Thursday, March 18, 2010

Alex Chilton was a Big Star

PhotobucketAlex Chilton is dead, and lordy does it hurt to type those words. For a certain stripe of pop fan, he was kind of like our Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, and when I heard he'd died today at the too-young age of 59, of an apparent heart attack, I was stopped stone-cold. It's been a crappy kind of week anyway, and Alex Chilton should never die. Michael Jackson dying, yeah, kind of saw that coming, but Alex Chilton was the voice of heartbreak and strained emotion and man, he just shouldn't be dead, y'know?

I discovered Chilton's never-quite-made-it 1970s band Big Star in the 1990s, when I was living near Memphis, Tennessee, their home town. Big Star were a cult fetish for music nerds, with their blend of power pop, rock chops and lyrical truth. It's taken years, decades, for them to get their due -- the awesome box set of pretty much everything they did, "Keep An Eye On The Sky," was one of the best music albums of last year or any year, really. You listen to a Big Star song, and you think, man, why have I never heard of these guys?

PhotobucketChilton's songs may never have quite topped the charts, but the best of them hit a chord with many artists - you might know "September Gurls," given a lovely cover by The Bangles, or "In The Street," which covered by Cheap Trick became the theme song for "That '70s Show." Big Star only released a couple of albums, but these '70s records are universal in their stumbling honesty. There was just something really fragile and sincere yet strong about Chilton's best work. There's been one jillion overwrought songs about being young, uncertain and in love, but somehow, Chilton's never seemed forced. His thin, quavering voice danced through tunes like "Thirteen" and "Back of a Car," finely detailed little snapshots of everyday emotional fumblings--
"Sitting in the back of a car 

Music so loud, can't tell a thing 

Thinkin' 'bout what to say 

And I can't find the lines"

Read it on the page and it sounds like generic teenage angst, maybe, but man, Alex Chilton SELLS that sentiment and if you've ever been 16 years old and digging that person so much your stomach boils, you know the feeling. Big Star and Alex Chilton touched that moment and always sold it, always made it feel real. Over their three-year recording career their songs ran the gamut from teen-bop of "Don't Lie To Me" to the dark, glistening sorrow of songs like "Holocaust." Endlessly contrarian, Chilton's post-Big Star career was a strange twisty journey -- he seemed to spurn the fame he could've had -- but he never stopped playing -- he was going to play with the reformed Big Star this weekend.

There's a tribute song by The Replacements that'll be played thousands of times by Chilton fans in coming days -- as heartfelt as any of Chilton's best, it's an homage to a cult artist who should've been a household name but never quite was, but that doesn't really matter. It's a valentine to a secret idol, a star who's huge in your own personal universe and you don't care if anyone's never heard of him. In my mind, Alex Chilton will always be a Big Star.

Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes 'round
They sing "I'm in love. What's that song?
I'm in love with that song."

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