Michael Baker – “The Glory and Grandeur That Is Defeat: The Music of Alex Chilton” (2004)

January 31, 2009 at 1:00 am (Reviews & Articles)

This long fascinating article about Alex Chilton comes from the webzine Perfect Sound Forever (July 2004). Alex has definitely been one of the unsung heroes of rock and power pop over the past 40 years… 


I. Entrance: On the Slopes of Parnassus


Hold up your head, and don’t let your conscience get you down
Hold up your head darlin’, don’t let your conscience get you down
If you never lie to me, I’ll always be around

– ‘Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide’, Sonny Boy Williamson


There have been so many mistakes spawned on the banks of the swollen and slow-moving Mississippi near Memphis that any partial litany brings sorrow, if not nausea: slobbering, drugged Elvis, in a white jump, leering at our blue-haired grannies; Cybil Shepard’s acting career; Jeff Buckley’s leap; Reverend Al Green withering under the weight of smothering, boiling grits. Perhaps the gravest veering from normalcy is the artistic arc of Memphisian singer-songwriter, Alex Chilton, vocalist of the groovy Box Tops, co-founder and leader of the legendary, incandescent Big Star, famed eccentric producer and sideman, and memorable author of thirty years of solo projects that more often than not defy definition, taste, or rationality. His contrary nature, lack of public acclaim, partial solutions to uncertain and ambiguous pop song compositional conundrums, and occurrences of greatness, even genius, make Chilton the most compelling American singer/songwriter of the last thirty-five years. Watching and listening to Alex Chilton traverse, often shakily, the complicated labyrinth of Western pop music is watching ourselves grow uneasily into our own adult skins, beer bellies, STD’s, and blackened hearts and all. Stumbling upon Chilton’s music for the first time, especially the three Big Star albums, is like watching, heart fluttering, a perfectly awful army advance across a field of May chrysanthemums carrying banners proclaiming the British Invasion, youthful liberty, and the soon-to-be doomed.


Born in Memphis on December 28th, 1950, Chilton, like every musician born in that uglybeautiful town during the post-war years, was given the Stax/Sun/Hi imprint, as if Jackie Wilson, Jerry Lee, and Bill Black were his original whooping crane mothers. His music is as complex and multifariously linked to the past, moreover, as if the body of water more resembled the Thames or the Mersey or the Pacific, than simply the brown god Mississippi. His music, what is more, seeks conflation of shorelines, not imitation, nor a single swatch of a musical landscape. Most of these influences, targets of adulation, and steady rhythms were, to be sure, gleaned from British Pop in its heyday between 1965 and 1969, with lilting flourishes from America’s West Coast. Chilton has never been a Memphis musician per se, although the majority of his work has been produced there. And even as he ages, he does embrace more readily and enthusiastically Southern Soul, usually downriver to New Orleans. He often has erased his Memphis origins, all the while living or recording there, after his work with his first group, The Box Tops, like he was a Gatsby.


In fact, similar to that mystery man who pleaded innocence and virginal genesis, Chilton’s narrative is murky and muddled. We know the following: he was in the Box Tops for four albums from 1967-1970; he was co-founder, with the tragic Chris Bell (dead at twenty-eight) of Big Star, then leader for the last two of the three albums, all recorded between 1971 and 1975; he was associated as a performer with such odd, if minor, greats like Tav Falco, Alan Vega, and Paul Haines; he has produced brilliantly even odder fringes of rock’s hierarchy: the Cramps, Gories, and Royal Pendletons; he has, and will apparently continue to do so, release loose, baggy monsters of solo recordings, a dozen or so. There has been regretfully little commercial success; his work, moreover, must be viewed in totality, even if it is an impossible task to connect all the career dots. He is a chameleon, a sponge, a recluse, a belligerent, a revolutionary, a crazy artist suffering from Bladerunnerian accelerated decrepitude: by the age of twenty-five he could sing, without contempt or shallow irony: “Please don’t say a word/Get me out of here/Get me out of here/I hate it here/Get me out of here.” If there were no enemies, Alex Chilton would feel compelled to invent them.1 And here I am, idiot writer, wanting, needing to be his true friend.


