The Glory and Grandeur That Is Defeat
The Music of Alex Chilton, Part 2
by Michael BakerIf the first album is soulful and unconscious, the second develops a narrator and player who find new voices, taking on consciousness, memory, and loss. The singing is higher in the scale, but less tenuous; the closing measures of the songs have sweeping orchestral beauty, both obscene and sad. The guitar never lacks for interesting ideas—series, mostly, of ascending then descending scale lines, very notey, but pertinent, edgy, and harrowingly melodic. What is surprising is the balanced achieved because the tension is often the premise, if not simply at the forefront. The solos are bright, cheerful poppy bursts of staccato optimisms counterbalanced by quick codas of dissonance. The second stanzas of these twelve songs are often markedly contrasted with the first stanzas. The immediate lyricism has initially intensity, blooming from the appetites of youth, but shortly the songs display more halting notes colliding into one another, with the glorious rhythm section slackening then re-gathering into a forward momentum of aging. There are drops in octaves, almost like a releasing of a dream; the melody never becomes a burden, and is often doubly re-iterative, as if the exultant memory of the first party is too grand to let go of. Anybody who has had a fondness for life can understand Radio City.
These muscular songs lack the precious, delicate hands of the first album's greater world. Indifferent to radio airplay--how many poignant ironies are conjured by Big Star's resounding lack of commercial success and their album titles?—and the modest expectations of pop songs, Chilton was uncomfortable under the Badfinger/Beatles songwriting nexus of the first; now free, and living the pleasures of an indolent, never-to-be-repeated existence, Chilton snaked through his world, defining and defying it. He has the ardor of a debating team arguing without a forum or audience. It's as if this album anticipates America's apathy towards itself, belittling it, bewilderingly being hostile to it, and mocking the later bands that emerge from its terrifyingly powerful wake. The peculiarities of the songs are traceable to a disbelief that anything reliable lies out there to be talked about. The author is in search of a definable subject, but this striving gets shockingly interrupted by trapdoors. There is no secrecy or refinement, and what becomes haunted later on for Chilton here seems brooding, clumsy at times, but dramatic and powerful. This nascent maturity now seizes the earlier immediate gratification impulses, turning them into reality principles. The Ego, on this second album, acts as its own go-between, dealing with desires by repressing them. He buries the Id with the Id's energies, becoming solitary, wise, skillful, and controlling. He becomes a man. In reality. In Memphis. And the results are tense, strange, scary, and real. And heavy.
The downtown is dying. People are fleeing, like naked women in Pompeian paintings. To the British Invasion he now adds and subtracts, violating accepted power pop norms. The ice is intense; the heat unbearable. As to the spirit, contributions of, or palpable presence of Bell at these sessions, don't ask me. Bell's brother says Chris gave "O My Soul," "Way Out West," and "Back of a Car," almost fully formed, but I doubt it, especially the second, credited to Hummel (and sung by Stephens) on the album; Stephens and Hummel are unclear how much songwriting was done prior to Bell's departure, and then taken to the studio (the now trio had just re-formed for a few live special shows); Chilton doesn't talk about it. Be assured, however, that these are different sounds, aims, bands. The guitar is from the lean, muscular Steve Cropper/Keith Richards Ya-Ya's School; there seems to be some Gram Parsons on the ballads; the lyrics lack the sweetness and clarity of the ballads of the previous album. There are acrimonious threats to women, disillusioned, if not merely misogynistic. The songs seem halting, at times, smoldering, instead of propulsive. There is an interrogative mood replacing the sweet declarative defiance of the first. Chilton has gotten funkier, needing to testify: he seems willing to lock himself up in the arcane of a monastery scriptorium, emancipating his rage, reality, and lowest common denominator concerns. Instead of harnessing the latent power of the prior collaborative process with its information sharing, its replication of experiential experiments, and dialogue, Chilton's music now seems scattered, herky and jerky, as when with holiday lights if one goes out (Bell, an affair, guitar solo), the rest stay on, if not compensatorily brighter. Instead of striving to imitate the oppressing models of British Pop, on Radio City Chilton ejects these symbols and images and replaces them with autonomy. This is music being created right before our eyes and ears. Instead of static and fragile and opaline, it is dynamic and sturdy and falling apart in our hands, like a coalminer's shards of gold flakes.
