Chilton wanted it to be a nineteen song double album.  Only in 1992, with its Rykodisc re-release would Third/Sister Lovers see eye to eye with Chilton’s vision, but its first release in 1978 cut off the final five songs to fit it on one slab of vinyl.  If Radio City sounded like everything in the studio was slowly collapsing, Third/Sister Lovers sounded like everything was broken, including Chilton.  Among other covers, Chilton covers The Velvet Underground’s Nico-sung, 1967 song “Femme Fatale” like a more sorrowed and beaten Lou Reed may have sung it if it were 1969, and tracks like “Kangaroo” and “Holocaust” find him completely destroyed.  If you want to wallow in your own desperation, turn on Third/Sister Lovers.

After Big Star was finished, Chilton took unremarkable cracks at forming a solo career, but even a few critically well-regarded EPs couldn’t save that route from implosion.  Despite Chilton being sometimes regarded as the master of the EP, his career, for most purposes, ends with Third/Sister Lovers, even with a 2005 attempt to resurrect Big Star with the album In Space.

Another appearance of Chilton in popular culture is in The Replacements’ 1987 power pop song bearing his name.  “Alex Chilton” can be found as an in-game song on Rock Band 2.    So next time you’re playing the world’s best party game, find this one and play it.  It’s a blast, I promise.  Paul Westerberg, to whom Alex Chilton was something of a mentor, perfectly expressed that feeling you get when listening to any Big Star song with “I’m in love/But what’s that song?/I’m in love with that song”.  Then Westerberg, the smug little bastard that he is, drops “I never travel far without a little Big Star” on the bridge.  Thanks to Rock Band 2, children by the millions actually are singing for Alex Chilton.

As the guitarist of the now-defunct chick punk band Sleater-Kinney, Carrie Brownstein, put it, Big Star is like a secret handshake among musicians and fans.  If you find out that someone hasn’t heard of them (and who really has?) you become excited to show them the band that everyone has to love.  If “I’m In Love With A Girl” was for anyone in particular, I’m sure she reciprocated the feelings that were so simply expressed in song.  Rest in peace, Al.  You deserve a better tribute than American Idol providing you an unmarked tomb.

Published in: on March 24, 2010 at 4:27 AM  Leave a Comment  

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