To countless critics, musicians, and fans of rock and roll, Alex Chilton is an icon. As far as Rolling Stone’s Parke Puterbaugh is concerned, “It’s safe to say there would have been no modern pop movement without Big Star,” Chilton’s greatest claim-to-fame band. And yet, Chilton’s career has been troubled. After the brief success of his first band, the Box Tops, who were responsible for such hits as “The Letter” and “September Gurls,” and the profound and impassioned response to Big Star, Chilton spent the late 1980s and early 1990s without major-label representation and burdened by excessive touring. And although bands are quick to acknowledge their debt to him—the Replacements named a song “Alex Chilton,” the Bangles covered “September Gurls”—he does not think much of their respect, or, for that matter, gain much from their reverence beyond a little publicity.
Critics have gone to great pains both to point out the injustices of Chilton’s career and to assure he gets at least some of the credit due him. Rolling Stone contributor Michael Azzerad added alternative rockers-gone-superstars R.E.M. to the list of those influenced by Chilton and bemoans the fact that “while these young whipper-snappers have taken his antislick philosophy all the way to the bank, guru Chilton hasn’t, despite a fanatically loyal cult following.” For his part, Spin’s Erik Davis posited, “If history were fair, all the college kids who scarfed up Teenage Fanclub, Velvet Crush, and Primal Scream CDs would be forced to go back in time and spend their cash on Big Star records.” Critics often see the issue as one of doomed vision— Big Star was ahead of its time and thus earned much of its respect only in retrospect; the band’s audience needed time to catch up.
Alex Chilton began his career in a town not altogether suited to his talents: Memphis, Tennessee, where rhythm & blues is king and pop bands rare. Though Robert Gordon of Pulse! identified Chilton as a Memphis institution along the lines of Elvis Presley—though admittedly for a younger generation of listeners—Chilton seems to hold no great affection for the town that reared him. “Once you get over [to Europe],” Chilton said to Gordon in 1992, “you begin to realize the cultural importance of what’s happened here, and what could still be happening here. But we’re held back.”
Chilton’s attitude most likely stems from his record-industry experiences over two decades earlier. Despite the enormous success of “The Letter,” the Box Tops were never allowed to explore their own music. Chilton told Gordon that he hears Box Tops producer Dan Penn
For the Record…
“Born December 28, 1950, in Memphis, TN.
Singer, songwriter, 1966—. “Discovered” at high-school talent contest, Memphis, TN, c. 1966, and became lead singer for the Box Tops; recorded hit singles “The Letter,” 1967, and “Cry Like a Baby,” 1968; formed Big Star with friend Chris Bell, 1970; has played with the Cossacks, Panther Burns, and the Scores; worked variously as a dishwasher, record producer, and taxi driver, New Orleans, LA, early 1980s; recorded with Teenage Fanclub for Scottish radio broadcast, 1992.
when he listens to the band, not himself. Chilton related that almost immediately after the group’s inception, their producers “kicked our little band out of the studio and brought in all the session players.” Spin’s Davis reinforced that view by referring to Chilton as the Box Tops’ “stand-up golden boy”—as unlikely an image as Chilton’s Big Star fans could imagine—and Chilton completes the indictment by revealing that his voice was coached beyond recognition. Perhaps as a result of its narrow conception, the Box Tops lasted only until 1970, when, on the band’s disintegration, Chilton joined his high-school friend Chris Bell to form Big Star.
Though critical praise for the Box Tops and for Chilton as a solo artist was often temperate, that for the singersongwriter’s role in Big Star is usually reverent. Rolling Stone’s Puterbaugh called Big Star’s album Third/Sister Lovers, for instance, “Chilton’s untidy masterpiece,” attesting, “It is beautiful and disturbing, pristine and unkempt—and vehemently original. Without question, Third is one of the most idiosyncratic, deeply felt and fully realized albums in the pop idiom.” In Creem, Harold Demuir posited that Big Star’s “three now-classic albums . . . merged jangly anglo-pop and adult angst to create a virtual new genre.” Chilton, he reported, as the force behind Big Star, successfully and consistently produced “eloquent harrowing music.” Pulsel’s Gordon, too, lauded Third, denoting it as “a landmark rock’n’roll album: brutal honesty in the abyss” and stating, “Chilton bares his soul without flinching, creating a piece of art that has survived, no, flourished for years.”