Chilton acts upon and transforms his world. There are two masterly songs here that are at the top of songs created in the 1970's, justifiably standards of intelligent compositional rigor, intensity of feeling, brimming with unusual bridges, brilliant music and musicianship, with honesty and vigor, with both songs featuring breathy, tender, and wounded vocals from Chilton. Along with Sinatra's "I Got You Under My Skin," some Schubert lieder, Sister Rosetta Tharp's "Nobody's Fault But Mine," Howard Tate's "Get It While You Can," and the Stones' "Moonlight Mile," the one song, Big Star's "September Gurls," will be featured at my funeral (cash bar, please). The music here on the second album has moved beyond the neoclassical European pop model of the first album and moved into something more romantic, expressive, and imaginative. Both spontaneous and calculated, this song begins with a beautiful guitar intro, a ringing of a bell, a chiseled gavel calling the town meeting to order, a memorable hook not unlike "I Heard it Through the Grapevine;" it also like that masterpiece has bottomless grooves and sweltering empathy. Then Andy Hummel's bass playing (and throughout this album) feeds off from this wellspring of ancient mystery: simple, incantatory, and grounded to terra firma (Hummel moved not long after to Texas to become an aerospace engineer). Moving ahead of the song, eager for a reconnoitering with classic song status, the dynamic drummer Jody Stephens—now the studio manager for Ardent Studios, right where this song was perfected—fills the breaks as if Ringo had sledgehammers that swung for arms. The vocals are, even for Chilton, wistful, fleeing from gravity, the recording level sounding as if he is stepping into a hearse. The heroic stature of the song comes not only from these elements, working furiously in unison, bound together by duct tape, the Kinks, and visionary chemistry, nor from the weird astrological lyrics that hint at world weariness and self pity—
September gurls do so much
I was your butch and you were touched
I loved you well never mind
I've been crying all the time
December boys got it bad.
September gurls I don't know why
how can I deny what's inside
even thought I keep away
maybe we'll love all our days.
When I get to bed
late at night
that's the time
she makes things right
ooh when she makes luv to me.
but from the guitar: notes funky, spiritual, and economically blissful. One senses Chilton saw this masterwork as something potentially orchestrated. It sweeps and swoons, like Keats' bird, and the man and woman in the song are equally unattainable for each other at this one moment. There is also much going on in the silences. The song is controlled, suggestive of buried desires; the melodic lines are fluidly sinuous, not in isolation, but in counterpoint with simpler notes. There is slight modulation, but also repetitions of simple notes that hint at dissonance's Siberial borders. A mild glissando ties the solo's coda down, and Chilton surprises and delights the listener by not returning immediately to the expected main strain, though he does repeat the final phrase. It is not related melodically or in spirit with what has preceded it or will follow it. It is a world in and of itself: shimmering, powerful, a warning to complacency, and homage both to mavericks and straight shooters. It is a world I once had a desire to live inside of.
The other classic is "Back of a Car," melody, if not all the music, by the departed Bell. "Mod Lang" rocks harder, "Daisy Glaze" is more transcendent, and "She's a Mover" is the song I hit repeat on more often, but "Car" is unique, not to mention fecund and funky, like the thighs of Lola Falana. The lyrics are darker than usual, with an unexpected twist at the end: He may want some, but also Chilton vants to be alone, so sorry girls:
Sitting in the back of a car
music so loud can't tell a thing
thinking bout what to say
and I can't find the lines.
You know I love you a lot
I just don't know should I not?
waiting for a brighter day
and I can't find a way.
I'll go on and on with you
like to fall and lie with you
I love you too
wo wo wo.
Baby I'm too afraid
I just don't know if it's okay
trying to get away
Why don't you take me home
it's gone too far inside this car
I know I'll feel a whole lot more
when I get alone.
Once again the rhythm section stars nobly. Of particular happiness is the loose limbed, sacrificial, yielding drumming rolls; the bass is fat backed, sassy, and searching for chitlin' and cold ones. Chilton's voice is druggy, dreamy, and slow to respond to the hooks' urgencies: a little pinched, a little sorrowful, the singing is curiously reminiscent of lullaby sing songiness, but is more restrained in its joy. In fact, after the 600th listening, I feel it is a song of a mature man breaking down—pussy is OK, but Jesus, what do my desires mean? The guitar sings, so to speak, the second part, and it comes from some mysterious region of the disappointed soul; it climbs a step higher to open a release, illuminating the words, "Why don't you take me home," and then finds its still center amidst the moving world of change and transitory connections. The melodic line is grindingly starting up all over again, with constant affection for a series of descending fourths. The frenzied intensity almost makes the song bust loose, but it re-gathers, especially on the solo and bridge, where notes blister, quicken, like the heartbeat of a man running up a hill into the sun's blinding fury, leaving us near the crest, open-mouthed. It ain't phony music, and it ain't pretty: it is a dreadful dirge of pop confectionary, theatrical and intimate, painful and liberating.
This secular fervor, this enthusiasm for melody, this blatant sentimentalizing, are balanced on the album with the chilly November waters of the Mississippi and its own overwhelming megalomaniacal logic. The album, almost unbearable at times in its descending vigor, ends with a note of heartfelt thankfulness: "I'm in Love with a Girl." This is no transition towards Chilton's later songs, or a recapitulation, musically or lyrically, of what has just transpired. It is simply there, a ballad of tenderness, simple, direct, and haunting. It has a Harvest-like feel to it, and in its 106 seconds it has an emotional wallop not to be found again in Chilton's career: it starts immediately, ends abruptly, and features the sweetest singing of Chilton's legacy, a near falsetto that is so far removed from the Box Top voice it can't possibly be the same man, and it is not.
It is the voice of maturity, of sapping strength, of sterile yearning, not innocent, nor peaceful. And in its stripped down ambiance, if not in the controlled, hopeful lyrics, or clinging vocals, it looks forward to the third album, recorded without Hummel, sometimes without Stephens, and sometimes late at night in the bowels of drunken self pity, lit by jagged hate, and fueled by failure, with a capital f-u-c-k.