II. Box Tops: White Men Can Jump (and Shout)


It is wrong to think the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.
– Neils Bohr


Because the Mississippi River at Memphis is philosophically, if not topographically, the mid-point in America’s eastern half it has a gallimaufry of influences bearing upon it. Deep soul music of the backwoods and of the juke joints; gospel music of the Southern Baptists, both black and white; mountain music, with its frenetic picking, lonesome wailings, and rhythmic tightness; crazy jug music that would make a logical man break down in his lover’s shitty living room; Delta blues, just down the road apiece – America’s outstanding contribution to world culture, along with college basketball, gangster films, and Twentieth Century American poetry; urban blues, nearby at the nearest Memphis intersection; New Orleans jazz moving towards Chicago, and Chicago soul moving down towards that evil and pugnacious town. From these hybrid sources and influences, or because of the river’s amoral and free flowing and non-judgmental thereness, remarkable music was happening in Memphis, Tennessee in the late 60’s, much of it at three studios. Hi Records boasted the remarkable talents of this terrific trio of singers: Al Green, Ann Peebles, and O.V. Wright. Sun Studios – yeah, that studio – claimed Elvis, Jerry Lee, Carl, Johnny, Merle, Conway, Patsy, and Roy. No last names, please. Over at Stax, and nearer Chilton’s heart, was a studio that changed America’s listening ways as much as any other label: Isaac Hayes, Sam and Dave, Booker T. and the MG’s, the Staples, Johnny Taylor, William Bell, and Otis, the greatest of them all. I hear the church and country blues in these recordings; and likewise in the greatest of Chilton’s songs I hear these field hollers, with even more electrified nastiness; in all this music, from W.C. Handy to Chilton’s latest gig, there are moans of ecstasy, cries for help, grown men and women swearing off sinning, the bottle, the opposite sex, only to go out on Saturday night, chasin’ the devil down. But most of all, I hear America singing and swinging: secular, sacred, profane, proper – this is a world celebrating the past and present, hoping for better days, coming from a town, not to mention its citizens, searching for second and third chances.


When listening to blue-eyed soul of the sixties, especially from the latter half, you are faced with formidable, life-altering contrasts on the black side of the street: James Brown, Aretha, Otis, Wilson, Smokey, or David Ruffin, just to name a half dozen obvious stalwarts, objects of understandably fierce and religious devotion by their younger, paler counterparts. One Laura Lee morality play, or one warning about layin’ off his woman from James Carr, or one litany of sexual conquests by Clarence Carter, bone-chillingly deep as they were and are, would be enough to tell this whitey, me, to pick up an instrument, or to go home, or certainly to step off the mike. And so often the best white soul singer in town is like the best Hungarian cook in Paris, or the best looking chick in Canton, Ohio – who gives a flyin’ Philadelphia? But 16-year old Chilton, front man for the (mostly) studio band, the Box Tops, was one of the select few who could belt, plead, cry, and make our knees weak, our pelvises grind. His voice was rock steady: lower than his natural tones, it held to a center of gravity that caused double takes at dances: That kid just wailed about two-timing broads? The Box Tops’ music, often ordinary, often engineered as if fresh air or oxygen would destroy the mix, reached heights of empathy and sorrow simultaneously, at times, thanks to Chilton’s confidence, performance, and invocation of a world in need of two more cocktails, please, Mr. Barkeep. Other sterling blue-eyed devils from that era included The Action’s Reg King, Righteous Brothers’ Bobby Hatfield, Spencer Davis’s Stevie Winwood, the Rascals’ Felix Cavaliere, and Scott Morgan – Yeah, baby! – from Michigan’s the Rationals. But I think Chilton was the most honest, the most singular, and the least slavish. At sixteen, Alex Chilton had the musical world’s throat wrapped tightly in his slim and vulgar white fingers.


Two of the songs will live forever on Classic Radio: 1967’s ‘The Letter’ and the next year’s ‘Cry Like a Baby’; produced by and overseered by soon-to-be-legends, songwriters Chips Moman and Dan Penn, who had spirited Chilton from the Memphis band, the Devilles. In little longer than two years, and with Chilton increasingly chaffing under these dual Svengalis – the writers picked and wrote the music, designed the charts, ran the studio, instructed the musicians-for-hire – the band managed to also release odd mixes of trippy Southern good time music: ‘Neon Rainbow,’ ‘Happy Times,’ and the amazing ‘Soul Deep.’ Chilton’s voice is strong, low, and purposeful, a teenager feeling, then feeding upon his oats, securing his chops more assuredly with each passing 2:34 composition, a wunderkind cantor aware of sorrow and eternal torture, a veteran participant of the “Sweet Cream Ladies Forward March.” Often his raw vocals are simultaneously sandpapery and honied; always there’s pathos, pain, and always, for the listener, there’s fascination. The material cooks, even if the recording levels bury the rhythm section, or the session cats are simply clocking in. But oddities abound: covers of ‘Wang Dang Doodle,’ ‘Flying Saucers Rock n Roll,’ Eddie Floyd’s monster ‘Bird Bird,’ and the Gentry’s ‘Keep on Dancing.’ Even though reports vary as to whether there was even a band not in name only, the latter song was covered because the Box Tops purported guitarist, Gary Talley, came from there. But the magic, asides from hits or misses on the four albums, centers around Chilton: not blue-eyed nor giddy, as befitting of those heady days of Aquarius, he and his voice sound illegal, intoxicated, away from the music, talking to itself and singing for itself, with frayed and failing emotions. His singing here, gruff, world weary, would emerge dominant in his later work, when there was no pretense of disappointment or failed expectations.


