DECEMBER BOYS GOT IT BAD Alex Chilton

Through his music, the
Big Star mainman and solo iconoclast broke our hearts. With his passing, he
left a hole in them, too.

 

BY BARBARA MITCHELL

 

I’ll be honest. The afternoon that Alex Chilton died (Dec. 28, 1950-March 17, 2010) – possibly
at the precise minute of his death – I was threatening to break both his
kneecaps if I ran into him at South By Southwest. 

I had the privilege – and sometimes the frustration – of
working with Big Star from 2000 – 2005, when I was managing the Posies. 
I’m good at logistics and it helped Jody Stephens to have someone to coordinate
that end of things so he could focus on the music.

The incident that inspired my rant happened backstage at the Benicassim
Festival in Spain
in 2001. At a quarter to midnight – 15 minutes before Big Star took the stage –
on a Sunday night in a Catholic country with one computer whose internet
connection was quite probably powered by hamsters, he turned to me.

“Barbara,” he drawled with a sly grin. “About those flights y’all are getting
on tomorrow morning -I won’t be joining you. You’ll figure something out.”

Said flights departed at 8 am.  Figuring something out – after months and
months of making sure that was the flight he wanted to be on – not only meant
no sleep and monumental effort, but missing the opportunity to see PJ Harvey
from the side of the stage.

But I didn’t bat an eyelash and I did figure it out. Working with Alex was a
test and I don’t fail.

I also vowed to exact revenge someday, so score another win for Mr. Chilton.

I heard about his passing on Wednesday night of SXSW via text message. It was a
surreal moment made more surreal by the fact that a guy who spent the better
part of his life giving the middle finger to the music industry passed away in
the middle of today’s single biggest industry event – one he was scheduled to
play three days later. So much for going quietly into the night. Score one for…
someone.

 
There are tortured artists and then there are conflicted ones. Alex was definitely
the latter.  He lived off of – and simultaneously tried to destroy – his
own legacy.

The guy was a monumental talent and an honor to work with. He was also
perverse, arrogant and a provocateur extraordinaire.

And sometimes an utter sweetheart. A
Sphinx without a riddle, as former Chills guitarist Steven Schayer described
him.

I spent SXSW attempting to deconstruct Alex with everyone from the Zeros’
Javier Escovedo to rock critic friends like Shockhound‘s
Dan Epstein. (Talk about an exercise in futility…) There’s consensus that
Alex’s teenage success was responsible for his distrust of (and, let’s be
honest, disdain for) humanity. The guy was smart enough to know at an early age
that for a lot of people, fame is a powerful aphrodisiac that has nothing to do
with the actual human being attached to it and he developed fangs as a coping
mechanism.

In fact, if you ever met Alex you were probably given a graduate-level class in
the fact that you should separate the art from the artist. Stories of awkward
and/or awful Alex encounters are legion.

It was a curriculum that devastated a lot of the weak-hearted, but it was a
test I think some of us kind of relished. I had the pleasure of being in Dublin with Big Star in
August ’01 when they walked backstage before the encore and Alex nonchalantly
tossed off an obscure disco number he wanted to play and some vague directions.
Jody, Jon and Ken nailed it.

It was incredible to watch him truly realize the level of talent on stage with
him. I don’t think anyone was more surprised than the band when Alex – from
stage – subsequently and nonchalantly announced that Big Star would be doing a
new album.

It was a typical Alex maneuver. Curveballs were his specialty.

He threw his last one by passing away last week. Maybe it was his way of
avoiding all the hoopla and accolades that were planned around Big Star’s SXSW
performance. He cared for that kind of thing almost as much as he cared about
soundchecks.

Big Star’s performance slot was turned into a tribute, with folks like original
bassist Andy Hummel, R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, John Doe, Chris Stamey and Sondre
Lerche filling in. (Read the BLURT report on the tribute concert here.) I’m not
sure what Alex would’ve made of a heartfelt, emotional tribute to him and his
music, although I’m fairly sure there would have been some choice snide
comments, but he lost his veto power when he passed away.

“I’ve never experienced anything remotely like this before so I’m just
improvising how to deal with it all,” Jon Auer tells me. “It’s most certainly a
life changer, completely unexpected. We played with Alex for 17 years and
became friends so I can’t quite accept he won’t be around anymore.  Part
of me keeps thinking he’s going to show up, or call me and say ‘Why didn’t anyone
tell me what time the gig was?’ I’d be a lot happier if he did.”

Alex never seemed particularly interested in doing what would make other people
happy (and having written that, I think that might be the understatement of the
century). If I were going to pick a song for his memorial, it’d definitely be
Sinatra’s “My Way.” I’ve never met anyone less concerned about what other
people thought.

Unless, of course, he was actually acutely aware of what we thought and just
trying to provoke us by doing exactly the opposite – or just constantly
attempting to keep us on our toes. That’s also a possibility.

Part of being a good manager/tour manager is getting a read on the people
you’re dealing with. I can tell you what makes Jody, Jon and Ken tick, but I
could honestly never get a handle on Alex. I even asked Jody about him and he
didn’t have any answers for me. He was genuinely a Sphinx without a riddle.

It was fascinating being at a music convention during the immediate aftermath
of Alex’s death. So many people felt so much for and through his music. He left
a tremendous impression and an amazing catalog – he’d probably hate this term,
but a genuine legacy.

I’ve spent almost a week trying to compose this, because I want to do real
justice to the guy (and not earn myself a haunting…). Alex was one of the most
complicated, fascinating and frustrating people I’ve ever met. He seemed, as my
friend Steven Schayer said, resentful of his abilities – and those abilities
were incredible.

He wasn’t – and never tried to be – a hero. He was a guy who made some great
music. Sometimes he was a dick.

Alex gave us his art but he never gave us himself. Score another one for Mr.
Chilton.

And while we’re talking about scores, let me settle one. Alex hated
compliments, so here’s one of the highest variety from Mr. Mike Mills. Take
that for making me miss PJ Harvey.

“Alex was one of a kind. A great singer, songwriter, and guitar player, he
wrote and sang many of the songs that mean the most to me. I will miss him and
his music.”

Alex -through his music – broke our hearts, and his passing leaves behind a
huge hole. That doesn’t mean that if I ever encounter him again on some level
of existence, I won’t break his kneecaps.

 

 

Photo Credit: via
Wikimedia Commons/Philippe Brizard (author)

 

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