Alex Chilton: art-brat Elvis

In a world of imitators, Alex Chilton was an original. The fact that for most of his working life he toiled in semi-obscurity, his cult status earning him little in the way of material rewards, does not diminish his significance. He belongs to an elite subset: rock’n’rollers who might better be described as artists.

Judged by conventional standards, the career of Alex Chilton (who died of a heart attack in 2010) would appear to have started at the top and spent the next forty-something years in continuous spiralling decline. As lead singer of The Box Tops, a band he had joined almost by accident, Chilton had a number one hit in 1967 with ‘The Letter’ when he was just sixteen. He would never have that kind of success again, though the music he would subsequently make would have an even more far-reaching effect.

At seventeen he was a father, by eighteen married. By the time he was twenty, both his hit-making band and first marriage had broken up. If he seemed prematurely jaded he likely had reason to be. Those first twenty years are covered in detail in A Man Called Destruction, Holly George-Warren’s new biography of Chilton, and help make sense of the rest of Chilton’s life.

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Alex Chilton was born and grew up in the cultural pressure-cooker of Memphis Tennessee, home of Elvis, not to mention countless less famous blues and jazz musicians, and arguably the birthplace of rock’n’roll. He did not miss the significance of any of these things.

His parents were liberal, arty and bohemian; his father was a jazz musician, his mother ran a gallery. By the mid-60s, with the British beat boom in full bloom, young Alex, a natural rebel with his mop of hair and inherited artiness, had the instant credentials to front a pop band. He wound up in The Box Tops, a band in which he had little personal investment. Live they were no better or worse than numerous other young white bands of the time. In the studio they were the pet project of Dan Penn, a white southern songwriter with a soul bent who had written hits for Aretha and was now launching himself as a producer.

For many of the Box Tops’ recordings, Chilton was the only actual member of the group in the studio, the backing supplied by session musicians. Penn picked the material and coached Chilton in how to sing it. Encouraged by Penn (himself a formidable vocalist) Chilton emerged with an unexpectedly deep and soulful voice that belied his years.

Alex always maintained ambivalence towards the Box Tops records, which is understandable. While they include some classic moments, they are the product of Penn’s vision rather than Chilton’s.

Perhaps the most important thing to come out of the Box Tops experience was touring with The Beach Boys. Chilton seems to have formed a particularly strong bond with Carl Wilson, youngest of the Wilson brothers, who got him started as a guitarist – which in his future work would become as important a feature as his singing. (In one of George-Warren’s many fascinating footnotes, it was also through the Beach Boys that Alex had a close encounter with the murderous cult leader Charles Manson, another beneficiary of the Wilsons’ hospitality.)

Having experienced the vagaries of fame at such a young age, Chilton never seemed to crave it again, which might explain why all his subsequent endeavours could sometimes appear to be counter-intuitive.

Following the demise of The Box Tops’ he spent time in New York City, practising guitar, writing in a semi-folk mode, watching The Velvet Underground. Eventually he returned to Memphis where he joined the fledgling band of fellow guitarist and songwriter Chris Bell. Taking as their starting point the ringing chords and powerful rhythms of the British beat boom, they fashioned a hard-hitting, harmonically rich pop that seemed to express, almost more perfectly than anything before, all the doubts and conflicted joys, existential yearnings and hormonal cravings of young manhood; sometimes sardonically, other times with disarming honesty.

This was Big Star, and their first album, released in 1972 – which with a typical mixture of optimism and irony they named #1 Record – was as fine as any debut ever made. A second album, Radio City, cut after the departure of the tormented and disappointed Bell, refined the formula.

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I remember hearing these records for the first time, a decade or so after their release, and experiencing the weirdest sensation: an overwhelming melancholia that seemed to be related to something both familiar and lost. This was nostalgia, only it was a nostalgia for something I had never actually known. Big Star were like a band from my 60s childhood that, for some unfathomable reason, had never made it as far as my radio.

There was also a strange symmetry here: Elvis had, after all, come from Memphis and taken rock’n’roll to the world, inspiring the Beatles and their British contemporaries to pick up guitars and make the 60s music I had grown up with. Now here were four Memphians inspired by the Beatles to make their version of that music.

In spite of their quality, Big Star’s records were not hits. Record company failure was partly to blame, but ultimately the music was out of step with the  times. This was the age of prog and stadium rock; the jangly 60s pop  revival was still a long way off.

Yet #1 Record and Radio City would have an eternal life and in many ways provide a blueprint for generations of bands to follow. George-Warren recounts how rock’n’roll pioneer Bill Justis once told Alex Chilton he was “eleven years ahead of the times”, and if one is left to wonder why he specifically chose the number eleven, he was certainly near the mark. In 1986 The Bangles covered ‘September Girls’, originally buried near the end of Radio City, and turned it into the teen pop anthem it always should have been. Around the same time jangly guitar bands like Teenage Fanclub and REM became big; bands that simply would never have sounded the way they did if it hadn’t been for Big Star. Another band, The Replacements, named a song after him.

One can see Radio City as being the last time he sought any kind of success on traditional terms. For much of his subsequent career he might have been actively sabotaging any success he had to capitalise on.

