Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Alex Chilton

My memory tells me that I first heard about Big Star in a review of #1 Record by Ellen Willis in the New Yorker. But after Alex Chilton's death last week, I went online and accessed the New Yorker's archives, and I didn't find any record of that review.
In any case, I remember very clearly buying the album at a record store in Kenmore Square on a visit to Boston in the winter of 1972.
I also remember being instantly hit over the head with the album's obvious brilliance. Songs like "Ballad of El Goodo," "13," "When My Baby's Beside Me," just knocked me out. Which was interesting because I was in the throes of falling in love with the Stooges, Lou Reed and the Velvets (I had a pre-release copy of Transformer which I played incessantly, even though the sound quality was horrendous) and Alice Cooper. I had moved out of my hippy phase and was beginning my obsession with the music and literature and movies that would lead me to start a band and move to New York a year or two later. (On a more destructive - but also more simply illustrative level - I was moving from psychedelics to heroin.)
I had never been a Beatles fan, in fact, I was pretty much a Beatle hater, a chooser of the Stones in the Stones - Beatles debate which, charmingly, still raged at that time. And the primary reference for Big Star was definitely the Beatles. They were by far the best power pop band I have ever heard. Not the first - that was probably the Raspberries, but Chilton's root in 60's garage rock and more importantly, Memphis soul music, gave the band a third dimension that most Beatle/Byrds style bands could never approach. (Not to mention the fact that neither Chris Bell and Chilton were mainstream enough to ever be easily identifiable in terms of one band or one genre.).
Flash forward a couple of years and Chris Gray, the guitar player who moved to NYC with me, and I are deep into the creation of Jack Ruby, our "punk" band. Our most obvious roots were the Stooges the Velvets, Black Sabbath and conceptually, Ornette Coleman and Philip Glass. And while neither of us would ever write a song a la anything on #1 Record, we were both fans of fractured pop music. We (along with George Scott, who would join the band in its second generation, after original members Randy Cohen and Boris Policeband left) were lovers of AM radio, 45 RPM singles, jukeboxes and one hit wonders. We all recognized that Big Star  (and for us, that meant Alex Chilton - I have since come to see that not only Chris Bell, but Jody Stephens, Andy Humell and evern Ardent Records' founder John Fry, had a lot to do with the sound that came to define Big Star) was a vitally important band that spoke to us in the same way as our more obvious influences. Chris and I saw Big Star at their (I believe) only NYC gig, in the winter of 1973-1974, at a half empty Max's Kansas City. Bell had left the band, and neither Chilton nor his rhythm section seemed particularly into the gig. My central memory of the night was that Max's was extremely cold. But I also remember that they played most of the songs I loved from #1 Record. And we knew that even phoned-in gig by Big Star was something to be treasured and remembered.
During that same time period, Chris and I wrote a song called "Neon Rimbaud," an obvious reference to punk rock's (in other words, Patti Smith's) favorite poet. The lyric reflected my obsessions with Nietzsche, Camus and pop culture, and, musically, was tumbling, bar chord extravaganza that referenced Hawkwind and Black Sabbath as well as the Velvet Underground. For us, what made the song interesting was that we turned it into a medley with a very punk rock, amelodic version of the Chilton's Box Tops' "Neon Rainbow," There was no way I could come close to singing as well as Chilton did, and Chris had no interest in playing chiming guitar parts, but we could express our admiration for Chilton and his cohorts indirectly.
Unfortunately the song never got recorded, so there is no way anyone will hear it, which is too bad, because it was one of Jack Ruby's best songs. However this discussion  does give me a chance to reprint some of my lyrics:
Yesterday, or maybe was the day before
My mother died, but I don't care no more
Nietzsche couldn't 've said it better
Soon to be a major motion picture
Which I don't wanna see
and then... Neon Rainbow:
"But in the daytime
Everthing chnages
Nothing remains the same
People will close the door til the night time comes...."

There was no question that the Chilton/Big Stars influence was felt strongly in the '70's in the middle of New York's punk rock explosion. I remember working at Bleecker Bob's in 1977, and all the whispering that went on when a jaundiced, grimy but obviously beautiful blond walked in. ("Chilton's girl friend, Chilton's girlfriend," mumbled as only a bunch of punk rock record store dweebs could mumble.) The sneers we normally wore were replaced with looks of awe. Chilton himself was a rarely glimpsed rumored NYC resident, already - this was before the release of Big Star 3 - a legend. We knew his girlfriend was as close as we were going to get.
Truthfully, I never liked much of Chilton's post-Big Star output. I got what he was doing, I think, but I found the songs to be either incredibly sloppy, unformed, or just not very good.
However, Chilton never lost that rock and roll attitude, even when he was denying the power of the reality of that attitude. He didn't define the punk or post punk or indie rock that copied his music, but in so many ways he was the archetype. It is such a cliche to say they don't make them like that any more, but in this case I think it's true. And it's a shame.

Big Star - When My Baby's Beside Me