Recorded a year later in 1974, with producer and fellow Memphis musician/producer Jim Dickinson and backed with a host of friends and flunkies, the album, which has three working titles, Third, Sisters Lovers, and Beale St. Green, wasn't released until 1978 when it sold fewer records than probably Skip Spence's Oar, an album it resembles. Sister Lovers was re-released on CD by Rykodisc in 1992 to near universal acclaim (except in Afghanistan. Humorless Taliban shitheads, they would have dug the misery). If the first Big Star album is the greatest pure pop album of the last thirty years, and if the second is the finest record made between Exile on Main Street and Hüsker Dü's New Day Rising, Sister Lovers is one of the top twenty albums of all time. And don't care if it's predominantly a solo or band venture; I look at the label and it says Big Star, and in the same way that the Byrds, Yardbirds, and The Move radically changed personnel, if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and is called Big Star, then it's a god damned duck.
And it is a very strange duck. To start with, it prefigures some of his solo albums in its self-absorption, disturbing solitude, sloppiness of musicianship, lack of a coherent song placement, and in its brutal disregard for convention or commercial prospects. Half the time, I want to sell it right after playing it, but then I proceed to drive a steak knife into my lower colon and play the album again. Most of the songs lack an introductory phrase: not merely in media res, but more like in the middle of hell, Chilton's songs are the songs you'd hear as Charon ferries you across the River Styx. And instead of money stuffed in your mouth to pay for the ride, your ears are stuffed with bleakness, radical song structures collapsing upon themselves, and relationships that end worse than the Holocaust: in Holiday Inns; on downs; or simply wishing to "shoot a woman." To be sure, as a singer/songwriter album full of quirky asides, declarations of hopelessness, and dark ramblings on the failure of America, Sister Lovers shares a similar greatness, ethos, and virtuosic intensity with other albums of the period, several of them nearly as great and dark as this one: Mayfield's Roots, Gaye's Here, My Dear, Wyatt's Rock Bottom, Young's Tonight's The Night, Cale's Paris 1919 and Hazelwood's Requiem For An Almost Lady. But Sister Lovers documents a great mind and a great talent at both the apex and the nadir of his career/life and, even if he begs "I want to white out" himself on the scary opening track, "Kizza Me," he doesn't mean it—he is as proud to be our Cassandra, self-accused and accusatory, his fingers chained to a guitar of shimmering beauty. He proposes confessions here hoping for forgiveness. He is wrong. It is we who are sorry, guilty, miserable, former believers no longer living with certitude.
Freud's policeman is the Superego, and it attempts to transform self-reproach as a permanent repressor. The fully-formed conscience tells us what is right or wrong, forcing inhibition. The second stage attempts to form an ego ideal. Reverend Chilton, full of rage, resignation, and fire and brimstone, is the first stage, a teller of private truth. But he fails to merge with society here, or ever again in his music. There are no utopias. In healthy people the mind always attempts to compensate for the lost chords of youth by marriage, kids, jobs at Darren Stevens' office. Chilton prefers to play alone, saying nix to harmony and cooperation and Memphis with a resounding No!, in thunder. The second and third songs share this disrespect for community. The first thanks "friends" because "Without my friends I got chaos;" the next, "Big Black Car," celebrates driving under the stars, not "feeling a thing." And that is irony, children, times two. The first song is almost buoyant, but misses elation by a wide mark—there's no evidence, either in the stinging guitar work, or the monotonic singing, of friendship or support, and if we are a little confused, then in the next song, we are lost as the vocals come from deep inside a drugged world of a short story by Poe, disembodied, naïve, and soon shorn of dignity, The singing attempts a lyrical, ascending crescendo of high notes, mostly wordless la-la's, but all of this is to no avail. The song is dark and dirge-like, with "why should I care" countered with echoing, fat guitar notes, the pounding drums of some lost tribe, and an overall sound of melancholic quitting. These two songs, one conventional in structure, one minimalist and quiet, prepare piercingly the listener for what damage is to follow.
And most of the damage is self-inflicted; he borrows the Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale," making it even simpler, starker, and scarier. His voice here, and elsewhere, is a ghostly presence of his former Box Top full-throated declarations. Here, the patient is often secluded, certainly medicated; his voice hangs in the air, disconnected from the arrangements, which this time have a more unplugged feel to them; there is much more piano, eerie offerings of punctuating string work, and a drum sound that needs to be heard to believe: primitive, jarring, borrowed from a passing high school marching band outside the studio's windows. These songs—on the original, fourteen of them—not only lack an aesthetic totality for the arrangements or the instrumentation used, but they often lack melody. They certainly lack bridges, or endings that have been achieved through the resolution of dynamics or tension. There is no resolution here, just beginnings and middles. It is not merely the material, it is the fatal attraction he has for the material. Chilton, here as haunted as Lennon was singing about his mother, or Dylan about St Augustine, or Cobain covering Leadbelly, is only 24 and he has hired disintegration and decay as his new rhythm section.
