I still feel the great rumbling of sadness at the passing of Mr. Chilton. My eyes are moist even now. I am becoming more cognizant daily that we have lost the ultimate cult hero. Few people properly belong in that category in our time. I would count Sam Phillips, Go-Betweens, Suicide, even Wanda Jackson deserves a higher throne. A man so worthy of the Memphis legacy and the great ambassador of the Ardent Studio sound.
Every decade seems to have that one band that changed the world and, very often, didn’t live long enough to really see it. Link Wray in the 1950’s. The Velvets in the 1960’s, The Go-Betweens in the 1980’s. The 1970’s – well that’s Big Star. Their contribution is still being surmised by the music community.
The world we live in aids and abets the discovery of such treasures among a plethora of “musicians” who have no more business singing a note for the masses than I do picking up a scalpel, designing a building, repairing a car or refereeing a world cup soccer game. If I grew up in Winkler in the 70’s, where would I have heard bands like Big Star? Certainly not on CISV, CKY or the like. Perhaps they played some Raspberries or Marshall Crenshaw. There were no video shows on then. Sure, I might have lucked out on an appearance of Hank Snow or Ian and Sylvia in a local gymnasium for another rousing rendition of The Western Hour.
It’s unfair, but a necessary evil to make sure the whole thing goes – the way it SHOULD. The cult status also ensures an artist stays true to its roots – or fights against them. Both can bring about thrilling results. Isn’t it a beautiful thing, though, when this band gets to be “yours” for a while? When no one understands why “Thirteen” rattles the heart because it flies true and free into the fading nucleus of young love; the courage of writing such a rousing anthem in “Ballad Of El Goodo” about dodging the draft, or the fragile angst of the twisted love song “Kanga Roo”. The career of Alex Chilton continues to be, largely, in the words of master linguist George W. Bush, misunderestimated. But not by you and I. We were fortunate to find him. We beat the gold rush and our harvest is plentiful. And I, for one, am grateful.
For those of you, my dear public, who feel #1 Record and Radio City are the only Big Star records you need, I beseech you to reconsider. Unlike many, that was the first record I actually heard by them. That’s right. this writer didn’t begin with “Thirteen”, “Ballad Of El Goodo” or the like. For me, the genesis of Big Star was in the sad beauty of their rough demise.
Here lies the rub with Third/Sisters Lovers – Big Star’s final record. Big Star made two flawless records – loaded in blue-eyed soul, Beatles psychedelia, proto-type power-pop, and the early blueprints for what would emerge as cosmic americana and alternative country. They sustained a huge change in the exit of Chris Bell after #1 Record – kind of like if John Lennon, Jimmy Page, John Cale, Tony Iommi, Grant McLennan, or Rick Nielsen (for example) had left their writing partners. One could argue his talent dominates the first record. This is not surprising as it was Alex Chilton who joined the party in the Icewater/Rock City days (the first real magic of the Chilton/Bell partnership being the beautiful “Try Again” on Rock City’s only album). Bell was heartbroken, even suicidal, about the indifference #1 Record met. He left, contributing to only a few tracks on Radio City. Chris still played with drummer Jody Stephens on demos (later to become “I Am The Cosmos”, one of my favourite records of all time) and Chilton appeared on his solo work as well.
But Chilton and Bell had lost the foils in one another that made their work so great together. The apparently faithful supporters began to jump ship. Chris Bell recorded demos with his brother and Beatles’ engineer Geoff Emerick (who went on to be a great producer himself, ie. Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom) – mixing the demos at Abbey Road Studios. But the record company didn’t like what they heard. Andy Hummell had enough of the spotlight (or lack of it). Big Star was reduced, basically, to Jody Stephens and Alex Chilton.
Here’s where the parallel becomes so rich between Paul Westerberg and his hero, Alex Chilton. They’re both stuck in a band that has all but fallen apart and they’re contractually obliged to finished the next record. Drunk, tired, broke, with many of their supporters turning their backs in boredom and discouragement, they’re forced to paste their fresh and weary wounds on magnetic tape and squeeze blood from a stone. Like “All Shook Down”, the fans and critics (well, the precious few who know about them) cried “what a mess!” and “where’s the THIRTEEN we’ve been waiting for?”. Or they didn’t bother listening at all. The expecting public, and their unambitious distributors, quashed a very fragile, honest, and beautiful record.