These moments of discord were to blossom brightly for the rest of his career. Chilton, a reformed drinker and drug taker, was in the ’70’s and beyond often described as dipsomaniacal and semi-deranged; we know with whatever certainty that he has always been unhealthily victimized by Don Juanism, astrological “philosophizing,” and feisty standoffishness. Infantile behavior, in adults, is marked by lack of stability, by peacock preening, by temper tantrums. We have to play their way, or they take the recording studio back home, sulking and stewing with liquor and paranoia. Infants do not like to take orders (Box Tops), share credit (Big Star), or follow orders (solo recordings); they are arrogant and willful, performing ‘Volare,’ or deliberately mistuning guitars. They hold grudges. For centuries. Children live for the moment; they cannot sustain relationships or plans; dialogue is out of the question, as is reflection; spontaneous and active, child-like adults who live in the ahistorical moment do not appreciate advice, sage or otherwise; they do not tolerate rules, nor suffer fools; their sandbox is permanently demarcated territorially. But in this case the children’s garden has been the fertile source for Chilton’s unyielding faith in his voice and his message. For a musician who has taken heat for years for following others, or for influencing so many, Chilton is rather so iconoclastic, both in songwriting and guitar playing, that he more properly should be defined as captain of his own ships, waving – goodbye or hello – during their sinking, as admirals invariably do, or must.


In the early years of the 1970’s the pop music world was unsteady. Not quite yet discofied, or incorporated fully by AOR MOR, or almost single-handedly destroyed by either Frey or Frampton, the scene could, moreover, take no solace from the front pages. Protest was inert; experiments were flushed down toilets. In a short span, Kent State, Watergate, the failure of King’s vision, and my wife’s entering into kindergarten all spelled some sort of tragedy for truth and expression and personal liberty. Even sadder, the Partridge Family replaced the Manson Family in our fragmented minds. On the radio it was much worse: what was certifiable was that the heyday of the now dilapidated, almost anachronistic, dinosaurs of classic rock from the halcyon days of experimentation and vigor and pants stuffed with erections was over, shards of skeletal remains flung upon the seedy shores of commercialism, littered with artists guilty of lack of foresight, minute-by-minute greed, and drug-taking excesses. The prodigious power of these life-altering behemoths was fading, from death, desertion into timidity or monasteries, break-ups or breakdowns, and apathy. The bands – anyone out there remember the Stones, the Kinks, Dylan, the Beatles, Zeppelin, the Velvets, Beefheart, the Temptations, the Who, the Beach Boys, the Byrds, the Move, or the Band? – were no longer that what taught people how to walk and talk and fuck. Thank Jesus – the older one, not Mel Gibson’s – there were solo artists with wondrous, idiosyncratic, soulful voices to be sure, most of them in the midst of their waxing and storied careers: Van Morrison, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Richard Thompson, Curtis Mayfield, Rod Stewart, Neil Young, Gene Clark, and Gram Parsons. Chilton belongs here, of course, near or at the top, and they all wrote and performed intense arty pop songs of adamantine beauty, retro sheen, with exploratory vignettes of intrepid selves diving into wrecks. These singer/songwriters, and their brilliant, brittle arrangements and playing, often carried back to a pre-Sgt Peppers of emotional honesty and stripped-down instrumentation. The songs were slashing, oblique, buoyant, and indefatigable. Big Star was all this, but also a working band, and the only other band of the new order to match them in originality, chops, songwriting, and rule breaking was the German experimentalists, Can, or maybe Pere Ubu – bands, if you can imagine, who sold even fewer records than Big Star here in America. All three bands, although with admittedly different artistic intentions and musical histories, changed the insides of their songs, tearing out banal clichés of cemented structures and replacing them with bent psychedelic twistings, minimalist bass lines, mesmerizing and stunning drumming, creating new ambiances of narcotic power rock and roll. Big Star was the best band, however, to emerge from the Stone Age. They are my Bo Diddly, my Ezra Pound, my soul’s salvation. As Schoenberg wrote to Mahler after hearing the latter’s Third: “I saw your very soul naked, stark naked….I suffered the pangs of disillusionment; I saw a man in torment struggling towards inward harmony… Forgive me, I cannot feel in halves.”