If the music is often fragmentary, wayward, or even pointless harmonically, it is always chilling, always gorgeous, and always interesting, as with Mahler's songs for dead children. The lyrics are brooding, slightly surreal, at times, brutal; this is the infamous "Holocaust:"
Your eyes are almost dead
Can't get out of bed
And you can't sleep
You're sitting down to dress
And you're a mess
You look in the mirror
You look in your eyes
Say you realize
Leaving those who fall behind
As far as they can,
They don't just care.
They stood on the stairs
Laughing at your errors
Your mother's dead
She said, "Don't be afraid."
Your mother's dead
You're on your own
She's in her bed
Leaving those who fall behind
As far as they can
They don't just care
You're a wasted face
You're a sad-eyed lie
You're a holocaust.
Listening to that song, and a half dozen others, is like drinking a glass of lemon juice right after you ate a pound of M&Ms. The musical sadness is fugue-like, with notes that slur and slide over one another, draining into the dark brown river at sunrise. This is a song cycle along the lines of Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil: mocking thanks to friends; empty gestures to a sleeping deity; comparing love and people to inanimate objects; ridiculing the prospect of anyone ever "having" him; magical realism; and characters more suited to film noir—kleptomaniacs, surreal dream lovers, Dana and her magic wand, and the mysterious gymnast, "working out on the parallel rails," stealing and dreaming at the same time. There is an outtake, included on Ryko's release, called "Downs." Here is the middle section, a talking vignette like something off the third Velvets' album, with an unusual self address:
Isolated as far as you go
I'm well versed in the walls of worst
In the windows of most
Coast to coast
High cool 'cept when I'm with you
Naked on a southern love
On cool downs.
The entire album has this druggy, soporific resignation, and because some of the ballads are still beautiful, and most of the singing is ethereal and suspended, the effect is chilling, a confessional booth with a cemented window.
If the mood is heavy, slow, and ponderous, so is the music: instead of attacking staccato, there is legato, with less electrical instrumentation—the piano dominates several songs. This legato, and the similar tempi, are contrasted with the odd arrangements of fermata, a pause, before the next musical idea, almost as if Chilton himself wonders about the direction. But there is no feel of sloppy second takes here: the musical template, the diction of the meditations, the B-Movie sound effects from stray cellos and mistuned guitars, may come from a parallel universe, but it is a finished world, not dynamic, changing, or hopeful. These are the songs that Sisyphus would serenade us with, hoping his black rock would get smaller, lighter, or easier to push against gravity.
My favorite song, one replete with a deceptive cadence, and lack of drone or dissonance, is "Blue Moon," a short and simple song characterized by an easy and flowing tone of composition. Chilton's voice is almost in the soprano range, quickly repeating the same notes. He has Lennon standing on his left hand, Lou Reed on the other, with Ray Davies sitting on his chest. The spirit of Chris Bell whispers: "Birds sing outside/ If demons come while you're under/ I'll be a blue moon in the sky." This is near the end, and this is about how we search for the perfect melody, the perfect fuck, the ending of sorrow. Chilton thinks if he puts in the right order the right words the demons will stay away; in fact, in the next song and the album's last , the countrified, lovely, and non-ironic, "Take Care," he admonishes us to "Take care/ Please, take care/ Some people read idea books." But, sorry, A.C., words aren't going to fix this: in "Blue Moon," there is no spiritual salvation, no crescendo, just cryptic imagery and a slow fade. There is no release, just repetition. There is no answer, just a puzzle written across the southern skies, the Southern Cross buried by the high clouds. It's a song that begs for accompanying harmony. Sorry again, Alex: you'll have to go even further south than Memphis for the perfect partner—he's the naked guy, well built, with absence where once his eyes shone, pushing a fucking rock up a fucking hill. Till the end of the day.
IV. Chilton Solo: In Dreams, Begin Responsibilities
The characteristics of the third type, justly called the narcissistic, are in the main negatively described... focused on self-preservation; the type is independent and not easily overawed. The ego has a considerable amount of aggression…they readily assume the role of leader, give a fresh stimulus to cultural development, or break down existing conditions.