Why listen to this record? It doesn’t “flow” like the rest of the records. It’s difficult to listen to. Jarring even. If one is looking for a smooth and pleasant ride, there are any number of records by George Benson, The Manhatten Transfer and James Taylor one can be pointed to. Looking for the perfect album? Well – there’s Blood On The Tracks, Aja, Revolver, Court And Spark, and Pet Sounds, then. The point I vehemently dispute is that a work of art should be “perfect”; no flaws, no blemish; a perfect experience from beginning to end. I find this approach to art will simply allow a one dimensional approach – no more. The sum. But what of its parts? The great geniuses of the world have created many imperfect films, books, songs, paintings, etc. It can’t always be a home run.
So, what about the parts? Daniel Day-Lewis is peerless in the underwhelming mess that is The Gangs Of New York. Shall I tell someone to miss this performance because the movie is disappointing? Shall I direct someone to not listen, then, to the lack-luster Let It Be? Would the Beatles canon be complete without The Long And Winding Road, Get Back and Let It Be? Certainly not!
Sure Henry Miller’s Tropic Of Cancer is spellbinding. But what about tackling Tropic Of Capricorn? Perhaps the latter will serve to enrich the experience of the former. Sometimes the context of the artist’s life can enrich what is perceived as “weak” work. Are there bad films? Sure. Godard didn’t always hit his mark. I’m going to watch all his films anyway, because I have already found that history has been wrong. Constantly. I find the Mona Lisa is incessantly boring. It does not intrigue me or put me in awe. It’s a woman staring back at me. I couldn’t give two shits whether she’s smiling or not. Is your favorite Bob Dylan record Saved or, stranger yet, your favorite Joni Mitchell record Dog Eat Dog? Joni doesn’t even play guitar on that record. It’s all studio wizard Michael Landau! But it has The Three Great Stimulants and Wayne Shorter on it. It doesn’t matter. If it kisses your heart and rattles your soul, play it every day for the rest of your life. That’s all that matters. Hence, this earnest apology for what is my favorite Big Star record, Third/Sisters Lovers.
Save, perhaps, for “Thirteen”, this is Alex Chilton at his most vulnerable, naked self. He is defeated. He is painting wildly, desperately on his canvas – like Pollock in a fit of rage. He is longing for escape from his demons. “I hate it here. Get me out of here.” (from “Nighttime”). “Thank You Friends” is a sly and bitter wink at the small few in the audience who couldn’t keep the Big Star ship afloat (a song many of them never bothered to hear). “Jesus Christ” is an honest to goodness re-embracing of his blue-eyed roots – and a fantastic Christmas song to boot. Alex is so tired he’s “resorting to covers”. There’s no crime in singing others’ songs! “Femme Fatale” is both more fragile and playful than the Velvets’ original. Why not a reverent version of the standard “Nature Boy”? There’s even early Glam Rock in “Kizza Me”! And what about the intimate, desperately broken love song that is “Kanga Roo”.
A friend asked the other day on the internet which Big Star record he should start with, as he was disappointed he had missed out on their career. Inevitably, many felt the first two records were all one needs. I’m sorry, but it is unconscionable to consider oneself a Big Star fan without, in the very least, listening to all THREE Big Star records. #1 Record and Radio City are a gimme – you can buy them as a “twofer” for goodness sakes! The real test is the challenge Alex put to us all in Third. It’s not easy, there is a bounty of beauty and unrest waiting for you. There is something for everyone – if they will only dig.
We all pass these towns a thousand times. This time, I ask you, traveler, to stop and look. Get to know the place. There is much for you here. And if you don’t like it, won’t you love the others that much more?
Kafka said the crowd has a common purpose. The individual is harder to control. Mr. Alex Chilton was certainly an individual. And so are you for having found him in the rough. What a gem he has been. It is so sad to know he will not add to the story, but the legacy will live and breath on for a long time.
Alex Chilton Forever!