We lost an American icon yesterday with the passing of Alex Chilton.
He followed his own path, emerging in the 1960s as a vocalist with the Box Tops—that’s his growl on The Letter—and moved in a different direction in the 1970s with seminal Memphis band Big Star. September Gurls still gives me the chills. He then dropped in and out of view during what some have called his “lost decade.”
I came of age in the early 1980s in dusty record stores and Salvation Army thrift shops and among our crowd Chilton was an enigma that we embraced. He was rumored to be washing dishes in New Orleans, playing gigs overseas, recording with The Cramps, or simply in voluntary seclusion. The Replacements stoked the flames and we tracked down Chilton’s vinyl—especially his messier late 1970s stuff— and passed around the rare live cassette. His EPs from this era are fantastic. You feel a river of American music flowing from them. They would stay parked on your turntable for weeks after you purchased them. The songs were pure, damp, and loose with an acidic edge at times that felt just right. Thank You John, Lost My Job, Bangkok, Tee Ni Nee Ni Noo, No Sex. Somehow his sound managed to swing between Slim Harpo, Richard Hell, and the Beach Boys. We loved it.
In the mid-1980s I was lucky to have the chance to spend time with Chilton. While road managing The Ben Vaughn Combo we regularly crossed paths, and played a few gigs with him. We met in Kansas City. Chilton and his band blew into the club late looking like they had driven from New Orleans, lugged their gear out of a small car (no van), plugged in, set the audio levels during the first song and proceeded to bring down the house. Pure professionals, fitting for a guy who at that time was already approaching his third decade as a performer. The soul sound was even looser then the records and as the encore he blew us away with Volare. That song would be right at home in a Holiday Inn lobby bar, but somehow it became cool in his hands, especially the sizzling guitar that he delivered. As we continued to cross paths at bars he delivered the same amazing performance to a packed house as to a club with a handful of people. Tonight he was supposed to perform at SXSW. I’m sure he would have brought down the house.