III. Big Star: Feeling in Wholes


The time has passed for our sensations in painting to be whispered. We wish them in future to sing and re-echo upon our canvas in deafening and triumphant flourishes. Your eyes, accustomed to semidarkness, will soon open to more radiant visions of light. The shadows which we shall paint shall be more luminous than the highlights of our predecessors…

        F.T. Martinetti, “Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto”


After walking out on the Box Tops and after hanging out in New York, cutting an album’s worth of discombobulated, spastic jams, later to re-surface as 1970, Chilton returned to Memphis, to home, to our real story, and to everlasting greatness. Before joining a trio called once Rock City, then Ice Water, he had been experimenting up North with folk song structures, but more significantly, possibly, was his closeness to soul mate and fellow prankster, and future esteemed engineer, Terry Manning, whose involvement with the demos helped to persuade the Beach Boys to possibly release them, because of Chilton’s respect for Brian Wilson. Luckily for our novella here they passed. By the time Manning and Chilton got home to Memphis, Manning had two significant mixing/engineer gigs at Ardent Studio: the Bar-Kays, a sound certainly found on the Big Star’s up-tempo rockers, and the knockout Led Zeppelin III, with its pastoral poignancy and supersonic snare drumming sound. Particular interest are both the ballad, ‘That’s the Way,’ which without the mandolin would have fit nicely into Big Star’s aims, and the power psychedelic of some of the cuts, echoing T. Rex, another huge influence upon Chilton. His joining of Ice Water – renamed Big Star after a neighborhood supermarket – teamed him with three extraordinary musicians, all of who were old friends, all of who in their early twenties could bang their axes with ecstatic and communicable faith, all of who loved British rock, Memphis soul, and good times. Put together, fellow songwriter and sad-eyed Chris Bell on guitar and vocals, Andy Hummel on bass, Jody Stephens on drums, with Chilton on guitar and vocals, smashed together in the early fall of 1973 a recklessly aggressive, exuberantly brilliant album – #1 Record – that is the greatest power pop album since Revolver, the fourth greatest rock debut (Jimi, Velvets, Television), and the album that has haunted my waking moments for thirty years.


The earlier Rock City recordings – Thomas Dean Eubanks on bass and lead vocals, Manning on keys, Stephens on drums, and Bell on guitars, background vocals, and occasional lead vocals – are not some primitive or foundational or nascent Big Star. They show that if Chilton is the guts and desires of Big Star, Bell was the architect, the heart and the teacher. Chilton’s school bully playing with the teacher’s pet, in a saber-rattling contest of border crossings between the past and the creative present. Bell’s guitar on Rock City slices through the heavy, swirling density; no weepy George Harrison solos here: it’s Badfinger on steroids. Eubanks’ songwriting and singing, especially for ‘Think It’s Time to Say Goodbye’ and ‘I Lost Your Love’ and ‘The Answer,’ are mature, tender, percussive, and soaring. Think Moby Grape, or Beau Brummels, or Emmit Rhodes, with McGuinn and Dave Davies playing lead guitars. Imagine a ballsier and blusier Big Star, but lacking both Chilton’s tightness of composition and Hummel’s rounded, expert bass notes. Some of the songs get washed over by hazy hippy yearnings, with “experimental” time shifts, sweeping keyboards. Against this prog folk/rock excess – don’t Bogart that joint, Terry! – the recordings sometimes remind me of a bad Moby Grape live gig, or a first-rate Love cover band. But when clicking, this is one if the best bands in America during the late 1960’s. Two future Big Star songs, ‘My Life Is Right’ and the Chilton-Bell masterpiece ‘Try Again,’ are stunners, with the second featuring Alex fresh from his Manning/1970 work. These are Bell’s first recorded vocals and, as with John Fry’s genius engineering here at his own Ardent Studios, there is nothing tentative, nothing shallow. If Alex Chilton had moved to Russia after the Box Tops and committed a life’s work to a new Trans Siberian Railway, Rock City and their hypothetical future recordings, not Big Star, would be making Paul Westerberg both wet and jealous. As it is, Eubanks moved to the periphery, Manning went to the booth, Chilton pushed his way in, and with those two songs and Bell’s ‘Feel’, Big Star decided to change history.