"Libidinal Types," Sigmund Freud
A key figure in DIY self-portraiture, Chilton's solo career assimilated elements from Brian Wilson, Ray Davies, Lou Reed, and John Lennon, not to mention Jimmy Reed, Lightnin' Hopkins, Johnny Mercer, and Fats Domino, blended with arcane, idiosyncratic key signatures, and loopy covers, but had its own unmistakable personality, exerting a lasting legacy and influence on various schools of singer/songwriters during the last few decades of the churning, unforgiving century. Such diverse voices as Chris Stamey, Paul Westerberg, Chris Knox, and Nikki Sudden each have carved out memorably erratic careers that mirror, in part, if also in smaller proportions, Chilton's unique contribution to Americana. His songs usually appear cool and distant, not palpitating or congratulating; in place of euphoria, nature, and love, there is skepticism, closed rooms, and failed dreams. These canvases are to be placed above are exiting doorframes, with perspectives constructed from low viewpoints. The glimpses into verisimilitude are often caught mid-stream, with matter-of-fact simplicity, compositions both casual and resigned. As with Rembrandt—the painter, not the pussy band—who posed for over seventy self portraits, and often took up the guise of Biblical figures of sadness, or as with contemporary artist Cindy Sherman and her funny, shocking pictures of herself as a drunken movie star and suicidal housewife, Alex Chilton's songs commemorate himself as other people, smaller, more misused, buried up to their necks. In fact, when I stroll through these songs, hand in hand, so to speak, with my new hero, he brings all types of urban misfits along, with or without approving commendation. For modern artists, I am most reminded in Chilton's songs of the great photographer Nan Goldin and her spell-binding 1986 volume, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. These rascals, rogues, con men, and distaff lovers, in these solo outings are and are not our hero, Chilton, famed lover, singular recluse, dishwasher, teenage heartthrob, genius musician. In fact, Chilton's songs, and the many covers he chooses, most resemble Van Gogh's late series of coruscating caricatures of the himself, paintings when viewed close up are of vicious strokes flying off the canvas individually, but from a distance, and within a group, portray a calmer madman, a man dissatisfied more with his constrictors of genre than with his life.
Chilton's preoccupations of his solo career, from the outlandish sloppiness of the aborted sessions in 1970 to 1999's Loose Shoes and Tight Pussy, have pretty much stayed the same. He lives more comfortably inside his southern skin and his roots with black music, delving deeply into urban blues, gospel-like celebrations of dispirited sinners, R&B straight from Rufus Thomas's Memphis radio show, and the sounds of New Orleans, whose funky lazy sway and strut of the back beats most characterizes Chilton's simultaneous work ethic and pop song aesthetic. If you come to this music expecting revolution, philosophy, or musical pyrotechnics, you stepped into the wrong revolving door. You may exit now, stage left. Let the rest of us come in, we who appreciate good times, a certain lack of musical seriousness, and the brash, rousing, raucous sounds of a man happy to be alive who is connected to the musical past, to his own present, to himself.
Not to say that this is all breakfast cereal for children. Many of the bizarre contortions of his mind re-occur in these songs, whether his own efforts, or in the over sixty that he has covered. He still loves to shock, as he sings about female genitalia, sexual desire, jailbaits, and fearless egotism. He still creeps along the streets, cranky, lacking reserve, looking for love in all the illegal places. These albums, these mini-operas, stretched thinly over weird time and space, are Rorschachs into an aging man and his faded youthful desires, sharing his discoveries with perfect strangers. The fact that many of the songs are shamelessly rambling, derivative, or relatively insipid, makes some of us want more eagerly to hear the next collection's take on melancholy, regret, and their cataloguing of the scraps in the junkyard.
The decline in professionalism heard in Bach's Bottom and Like Flies On Sherbert has been replaced by a shuffling concern for praising the famous men and women of the South, and their blasphemously peripheral lives: Furry Lewis, sore-backed laborers, women with leather thighs and silver tongues, and Chris Kenner. This is the eccentric annotation of scoundrels, music not with a bullet, but music made from discarded ammunition near Shiloh. Chilton's discomfort with Modernism is rabid enough to even challenge Darwin's theories. There is no advancement, no evolution, just mere struggle. His solo career and his narrowing of focus back to land deep in guilt and sorrow and defeat has gained Chilton second-class citizenship with us big city folk, mistaking his covers to be infantile, like Jonathan Richman, when in fact they are torrential in their pity for us, we who once mocked. Although narrowing in musical composition, his covers and their range, with their lack of specialization or single focus, works against him commercially, but paradoxically allows him more freedom to pursue the strange and the overlooked for the next go around. He can feel at home everywhere because he is at home nowhere, and his homelessness and his quest to redress it are the great themes of Chilton's career.
Like the Holy Trinity, Chilton's solo career conveniently demarcates into three sections, equally separated conveniently by the decades of our calendars. The first decade is beset by willful rejection of such concepts like sound balance, practice, song structure, and recording techniques. 1970, 1975's Bach's Bottom (Box Tops, get it?), and the rambunctious, logic-defying Like Flies on Sherbert, from 1979, are from the same decade as Big Star's three albums of magnificence. This is equivalent to Beethoven's composing the scores for the Little Rascal shorts as he was completing his "9th Symphony" and "Emperor Concerto." But Chilton is our hero, so plow we must, onward and downward. 1970 is curious, lively, and an essential bridge, obviously, between his teenage singing style and that higher, more expressive and tender voice emergent on the Big Star recordings. As with the three songs he wrote for the Box Tops right before his departure, "I Must Be the Devil," "(The) Happy Song," and "I See Only Sunshine," some of these songs betray a songwriter of burgeoning skills and promise; I particularly like the Gram Parson-like "Free Again" and the Stonesy "All I Want is Money," but the real gem is the poppy "Every Day As We Grow Closer." As if Left Banke played at a southern picnic, it's a stunner that falls apart at the end, like he wasn't sure how to perfect the form until he met Bell, Stephens and Hummel.
