Thursday, March 18, 2010

Rest In Piece Alex Chilton UPDATED

When I was a young man I got into Alex Chilton and Big Star the same way alot of other people got into him - through the song Alex Chilton by The Replacements. I was curious - who was this guy that Paul Westerburg was so entranced by? My old friend Ray Cronk got me into Big Star at that point, and I totally fell in love with Chilton's haunting melodies and absolutely beautiful reverb-y production, particularly on my favorite Big Star record, Sister Lovers. One summer I got way, way too into Holocaust (which is a great song, but not one anyone should get too into) but it is Night Time that I love the most, one of my favorite songs of all time.

From Rolling Stone:

Alex Chilton, who died Thursday of a heart attack at 59, was one of the all-time great rock & roll songwriters, and the ultimate indie cult hero. He also had one of the strangest careers in American music. At the age of 16, he sang a huge pop hit that’s enjoyed radio rotation ever since, the Box Top’s “The Letter.” But he left the middle of the road for one head-scratching move after another: the Memphis guitar band Big Star, a string of sloppy garage-punk records with titles such as Like Flies On Sherbert and Dusted In Memphis, then an embrace of New Orleans R&B and lounge standards. He famously dropped out in the 1980s to wash dishes in New Orleans. In the 2000s, he toured with the Box Tops and Big Star, never talking to journalists or revealing anything about his private life. The only time I ever attempted to interview him, backstage after a solo show, he just snickered, “I have to rest my voice” — a strange claim, since he was smoking a dubious hand-rolled cigarette the size of his head. But he said everything he had to say in his music.

Everybody has a different favorite Alex Chilton. But mine will always be Big Star. They made three albums in the 1970s: #1 Record (the “catchy pop” one), Radio City (the “twisted Beatle obsessions” one) and Sister Lovers (the “late-night emotional breakdown” one). Chilton’s high, bittersweet voice was full of pain and yearning, even when the chiming Rickenbacker guitars were pure teenage kicks. He sang the acoustic ballad “Thirteen,” probably the most obscure oddity to make Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (it came in at Number 396), along with other gems like “September Gurls,” “Life Is White,” and “Night Time.” He could take a song as dark and fearful as “Blue Moon” and made it sound romantic, crooning, “If demons come, while you’re under… / I’ll be the blue moon in the dark.”

So another big influence of my younger days falls away. Goodnight Mr. Chilton, you were one of the best.

UPDATE: Paul Westerberg weighs in here.