It is safe to say that without the first Big Star record, the following bands and soloists would have had drastically different, if not also inferior, careers: Teenage Fanclub; The Posies; Marshall Crenshaw; dB’s; Tommy Keene; Richard Heyman; Weezer; Replacements; Spongetones; Dramarama; Sloan; and Shazam, just to list a few of the hundreds. And the record crackles with wit, electricity, three-minute overtures to teenage lust, kids sitting on top of the world, with the careening, celebratory excess of soiled t-shirts not large enough to hold in the ripples. It is a masterpiece. The band screams with cocksure reductionism: “Don’t need to talk to my doctor/Don’t need to talk to my shrink/Don’t need to hide behind no locked doors/I don’t need to think/’Cause when my baby’s beside me, I don’t worry.” And nothing before this album, not the soulful Box Tops, or the wild NYC sides, could explain the quantum leap into greatness found in Chilton’s voice, guitar, songwriting, and confident, sneering swagger. Except, maybe, for Chris Bell’s active imagination.


Most atoms and molecules are electrically neutral in their normal states; however, when there is a large range of new sources available, these atoms and molecules become unstable, and then acquire an electrical charge. Bell’s sweetness and tenderness (he co-wrote 10 of the 12 songs with Chilton) when coupled with the enigmatic, deep-bottomed restlessness of his partner enacted a process similar to ionization. In other words, they needed each other, fed off the contrasts, and revelled in their simultaneous pursuit of perfection, as if complimentary, not supplementary, was the prevailing ethos. It is not that prior to this a team of rock musicians, whether working together or in proximity, did not synergistically potentiate with the odd coupling of the sweet, ramshackle, plaintive side with a grittier, bluesier angsty persona; simply look at: Lennon/McCartney; McGuinn/Clark; Lane/Stewart; Cale/Reed; the Davies brothers; Ham/Evans; Mick and Keith; Robertson/Manuel. Big Star’s contribution – because they came later and revered at least the pop side of those binomial equations – was the intensity of the interweaving; their creations of accessible allegros of spirit chant like a drunken choir of ascending angels.


Neither Bell nor Chilton can be credited with the power pop revival; as with punk rock and its murky antecedents, the revival – Raspberries, Badfinger, McCartney’s solos, stirrings in and around L.A. – of power pop certainly was filling a post-White Album void; to these strands Big Star dragged into the mix, however, such oddities as Texas garage, the baroque fragility of the Left Banke, and Southern Cal coolness. Bell and Chilton, furthermore, may be credited with the evolution of a power pop language appropriate to a Byrds/Beatles matrix now gone forever. The boys did not build the first skyscraper, but the facades of their overreaching songs are better articulated than the others. The recesses blend better with the excesses, and the origins of the tunes are now organically terminated, without a second to spare. Big Star gave us both the expressive syntax of a new era, but also the outline of a precise geometry. And they become free in their mathematical grid, like Isaac Newton discovering calculus.


I see these Big Star songs as structures, and not flimsy artifacts that will easily blow away or leave our minds: I see pitched roofs and recessed colonnades, providing sturdy exterior protection. These layered external constructs contrarily mirror the insides: simple staircases of elegance; two stories of functionality, with bright, clean fenestration. In these masterworks it is obvious that both men heavily influence each other, Bell the planner, Chilton the builder. The sequence of songs on the first Big Star record are calculated, it seems to me, not to elevate one singer/songwriter over the other, but to allow the single projects to invent in their own articulated spaces, without didacticism or jealousy. The songs are plastic and sturdy, Southern vernacular and universal, contemporary and nostalgic. They resemble civilization.


In a favorite game for critics, Chiltonions, or solitary-for-good-reason geekers walking around with shit stains in their drawers, individual Big Star songs are backwardly traced to potential sources, as if, by the way, most pop songs don’t share similar lyrical themes, chords, length, bridges, and harmonies. Suffice to say, without being Linnaeus or a member of some suicidal rotisserie league trading obscure 60’s Danish b-sides for bootlegs of live Apples in Stereo, I venture that the first Big Star feeds off Rubber Soul‘s alternative slow/fast order, the Kink’s love of dissonant dynamics, the happy-to-be blonde harmonies of the touched Wilson clan, and the quirky fifths, glissandos, and pummeling drumming of the Small Faces – power popster Richard X. Heyman told me he initially noticed the shared battering ram glee in the two bands, and that and the near falsettos, the quickening to the exposition, and the unity of the individual songs makes me think this is true. Lately I hear The Who Sell Out more often, if not in style, then at least in brashness and production. If I may betray my idiot roots for a moment, instead of direct links to bands, it is better to think of these shimmering, iridescent expressions as not caught in a web of paralyzing Oedipal struggles with Prince John or King Paul or Lord Ray, nor Harold Bloomian struggles forming serious paralysis or trembling because of anxieties of influence, but rather playgrounds of healthy influences, expanded and contracted, hinted at or directly stolen. These are goddamn kids, after all, not Alan Lomax or Harry Smith or Brown graduate students. Thank God.