Bach's Bottom has the scorching Seeds cover "Can't Seem to Make You Mine," a few droopy pleasant slow songs that lack internal guts, and the great "Bangkok;" but the record is a mess, compiled without his permission. "Bangkok" is a song more famous for its reference to Johnny Thunders than its own considerable merits. Because of the allusion, Chilton was "part of the punk scene," which is like saying because my mother once flipped off a carload of born-agains, she reads the Bible every night. And, she is more punk rock than Alex, which doesn't diminish the song's vibrations, fury, and inspired yodeling.
In 1979, four years after Big Star's last, right after Bell's death, in the middle of his own abuse problems, and surely so pissed off at the American listening public, Donna Summer, and corporate morons driving Porsches, Chilton couldn't even see straight, so he recorded Flies, an album that he is not seeing straight on. Reviled to the point of repugnance by many, revered by others as an iconographic collection of basement treasures, the album has false starts, sloppy drumming, nonexistent production finishings, cover songs plumbed lazily from truck stop jukeboxes, and those are just the plusses. The singing quality veers from New England college boys singing "Mandy" deep into the night of a college bar contest, to eccentric impersonations of actual good singers, and Chilton's own intemperate and immoderate crooning, sounding like cats dragged across gravel racetracks. I love it. This is an album in an inverted world: the worse songs sound the freshest to me; the guitar breaks, uniquely unclassifiable, make me laugh out loud. Long live this élan, nerve, and fuck-it-all guts—on 1970, he actually did a medley of the Archies and James Brown. It is god-awful bad, and also unforgettable.7
The eighties bring Chilton back to greatness, even if the heights are much lower, even if the work is muted by lazy, wandering charm and lack of ambitious musical ideas. He is often reprising his own melodies, locked up in himself. Above all else, as in Big Star, a similar commercial and design eclecticism prevails that grows in size during the process of self-discovery. The impact of technical innovation was never the point, but the element of diversification is observable as a general feature, catering for a broad spectrum of needs and tastes, rather than concentrating on limited forms. This, in turn, facilitated a significant extension of formal possibilities and their application. Chilton in the 1980's was less sanguine about the possibilities of uniting art and vision for economic or posterity's advantages. The aim was no longer to improve aesthetic standards; his albums became comfortable and virtuous foundations of decency, good humor, and rootsy cleverness. Highlights of this decade are mostly found on 1987's High Priest and three EPs, Feudalist Tarts, No Sex, and black list. Each of the collections have sliding, serpentine guitar work, straight from the swamps of a now feral and fertile mind; the singing is lower and haunted, as opposed to his earlier higher and haunting work. None of the backing musicians are world-beaters (although I have come to appreciate the anchorings of long-time collaborator, bassist René Coman); for the most part, Chilton picks up his axe, shouts changes, and after the second take, the band goes for food. I admire this period—the singing is varied and expressive; the instrumentation is mature and pithy; and the rollicking, defiant songs themselves grind against your thighs, like aging strippers fresh out of 24-hour lockup.
V. Exit Laughing
In man's evolution he has created the cities and
the motor traffic rumble, but give me half a chance
I'd be taking off my clothes and living in the jungle
"Ape Man," The Kinks
Our hero, thankfully, has not gone silent or predictable in the last decade or so; in fact, his re-working of his version of the Great American Songbook suggests a man at peace, a musical maturity not so much because he resides in an age of standards, but because of his eager wish to thank the giants before him by paying homage, connecting in a less provincial manner to the 20th Century. At times, his performances are schmaltzy and annoying—a little too clever, a little too tossed off--and at times head-scratchingly bewildering in his actual selection of material; Chilton's work on the albums Cliches, A Man Called Destruction and Loose Shoes Tight Pussy (Set, in America) is akin to the work of other idiosyncratic raconteurs of American songs: Richman, Michael Hurley, Charlie Rich, Johnny Cash, Chet Baker, or Charles Brown.8 Chilton's song borrowings, from Porter, Styne, Jimmy Reed, Tormé, and Bach, are intimate dialogues created for us, willing collaborators in these tiny psychodramas. We can't answer back; we can't complain or adore publicly. We are simple listening in, as if the singer is some retired math teacher in a Hilton Bar outside Helena, playing three nights a week, and we are waiting for the morning's wake-up call.
Not that these enterprises are amateurish; yes, a little, in the sense of avidity for the project, and yes, the performances are roughhewn at times, but if Chilton's voice has gotten lower, steadier, more gravelly, then isn't this also a throwback to the proud vocalizations of the Box Top era? And not only does the voice itself resemble a backward leaping over the two previous decades, but the songs leap precariously even further back, as if an addled crooner is doing a non-scholarly musicological survey of his country. The songs are laidback and charming, but for all of their insouciant and pastoral wistfulness, they are filtered through an uncompromising prism of certitude. On Clichés--all covers-- highlights include a scintillating cover of "Save Your Love For Me," done previously by Bobby Bland and then Etta Jones, two of my heroes, and I presume two of Chilton's southern saints. He covers tenderly Nat King Cole's "What Was," and that's it: you are either down with the conceit of a great musician doing others' songs, both obscure and real obscure, or you are not. Take a listen, and decide. I dig the corniness and charm, and the musical vibe, the relaxed and expert ambiance. So give the songs a chance. Clichés, however, also has a few missteps: Bach's "Gavotte" is thin, and even Mormons or Dubya don't need another "The Christmas Song."
