RIP LX Chilton
Last night when I heard that Alex Chilton died, I wanted to believe that it was one of those stupid Internet rumors that would soon get shot down. I'd just been speaking about him the other night with a friend of mine and only hours before that, I was watching some footage of him with Big Star at a Memphis music booth at the SXSW convention center and planning to see the B.Star show in a few days at SXSW. Unfortunately, the source was Greg Kot of Chicago Tribune who'd gotten it from Bob Mehr of the Commercial Appeal, two formidable writers not known for B.S.. And then it sunk in that one of my musical heroes was really gone.
The morning after now, I'm still in shock and want to say something just to get it out of my system but I'm also a little grief stricken and searching for words. I never knew or met Chilton. I only knew him through the Box Tops, Big Star and solo records plus the solo and B.Star reunion shows I'd seen. Still, Radio City was one of the records that helped me get through high school (maybe appropriate since he was singing about confused romances as I was experiencing the same) and remained a favorite ever since.
I always marveled at how perverse he was with his career, seeming to be very content with being a cult figure. It wasn't just the slow burnout of B.Star's third album, where he elegantly got down on tape the sound of a soul disintegrating as much as Sly Stone did on Riot. It was also huge middle fingers he put up on his own albums (Like Flies On Sherbet). Not only did he surprise everyone by reforming Big Star but he did Box Top reunions too- I wondered if the next step was for him to reform his high school band. At a solo live show in the late 80's, he appeared with a two-man horn section and started with the Kinks' somber "Sunny Afternoon" and then asked the crowd "Any requests?" which he promptly ignored when they were shouted out. At a Big Star reunion show, someone shouted out for the Box Tops hit "The Letter." LX laughed and told the crowd that he was gonna do the Joe Cocker version which he led the band in for a few notes before cutting them off. This clean-cut dude was more punk than any leather-clad, spike-haired misfit rebel you'd care to name.
I had the honor of interviewing B.Star drummer Jody Stephens (a very sweet guy) and bassist Andy Hummel (who's unfairly usually sidelined in B.Star stories) but never Alex. This kind of vexed me at first but later, it seemed right not to have the interaction not only because I'd just drool over him and say how much I loved his work and his whole off-the-cuff ethic but also maybe that heroes are best appreciated from afar.
As proof of that, in November 1995 when B.Star did its first NYC show in over 20 years at Tramps, guess who was there in front of the stage. How could I not be? When Alex started singing "Ballad of El Goodo" or "September Gurls," I was singing along too, loudly. Really loudly, shouting out the words almost in his face. Such that after a while, he noticed me and looked down with a puzzled and then bemused look. He must have known that there were rabid B.Star fans like me but maybe hadn't come face to face with them like this. I couldn't help it. Those songs meant so much to me and here was the guy himself, now singing them in front of me. I might have freaked him out but hopefully he also saw what his work meant to a fan boy like me.
Thank you Alex. It's hard to put in words what your songs meant to me but it sure did mean a lot.