Hey! Wait just a minute! What the fuck is power pop? Two guitars help, snarling and whippet fast; a rhythm section of strong armed mutes, not afraid to glower at fans, grinding it out like the Move, on the snap, crackle, pop of every 4/4 beat. “Catchy, short melodic songs” sounds like a description of Pepsi commercials. How about: hooks big enough for Aretha Franklin to hang her bras upon. No? Try: driving riffs, both Byrdsy jingle jangle and ‘Taxman’ spikiness. The major tone is required, emphasizing odes to joy and college girls from University of Nebraska. Speed is not that important; more of a stately quickening is preferred, with swirling dynamics, head-pounding chords on bridges, guitar solos walking above the gaping circus crowd, background voices complexly filling in between the twin maestros on lead guitar. Deathtrap desires should be bemoaned immediately – no time for reflection, regret, or perspicuity. Cleanness of production, single-minded pursuit of melody, and love-sick tenors wailing about last night’s loves are germane here. In fact, smiling wouldn’t kill any of you out there, from time to time, unless you are a glum Albanian or nasty German. Moreover, the librettos are mid-period Beach Boys, without the sun glare. The songs are sweet, simple, and short, played as if those are the most important chords and notes ever played or dreamt of, and that that final cymbal crash will be the last heard on this god damned good green earth. Add a Townsendian punch in the stomach, some glee from ‘Ticket to Ride,’ and a singer, in spite of absence, who does not celebrate loss, sickness, or depravity, but cries, “Ready for another?” Power pop music is ebullient, trippy, dense, assertive, and ringing with clarion severity: it is the anthem about hopeful eternity in the arms of a leggy teen brunette.


In fact, if Bell is the design behind Big Star, and Chilton the vehicle, then British Pop is the fuel of this secular and corrosive and tender machine/band. As Proust, noted partier and poof, wrote, “The question is not for Hamlet, to be or not to be, but to belong or not to belong.” And belong they did: Bell to the Beatles and their Black and White worlds of action verbs, and Chilton to the Kinks and Who, and their Black and Black worlds of ambiguous nouns. Not yet bored with clichés, Chilton was censorious of any music divorced from the soundscape of the late ’60’s. The fundamental tenets included furious and frenetic drumming, filling out the shocking silences, as on the Who’s ‘Call Me Lightning’ or their ‘I’m Free,’ the acoustic/electric dueling, with jagged, stinging guitar work, bent, but not bluesy, as on the Kinks’ ‘Lola’ and ‘A Long Way From Home,’ the jerking, robotic minimalism of T. Rex; ragged and boisterous background singing, as on the Kinks of the early ’70’s; the thundering tom toms of ‘I Can See For Miles,’ the tenderness of standard folk/rock structures made quicker and harder by slamming acoustic riffs: the Who’s ‘Tattoo,’ ‘Sunrise,’ the Kinks’ ‘Apeman,’ and ‘Get Back in Line,’ And although the songs detail the dailiness and deadliness of life, and rarely afford penetrating observations, the music itself, through the steady aggregation of galvanizing influences, becomes rapturous excitations; the self discipline needed to balance these emotions is found in the susceptibilities and vulnerabilities of Chilton’s tenuous grasp of his world. He is never this cocky again. The second album, as Chilton begins to stalk himself for the first time, seeks treaties with the Brits and then opposes their influences. The lingering connections to the past are there, of course, but the hues and shapes are darker, and faith in the power of the invasion has waned. That record celebrates poker players and rapscallions, not slaves nor sycophants.


Before I get to the music – have you bought the albums yet, you lazy sods? – and completely lose my audience, a troubling aspect of Big Star’s career is not Bell’s departure after the first, nor Hummel’s after the second, nor the drunken psychodramas on the third album, but rather how in a short span Chilton could embrace distinct, particularized worlds and various emotional, compositional, and sonic tonalities, without going crazy, or sacrificing value. The full blush of youthful glee of the first and its outrageous harmonies, turn to a more fierce hectoring tone on the second, Radio City: strident songs of spiky colorings, and then become abject resignation on the third, variously called Sister Lovers/Third, a harrowing maelstrom of self pity, perplexing torpor, bitterness, musically countermanded by banshee pyrotechnics and sloppy DIY awkwardness, often weirdly on the same song. In a few years, the clamoring heavenly harmonies of the first become shadowy, echoic laments, songs that canonize solitude and disrepair on the third, with a title replete with vague suggestions of both incestual darkness, and sloppy late sexual thirds. Freud’s tripartite topography of the mind begins as does the first album: an Id that seeks instant gratification, primitive forces ruled by the pleasure principle, with no parental intervention, no sibling rivalry, no sense of loss. This promise of youth needs no guidance: girls are always around; cars are always faster than your friends’ cars; gins and tonics are eternally served in India. And if the urge is not immediately discharged, you can move to the next 3-minute vignette of your life, with a god silently sitting in the engineer’s chair, cleaning out his toe jam. In this world, desires do get sated, often. The id is voracious, without self-reference or self-cognition. Who cares about libraries? Driving home in a convertible with your tape deck on, you know a lactating tit is always lurking under mommy’s sheets.

