Thursday, March 18, 2010

Why Alex Chilton Mattered

Someone asked me today, who was Alex Chilton and what did he do anyway besides write a song that was used by That 70's show? ("In the Street)"  Challenge accepted.

Alex Chilton mattered:

1. Because he merged soulful and pop singing that did not insult the listener's intelligence.  An off-kilter delivery that made the listener feel the pain or joy or ambivalence that the singer was feeling.  And he could do that when he was an adolescent singing in The Box Tops ("Cry like a Baby", "Soul Deep") as well as in Big Star and later as a solo artist.

2. Because he could write an incredibly aching teenage lyric that again did not insult anyone's intelligence. (listen to "Thirteen" or "I'm in Love with a Girl" or "September Gurls")  And the raw emotion in those songs was real.  No auto-tune or computer manipulation of his voice was necessary.

3. Because he did not have to scream and shout and yell until polyps grew on his vocal chord, he could convey teenage angst with a simple guitar chord and a vulnerable delivery that sent shivers down your spine. (Just close your eyes and listen to "I'm in love with a girl")

4. Because he did not take himself too seriously yet understood that he mattered to an entire generation of post-punk musicians (The Replacements, The Lemonheads, Husker Du, Eliot Smith, R.E.M.) and fans after Chilton himself had given up on the music industry. (listen to "No Sex")

5. Because he showed pop musicians that you do not have to make music in LA or New York.  You can make music near a home that matters to you. (see Ardent Studios)

6. Because some days at some times in rough situations - a beautiful guitar part reminds us that maybe, just maybe music can make the world a better place for just a little while.

7. Because he realized that sometimes when you are trying to make music, you need to fight the label rather than trying to create the next hit.  Chilton famously refused to write music that the executives at the labels demanded and instead recorded music that mattered to him and his fans. 

There are many more reasons - we can talk about his work with The Replacements and The Posies but does it matter?  Either you have experienced the music and then you understand.  Or you didn't and don't.  So, go get #1 Record, Radio City, Sister Lovers/Third, High Priest, and 19 Years - just sit back and enjoy.

"Alex Chilton" - The Replacements - from Please to Meet Me

If he was from Venus, would he feed us with a spoon?
If he was from Mars, wouldn't that be cool?
Standing right on campus, would he stamp us in a file?
Hangin' down in Memphis all the while.

Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes'round
They sing "I'm in love. What's that song?
I'm in love with that song."

Cerebral rape and pillage in a village of his choice.
Invisible man who can sing in a visible voice.
Feeling like a hundred bucks, exchanging good lucks face to face.
Checkin' his stash by the trash at St. Mark's place.


I never travel far, without a little Big Star
Runnin' 'round the house, Mickey Mouse and the Tarot cards.
Falling asleep with a flop pop video on.
If he was from Venus, would he meet us on the moon?
If he died in Memphis, then that'd be cool, babe.


John Sundman said...

Excellent; thanks. I've tried to explain the same thing to a few people today & the only one who "got it" was my wife, who stayed up past midnight listening to stuff she had somehow never heard before.

I never liked that line "if he died. . that'd be cool." I like it even less now. So it goes.

reddyrooster said...

Best piece I've read on Mr. Chilton since I heard the news. I got to see The Lemonheads and then The Posies do "Frosting on the Beater" in one Chicago weekend last summer. Hard to imagine all that rock 'n roll fun coulda been possible without Alex Chilton.

"Because some days at some times in rough situations - a beautiful guitar part reminds us that maybe, just maybe music can make the world a better place for just a little while." Truer words and all that...

Bill In OH said...

Very nicely put. Expanding on point #4, this was once said of the Velvet Underground (by Brian Eno, IIRC) but I think it's just as true of Alex Chilton/Big Star (paraphrase): They never sold a lot of records, but every single person who bought one of their records went out and formed a band.

Even if you've never heard of Alex Chilton, you know Alex Chilton.

pansypoo said...

he probably was happier where he was. fame is a bitch.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, he matters. I for one, though, would like to see the end of the quoting of that fucking Replacements song in all discussions of Alex Chilton. I mean I guess the Replacements mean something to some people, and I suppose Paul W. really liked Alex and all that, but why not quote ALEX'S words?? the Replacements sang about Alex Chilton but Alex sang about Tammy Fae Baker, know what I mean?