Chilton writes half of the songs on the superior A Man Called Destruction, from 1995. The covers include a tender distillation of his astrological fancy, "What's Your Sign Girl," done by Danny Pearson initially, under the aegis of the late and lamented love god, Barry White. The band here, as elsewhere, cooks, swampy on some measures, Brill Building-icy on others. The singing on the album is the best since High Priest, and the guitar work is sensational: sexy, smoldering, and recitative of the great licks of rock and roll: Jimmy Reed's "You Don't Have to Go" could teach the Animals, Stones, and Pretty Things a few things, and Jan and Dean's immortal "New Girl in School" is as sunny and as fresh as the clime it came from. Anybody who thinks Chilton has lied down and died needs to re-think their pessimism—there are more highs here, however modulated and conventional, than in most singer/songwriter albums of the '90's, and if the material isn't really your scene, cool, daddy-o, but if a soundtrack to late Saturday night parties is what you are after, this is it: all you have to do is move your feet, to the Harlem Shuffle.9
In addition to his storied and varied solo work, Chilton has maintained healthy contacts with his two bands, The Box Tops and Big Star. The former have played reunion concerts with the original line-up, Chilton, Gary Talley, John Evans, Bill Cunningham, and Danny Smythe, over the last five years to enthusiastic praise from audience, fan, and friend. They do not limit their material to their own: they let their whips come down on obscure Sun rockers, period oddities, Stax genius, and a show-stopping tribute to Olivier's movie, "The Entertainer," depicting Archie Rice as down and out song and dance man, a Chilton fave. Big Star, this time Chilton, Stephens, and the two Posies, Auer and Stringfellow, were in the Ardent Studios in the spring of 2004 making an album of originals due for release later this year. As with the recent Big Star live shows, and as with Chilton and all his recordings, this event is not to be missed.
His latest album, Set, features two real head turners: Chris Farlowe's "Lipstick Traces," and honky tonk legend Gary Stewart's "Single Again." There is nothing poppy about this album; if anything, this is anti-pop—despairing, with darker tones, and a matter-of-fact resignation. The voice is fine, even possibly more expressive than the earlier two records; it seems here Chilton has come home. I hear more of the Memphis Stax sound here than anywhere else—covering an Eddie Floyd song might explain some of that—and the guitar work is strict Steve Cropper: bursts of quiet fires, probing rhythm fills. The album is a fitting place to end our work here: it's as if Chilton is re-stoking his own creative fires. Now that this cycle of covers is completed, perhaps Chilton will learn, or desire, to jumpstart his own songwriting. He has often said that he thinks of himself as a performer first, then a guitarist, then a singer; he dismisses his songwriting skills as weak. Right, and Willie Mays was a pissant centerfielder, and grits ain't groceries. Alex Chilton has changed rock and roll for the better, has written a half dozen masterpieces--how many times has lightening struck your ass down?--and has sent chills into my groin and heart for more than half of my life. If he is no longer at this very time essential, he is liberated, free to skip stones across the brown river god late at night, near Memphis, dreaming of handclapping orisons, anthems to nearly-defunct summertime eras, shiny surfaces of muscle cars unable to conceal the rings of empty ice tea tumblers.
1. For an outstanding, up-to-date Chilton discography, check out Crawdaddy Simon’s site: http://www3.sympatico.ca/rasp.arsenault/Records.html. Notice by the nineties the weird labels, the references to France, and the general confusion. Let me make it easy: Skip Rhino’s solo collection; it has five songs (why?) from Sister Lovers. Find the French Top 30 instead. The period from the 1990’s could be more extensive, but you can pick up used copies of the single works anyways, tightwads. I love the 1994 Razor and Tie’s reprint of High Priest; it’s his strongest songwriting post-Big Star and it includes 3 outtakes and the entire black list EP. As for Big Star live, they all have merits (Nobody Can Dance includes 8 studio rehearsals, including the fierce “In The Street” and “Mod Lang”), but the two to get are Big Star Live, out on Ryko in 1992, and the outstanding Columbia, Live at Missouri University 4/25/93, where Chilton and Stephens play with Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer of the Posies. Highly recommended. Arista’s Soul Deep: The Best of the Box Tops is also essential, if not perfect. I actually find joy on the individual albums, but I’m from Akron, Ohio, so trust might be an issue here. You must own Chris Bell’s I Am the Cosmos (see below) as both artifact and aphrodisiac, and, of course, Rock City. If you don’t have, or won’t get, the first two Big Star albums, re-issued together on Stax, and Third/ Sister Lovers on Rykodisc, then I have failed you.
2. For an in-depth interview with Jody Stephens, please see Perfect Sound at http://www.furious.com/perfect/bigstar.html and for Andy Hummel’s, at the same site, http://www.furious.com/perfect/andyhummel.html.