But he was still to make his masterpiece. In the dying days of Big Star, in collaboration with Memphis producer Jim Dickinson (who deserves - and will surely one day get - a book of his own), Chilton went on a recording spree. No one ever seemed to know whether he was making a third Big Star album, a solo Alex Chilton record or something else entirely, but by the time any of the recordings emerged, years later, they had assumed the status of legend. Variously known as Big Star Third, Sister Lovers or Beale Street Green, these recordings constitute Chilton’s most profound work.

With no definitive track list ever assembled, there are several different versions of the amorphous album, yet it hardly matters which one you hear. In any configuration, the effect is one of terrifying beauty. Big Star’s bright guitar pop is found in the throes of disintegration, while unexpected instruments straggle across the jangle-scape. In ‘Stroke It Noel’ a tuxedoed string section seems to have strayed from the ballroom of an elite hotel. In ‘Holocaust’ it sounds as though someone is playing an electric guitar with a chainsaw.

It is an album where the performer’s pain is clearly on display. Chilton was on a bender that would last for the rest of the decade, and involved in a tempestuous relationship with Lesa Aldridge, the muse of Sister Lovers. Reportedly, he was informed by the owner of Ardent studios after one of his all-night sessions that under no circumstances would any more blood on the recording console be tolerated.

One can hear in Third/Sister Lovers traces of many of Chilton’s influences - Lou Reed, The Kinks, Yoko Ono, Chet Baker, T Rex, Jerry Lee Lewis, Dan Penn, among others – yet never for a moment does it sound imitative of any of them. Even his cover of Reed’s ‘Femme Fatale’ creates a mood that is unique in its desolation. It’s the greatest version of this song ever recorded, Reed’s included.

In many ways Third is the blueprint for every would-be indie-rock opus that followed. Its distressed textures and mussed-up melodies have been much imitated, yet never matched.

It was a source of frustration and dismay to fans and critics that Chilton never revisited the sound of any of the Big Star records. When in later years he performed the occasional song from these discs it was with more reluctance than reverence. As Big Star’s posthumous fame grew, he would often dismiss them as overrated. And yet this is surely what marked him as a real artist rather than pop product maker. Whether he actually cared about those records or not, it seems only admirable that he did not rush to meet the demand for more. If audiences had eventually come round to recognising the brilliance on those records, maybe they would ultimately appreciate the music he was making now as well.

And what was that music? If the Third sessions deconstructed the Big Star sound, his next collaboration with Dickinson, Like Flies On Sherbert, took to it with a wrecking ball. Though there is plenty that can be read from its intriguing song selection (‘coon’ songs, country ballads, a disco cover) its greatest achievement might be the way such accomplished musicians as Chilton and Dickinson have managed so convincingly to unlearn their instruments.

After that, Chilton began to rebuild, though in his own stubborn way. To escape the Memphis drug scene he moved to New Orleans. (According to George-Warren, Chilton’s own mother remarked wryly that Alex was the only person she had ever heard of who went to New Orleans to get away from drugs.) For a while he worked there as a dishwasher. Then he took a gig on Bourbon Street, the sleazy tourist mecca, in a covers band. Touring with pick-up bands or just a rhythm section, he became proficient at the standards, from Dean Martin to Michael Jackson, interspersing these with old country hits, obscure R&B tunes or songs of his own that were nothing like Big Star but rather aspired in their funky grooves and humorously ribald lyrics to the fundamental verities of the blues.

He had jazz chords in his armoury that no punk guitarist would ever be familiar with, and yet he played everything with a sort of punk attitude, or at least a rock’n’roll attitude; in the moment, spontaneous, raw, forever courting disaster and, on a good night, transcending it. 

This was the repertoire that made up his later records. Some I like better than others. But I love the way he treats every song equally, regardless of genre. Like a rock'n'roll Chet Baker, he makes every song his own the moment he opens his mouth. And he isn’t just acting out some ironic hipster pose, though his sense of ironic cool was undoubtedly finely tuned.

He was volatile. He was known to fire a musician for playing a part incorrectly.Other times he would appear to delight in the mistakes, laughing gleefully at a trainwreck of missed beats and bum notes.

In his last decade or two he reminded me in some ways of the ageing Dylan on his endless global tour of one-nighters – a more low-rent version, for sure, but conveying a similar feeling that, beneath all the intrigue and inscrutability, here is simply a working musician plying his trade.

He was also, in a weird sense, a kind of parallel-universe Elvis, sharing Elvis’s eclecticism, his wide view of pop and Memphis roots, yet taking it somewhere Elvis could have gone only if he, too, had been an art brat. George-Warren reports that Alex sometimes compared himself to Elvis, once telling a friend, Amy Gassner, that he was the greatest thing musically that ever happened to Memphis since Elvis. “I thought he had a lot of nerve to say that matter-of-factly”, Gassner commented.

Then again, nerve was never something Alex Chilton lacked.

Below are links to a few of my favourite Alex Chilton and related performances:

Singing his hit with The Box Tops in 1967

Recording overdubs for Like Flies On Sherbert 1979 

Playing Bach, blues and Box Tops in 1985 on 120 Minutes

Mid-90s, with horn section and background singers 

September Gurls in Sweden with quasi-Big Star (mostly The Posies, plus Big Star drummer Jody Stephens)

El Goodo in 2009 (my favourite - the genius detail in this version is the very last chord!!)

Playing Michael Jackson in Norway 2008 

Eulogised in Congress by Congressman Steve Cohen ...

...and by Ray Davies

Tags: new orleansbluesjim dickinsonbooksbig staralex chiltonthe box tops

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