Last night at dinner a friend asks if I’ve been caught up in the whole Alex Chilton thing. (She hasn’t.) Well, yes. But also, no. Sad news, dead at 59, days before another of the big shows Big Star had played since reforming 17 years ago. And yet maybe because obscurity and failure were built into his myth so deeply — when he surfaced in my record buying life in 1985 with an EP of brilliantly sloppy r&b, the story (repeated so, so many times since) was that the former teen star (number one hit at 16) had turned 35 washing dishes in New Orleans — or maybe because the guy had spent so long making light out of darkness, it seemed somehow . . . unsurprising.
Then I read Rob Sheffield’s memoriam online and its personal connection to a music that seemed to survive obscurity only through personal connections opened a door. I went to the wall of vinyl and was surprised how many Chilton records I had there (the first Tav Falco Panther Burns album, where he’s credited as “LX Chilton,” sounds shockingly good at this distance, its ramshackle mix of neo-primitive hep-cat and cocktail melody validated by decades of thrift-store explorations). A clip of Chilton on MTV News in 1985 features him walking through a New Orleans cemetery (see what I mean about unsurprising?), playing acoustic guitar and singing songs old and new. For forty seconds, he strums out a weird and wonderful oddity about life being love when you’re lost inside a neon rainbow (that’d be the city at night lit up by neon, of course). Turns out it’s a Box Tops song on side two an old Rhino anthology I don’t even remember buying, total crap and total genius.
Last thoughts: For two weeks I’ve had nothing but Big Star on the iPod. The Beatles are always invoked, but #1 Record always sounded more like a pop Zeppelin to me — the boogie, the acoustic guitars rambling over the hills and far away, the overdriven vocals. That first album opens with Chilton feeling like he’s dying (the cause: bad romance), which is followed by Chris Bell talking about how having God by his side will help him beat the strong odds he’s facing. (Maybe not: He wrapped his car around a telephone pole in 1978 at 27, leaving behind an unfinished album full of devastating heartbreak and god worship. Says Wikipedia: “He struggled with depression … stemming partly from his repressed homosexuality and dependence on heroin, both of which he tried to deal with through a strong belief in Christianity.”)
That’s pretty much the whole story right there, in two songs. Bell never got to finish telling it. Chilton broke it apart at the spine, shuffled the pages, never lost the beat, but never changed his tune. There was joy in his music, yet more often than not he turned feelings of dislocation into records that offered grace, warmth and comfort in surprising ways. Beauty in the broken bits — like another Memphis cohort, photographer William Eggleston — that’s what he found. That’s what he gave us.