3. The best Big Star site is http://www.frontlinearts.com/bigstar/.
4. In fairness to Chris Bell, and to Chilton, it’s best to consider Bell’s remarkable I Am The Cosmos on its own, no matter how briefly. Along with Joni’s Blue, Townes Van Zandt and Syd Barrett, Nat King Cole, Love’s Forever Changes, and Beethoven’s Middle Quartets, this album is my Sunday Morning Church Service Music. Recorded in Memphis and France around 1975 and released in 1992 by Ryko, Cosmos features two numbingly gorgeous ballads, the title song, and “You and Your Sister,” the latter featuring Chilton on harmonies. The song “Better Save Yourself” sounds like a Let It Be song if all bets were cancelled; the ballad “Speed of Sound” is one of my favorite songs in the world, echoing Gene Clark at his most expressive. “Get Away” and “Make A Scene” would fit nicely in any expanded play list of Big Star’s first, and the songs “Fight at the Table” and “There Was a Light” are funkier, ballsier than what you would expect from this troubled soul, in the midst of losing his way. In 1978 he crashed his Triumph into a telephone pole, dying instantly. He had been lately helping out at his family’s restaurant.
5. The Memphis scene features unsung heroes, like Tommy Hoehn, Cargoe, Hot Dogs, and Short Kuts; no article this long can also not mention the interlocking confluences, guidance of, and musical talents—both playing and engineering—of several key dramatis personae. Terry Manning, already mentioned, Chris Bell’s brother, David, Jim Stephens (Jody’s bassist brother), Eubanks, and the ubiquitous drummer Richard Roseborough, all of who helped with the formation of this Memphis musical ethos and aesthetic in its nascent stages, and then were healthy and talented enough to stick around, propping up their dear friends, Chilton and Bell mostly, in and out of Ardent’s studios. One man and one band should also be mentioned here, purveyors of a post-Big Star pop iconoclasm, of grittiness, bursting with talent and with songs written from the mind and the hips: Van Duren and the Scruffs, products of the late 1970’s. Van Duren’s Idiot Optimism—on Lucky Seven Records as are the majority of these Memphis insiders and outsiders—is a great pop album: super guitar, a wildanimal tenor singer, and tight, rollicking songs. Van Duren is a Badfingery/Ram mixture that addss personality and a polished flourish to Memphis’s sound. The music is peppier than Big Star’s, but after Sister Lovers it’s nice to have songs for singing during showering. If Van Duren is positively pastoral, respectable towards the past, and only gently seceding from the movement, the new brutalism of the Scruffs is almost scary, like the Raspberries after hearing James Williamson on guitar. The songs fly around, like beautiful Japanese pinwheels. The Scruffs have also been thankfully reissued—Rev-Ola—and the music actually screams at you, disjointed and tight, keening and confident, with punkish guitar breaks, and an exuberance that only can be approximated once every few years in musical history. Rob Jovanovic’s book about all this—the Big Star big book--will be released in the autumn of 2004 from Harper Collins. It will be a must read.
6. Top Twenty-Five Power Pop artists, since Beatles’ White Album, and their respective best albums. In order of greatness:
Big Star #1 Record 1972
Nick Lowe Labour of Love 1979
The Records Shades in Red 1979
Marshall Crenshaw Marshall Crenshaw 1982
Badfinger No Dice 1970
Wondermints Wondermints 1994
Mathew Sweet Girlfriend 1991
Flaming Groovies Shake Some Action 1976
Teenage Fanclub Bandwagonesque 1991
Richard X. Heyman Hey Man! 1991
Scruffs Wanna Meet the Scruffs? 1978
Raspberries Fresh 1972
Tommy Keene 10 Years After 1996
dB’s Repercussion 1982
Posies Frosting on the Beater 1993
Weezer Weezer 1994
Redd Kross Neurotica 1987
Shoes Boomerang 1982
Dwight Twilley Sincerely 1976
XTC Black Sea 1980
Sloan One Chord to Another 1996
Cheap Trick Heaven Tonight 1978
Dramarama Cinéma Vérité 1985
Van Duren Idiot Optimizer 1979
Velvet Crush Teenage Symphonies to God 1994
7. This article would be sadder and sorrier than it is in its final form if it were not for the editorial expertise of Kent Benjamin, witness to and guru of the Memphis Scene, and Editor of the remarkable Pop Culture Press (www.popculturepress.com). He corrected dates, added insights, warned me of stylistic tendencies—mine and Chilton’s—and alerted me to connections, both real and probable. For an alternative take, read http://www.popculturepress.com/index.html. Any remaining inaccuracies, idiotic opinions, or solecisms in my article are the sole responsibilities of the author, not Mr. Benjamin.
8. How many albums of genius (not to mention albums with great titles) must Chilton be responsible for before he gets into the Rock and Roll Hall of Shame, I mean, Fame? Throw out Jackson Browne, and Billy Joel, and let in Chilton/Big Star, Iggy, and Richard Thompson, and make the stupid concept at least less laughable. It makes me ashamed to be a Buckeye.
9. Every album mentioned, both immediately above and within the article, must be played at maximum volume, except Peter Frampton or the Eagles, which must be thrown into the nearest body of water. If you don’t abide by this rule, you cannot play.
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