Alex Chilton 1950-2010 R.I.P.

Box Tops/Big Star Icon
Dies Unexpectedly On Wednesday After Experiencing Heart Trouble.

 

By Fred Mills

 

The music world is reeling this morning from the news that
Alex Chilton died yesterday, March 17, in a New Orleans hospital. The singer had
apparently been complaining about his health, according to a report filed by
the Memphis Commercial Appeal, and after paramedics
were called to his home he was rushed to the emergency room. Doctors, however,
were unable to revive the musician. Chilton was 59.

 

Ardent Studios (Memphis)
owner John Fry was quoted in the Commercial
Appeal
report, saying, “I’m crushed. We’re all just crushed. This
sudden death experience is never something that you’re prepared for. And yet it
occurs.”

 

The timing of Chilton’s passing couldn’t be more tragic: he
and Big Star were scheduled to be the subject of a tribute panel discussion on
Saturday afternoon in Austin
at SXSW, and that was to be followed up by a band performance Saturday night at
Antone’s. Titled “I Never
Travel Far Without a Little Big Star,” the panel was not going to feature the
notoriously press-shy Chilton, but Big Star founders Jody Stephens and Andy
Hummel were set to play together for the first time in over 35 years via a
couple of acoustic tunes; Posies and latterday Big Star members Jon Auer and
Ken Stringfellow, plus Chris Stamey of the dB’s and Tommy Keene were going to
be talking about the band and the 2009 box set  Keep An Eye on the Sky (the box is reviewed at Blurt here, while a
discussion about the first two Big Star albums can be found here).

 

Commercial
Appeal
music writer Bob Mehr, who wrote some of the liners to the Big Star
box, is the moderator of the SXSW panel – which will presumably still be held,
while the Antone’s gig status is now up in the air – and he sent out an email
from Austin this morning saying, “Things are pretty chaotic as you
might imagine as there was going to be a Big Star performance and panel on Saturday.
It’s all very sad and shocking. I’m sure there will be tributes in
the coming days and more news to follow.”

 

That’s
for certain.

 

Chilton’s
legacy looms large, from his hitmaking days with the Box Tops (“The Letter,”
“Cry Like A Baby”) to his godfather-of-powerpop status with Big Star to his
oftentimes erratic but never less than fascinating solo work. Although he had a
reputation for being difficult, on the times I was fortunate enough to meet him
he was never less than gracious – at one meeting, a few hours before he was to
perform at a small club in Charlotte, NC, he invited me to join him at the
booth he was relaxing in and we chatted for a little while about friends we had
in common.

 

One
mutual friend in particular was of interest to him: back in the mid ‘80s I had
sold an acoustic Takamine guitar to a friend who had moved to New
Orleans, where Chilton had relocated from Memphis some time earlier. Turns out he had
met her through the Tav Falco/Panther Burns crowd, and not long after she
bought the guitar from me he was approached by MTV to appear on a segment of
their “Cutting Edge” program. Not having a decent acoustic guitar himself,
Chilton asked her if he could borrow hers – mine – for the taping. When I told
Chilton I got a kick out of seeing him play my guitar on national television,
he shook his head and grinned. “I remember that!” he said, laughing. “That was
a damn good guitar. I wanted to buy it from her.”

 

Years
later, in 2005,  I interviewed Jody
Stephens
about the band and also about their “comeback” album In Space. Invariably the legacy question
cropped up, and Stephens thought about it for a few minutes before answering.

 

“Well…
[long pause]… I don’t remember the thought of getting past legends,”
said Stephens. “I do remember a thought about people’s perception of Big Star pre-this
record, and then what this record might do. At the end of the day, it was what
the hell, let’s do a new record. I mean, because in some people’s eyes, in a
very cult, private way, Big Star means a lot to a lot of people, or at least a
certain group of people, and it’s defined by those first three records. They’ve
been living with those three records for 30 years. So how do you introduce –
it’s like introducing a new puppy to a dog that’s 10 years old. It takes a
while, you know? The puppy challenges the older dog, the older dog growls and
snarls, but sooner or later you know there’s an appreciation of it even though
you don’t want to let on.

 

“You know, music’s always gotta connect with you emotionally. And it is emotional
communication – it’s music that sticks with you and moves you passionately
enough to go out and turn somebody else on to it.”

 

Perhaps that is Chilton’s ultimate
legacy – he connected with a lot of us emotionally, and I think he probably
realized that, maybe was even secretly proud of the fact. He will be missed.

 

[We’ll have a more extensive tribute
to Chilton and Big Star next week at BLURT.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

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