The opening sounds on the first album are tentative, murky, as if the deadhead clichés of the early 1970’s have to be swept away; on ‘Feel,’ the band employs blunt attackings, Badfinger-like tirades against loping, intimate songwriting. Some Memphis Horns help sustain the suspense, getting the groove on; the ringing guitar at the end is a prettified rave-up; and the singing is celebratory and worrying, minatory and tense. The guitars here, and elsewhere, are in the foreground, a note beyond the thundering pulse of the great bass/drum duo of Hummel and Stephens; their syllables are smashed, disrupting the mood of the beautiful harmonizing of the singing. In fact, even if the conventional structure of the songs is based on audience expectations of Top 40 Radio, the stability of the rhythm is often askew, the singing more often than not careens from identifiable dance rhythms, as in an ostinato, to the wild guitar major-minor pitch variations. But this is music you can dance to, and unlike the mutinous, aphoristic melodies of the third album, this music, even in the gorgeous ballads, are mobile and dynamic building blocks of the future of American rock and roll. Although bent by the British Invasion, and although fertile because of the two songwriters’ disparate preoccupations, the music on the first is not bound to history, nor buried in the present. It is music of the now – rock, steady, go. Chilton’s singing is tender, fragile, and heartbreakingly economic and swinging. There is a loose-jointed, comfortable sway here: if the songs lack occasional elegance and polish, they make up for it with verve, both soothing and harrowing.


The guitar of Chilton snakes through this bright world, grimacing like a potential arsonist around the corner. It rings high, it muddies from beneath. The melodic flow is interrupted by his outlandish string work: the solos are often sectionalized, segmented. He wants to get to the point, and he is happily trapped in the sub-three minute mile of pop song length; and sometimes the flash and dash becomes startlingly bold, eviscerating the form itself. He always swings madly, like a lovesick Quasimoto. The ambience becomes jagged, immodest mumblings of ordinary stories, told by twitchy novitiates. The heat is on high, but the effect is calmly affirmative – what were rational song structures become tiny vistas for boys in blue jeans, drinking, stealing cars, living lives of “lonely days of uncertainty.” To God, Bell pleads in his song, ‘Try Again,’ “Lord, I’ve been trying to be what I should/Lord, I’ve been trying to do what I could,” but Memphis is dying, and God moved north right after Sherman’s March. Chilton’s singing and guitar disown revival-style public utterances: each high note captured in voice, each quirky pop detour from a Harrison-like solo, are journeys that disembark soon enough in the middle of the night, seeking the present, and there, id-like, Chilton thumps his chest. These are dramatic monologues that are of bottom-feeding natures trying to get laid, and Chilton’s guitar, curvy and oblong, tries to get to the next mattress. We cannot ascend to Chilton’s vision: by accepting the singular loveliness of the songs, we are rejecting the possibility of our joined trip. The music is plain about this: this is our gig, and watch us work.


If the guitar lines are chiseled and angular, like Monk, and if the singing is full-throated and carefree, and if the five or so rockers that pierce our spines changed the way intensity could alter convention in bands like Cheap Trick and the Pixies, the ballads on the first album provide meditational counterpoints to the accelerated pulsations of the fury and fire. We are quieter now, gazing upon the dreamy world of heartache, unrequited love, and long distance runarounds. The messier overlapping of the twin guitars is gone; the vocals are mixed down to merge with the standard folk/rock arrangements of the Mersey or L.A. Love/Byrds scene. But the visceral impact remains. The delicate arrogance of the scorchers (‘Feel,’ ‘Don’t Lie to Me,’ ‘When My Baby’s Besides Me,’ ‘My Life is Right’) is asymmetrically argued against the ballads and the mid-tempo blends of the two camps; the casual noise is replaced with soaring sadness, alienated landscapes, and bittersweet, narrowing melodies. In the faster songs, Bell and Chilton generate expectations based on pop music’s historical-culture climate: they confirm the Kinks and the Beatles; they modify the Kinks and the Beatles; they delay, then deny the Kinks and the Beatles. But in this slavish environ of the power pop, expression and emotions are fettered. The releasing unleashing comes from the ballads – the tenderness of Bell, his cracking beauty of his nervy voice; the gruffness of the world-weary, lower-registered Chilton, already once a rock “star” – where the band moves beyond the past without repudiating it in the name of the rejection of silence and monologues. They are radicals, and they are the oppressed; they reach back to yesterday, recognize today, and sneak upon tomorrow. These boys, on this album, reach for their mothers’ and girlfriends’ hands, and say no to their sweaty, broken-backed fathers.


What is mostly true of rock’s lingua franca is an ahistoricism, or inability to emerge from present time, but the challenge of history is confronted, engaged, and resolved, here by Bell and Chilton, mostly, I think, by our hero, as a chance to forge a new epoch. He argues with the past, then walks away wiser. The slower songs – the lush ballads, ‘The Ballad of El Goodo’ and ‘Thirteen’ – and the triptych of driving folk-rock mindblowers near the end (‘Give Me Another Chance,’ ‘Try Again’ and ‘Watch the Sunrise’) are characterized by a youthful series of aspirations, values, and concerns in search of fulfillment. The songs, without pity, without melancholic cliché, seek the generative power of depth and connections, with a respect for musical communities. The subjects of the songs are no longer objects: “Sun, it shines on all of us/We are one in its hands/Come Inside and light my room.” “I’ve been looking for to find/Something to believe in my mind/And it was you.” Change, the collapse of darkness, and solitude are no longer piercing: harmonies abound, light and sunrise and faith are present. These mid-tempo ballads can be traced from a variety of sources – although as mentioned, they seem new, polished, almost born perfectly perfected – such as Lennon’s ‘You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away’ married to Gene Clark’s ‘Set You Free This Time’ on the Byrds’ Turn! Turn! Turn! In turn they then give bastard birth to the Love’s ‘Andmoreagain’. Bell’s and Chilton’s work here is true collaboration, involving engagement on the same tasks, correcting to one another, swapping ideas, exerting combined force. Their collaboration, therefore, involves both unity and critiquing conflict. And if the second half of that ratio caused Bell to leave for presumed poppier fields and more control, here on #1 Record it gave us joy, fluidity, with the moving of planets, and life and birth.


The greatest song, because it is Chilton’s greatest singing, because of the interplay of acoustic and electric, and because of the affirmation of love and life – pass the Kleenex, dear cousin Matilda – is the eighth of twelve tracks, ‘Give Me Another Chance.’ It is probably the least imaginative song in terms of studio technology or virtuoso musicianship, but those are plusses, as is Bell’s obvious delight in the role of second banana: his background singing, his steady strumming on the acoustic, are what gives the song its fragile beauty, and secondly, its steady heartbeat. There have been thoughts and sounds like these countless times before, but not becoming full-blown meaning like here: what were teenage kicks and action for action’s sake are now contemplation and repose, a Narcissus staring at the pool, a Sufi walking around with a damaged flower. The Id has become a creator, the Ego, a constantly composing and re-composing and de-composing agent in the world, generating truth though rhythm, compositional rigor, and style. The song moves us.


The album, recorded at Ardent with Chris Bell handling primarily the producing, was released on Ardent in 1972 who in turn hired the immortal, but dying, Stax label to distribute; they didn’t, and Bell left around Christmas, soon for Europe, misery, the I Am the Cosmos recordings, and tragedy. Bell and Chilton came in as a quartet, knocked a few songs together, and Bell left, leaving traces of his songwriting on at least three songs. The others stayed together, sort of, played a few dates, sort of, and then re-convened during the following fall to record in short order one of rock and roll’s masterpieces, Radio City, an amalgamation of bristly and brittly defiance, monster, mature guitar riffs canceling each other out with even greater imagination and intensity, and some of rock’s finest vocals. Without Bell’s placating tendencies or a bat in hell’s chance of rock stardom, Chilton changed rock and roll.


If 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
from everything.

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

Everybody goes
Leaving those who fall behind
Everybody goes
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

Everybody goes
Leaving those who fall behind
Everybody goes
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
Wind down

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.


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. 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.


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 friends. 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.




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.


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.


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 adds 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. 


Michael Baker



  1. michael baker said,


    i’m not in the habit of googling myself–my shrink has repeatedly warned me about this–but i was looking for something i once wrote about Lux–RIP–and i saw this.


    i’m not the biggest blog reader–alas, another warning from up high–but have visited here oft. our paths, if not swords, have passed, i’m sure,



    • jmucci said,

      Heyy…thanks for the comment and for approving of my posting your article.
      Great article by the way…

      Take care…

  2. matt said,

    This blog’s great!! Thanks :).

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