Chilton’s later work has garnered less acclaim, and Chilton himself seems to support the critics’ evaluations. Gordon, for one, described Chilton’s “come back” albums of the mid-1980s as “detached and passionless. ... These are the works of a craftsman making a living, not a driven artist.” Chilton explained the shift as a consequence of politics: “I haven’t really had the time or money to go into a studio and record the way I wanted to,” he lamented in Pulse!
But Rolling Stone’s Azzerad found virtue in Chilton’s 1987 effort, High Priest, asserting that although Chilton’s “infrequent solo records [of the 1980s] have been erratic at best, this record is a strong, consistent effort.” Azzerad cited Chilton’s mixed-blessing singularity: “Chilton can write great songs, but ’ruins’ them with skranky guitars, sloppy takes or off-key singing. So the record still has the same seductive whiff of self-destruction that tinged his previous work.” New York Times contributor Peter Watrous also commented on Chilton’s raw appeal, calling the artist “a soul and blues guitar connoisseur” who, when he sings the blues, does so “without any of the black affectations a listener expects from a white performer.”
It is not surprising that, considering his career difficulties and the cranky persona he has often presented to the press, Chilton is notorious for refusing to accommodate the music industry. Big Star’s trend-bucking first record, #1 Record, offered “a heavy dose of Anglophile pop in a period of self-indulgent progressive rock,” attested Pulsel’s Gordon. The record was “inclined to crisp and clean guitar sounds when distortion was in.” Or, as Puterbaugh phrased it, “Big Star dared to be poppishly offbeat when both pop music and nonconformity were being beaten back by the industry-driven push toward corporate rock and laid-back singer-songwriters.”
True to his apparent mission, Chilton remained the ultimate nonconformist, carrying that attitude over into his live performances. Village Voice writer Howard Wuelfing reviewed a concert at which Chilton’s “sets ramble-tambled between gutsy country blues delivered with precipitous virtuosity . . . and impure pop chestnuts sung in a sweet, scorched tenor.” Wuelfing also described Chilton’s “spastic grace,” typifying the often ambiguous critical response elicited by the fiercely independent performer and his different-drummer musical forays.
“I made [Big Star] to be as big a success as possible, but I did it my own way. ... I’m not gonna start letting what’s current in the taste of the music business dictate what I do,” he told Gordon. With a marked tendency to opt for obscurity or infamy rather than conformity, he admitted, “I’d be happier doing anything in this world— delivering papers, I don’t care—than if in 1971 I’d tried to sound like [then-popular bands] Ten Years After or Led Zeppelin.”
Chilton’s most successful work, it seems, has been a reflection of emotional turmoil. Spin contributor Davis remarked on Chilton’s “bile” and “ballads that will punch a black hole in your soul.” Of the solo albums Like Flies on Sherbert and Bach’s Bottom, Creem’s Harold Demuir wrote, “[They] painfully and sometimes compellingly preserved the sound of a man falling to pieces.” Chilton has admitted to a one-time problem with alcohol and a reputation for being difficult.
But as often as he has revealed his rancorous side, Chilton has also exposed sorrow. Perhaps one of the most knowledgeable and thoughtful commentators on Chilton’s contributions to music, John Fry, engineer of Big Star’s albums and founder and president of Ardent Studios, told Pulsel’s Gordon that he found the production of Third disturbing. “[The] overall unpleasantness of it to me is the subject matter and the content of most of the songs—and what you could see Alex was going through in connection with that,” he remembered. “If an audience is going to get a record like that, it’s bought at the expense of somebody’s pain somewhere.”
Presumably, Chilton would dismiss Fry’s analysis, maintaining that his stance over the years has been more an expression of cynicism than vulnerability. And though there is little denying that an ache is in part what arrests Chilton’s listeners, such a connection is not necessarily part of the songwriter’s agenda. Keeping a marked distance from the myth that has been created around him, Chilton seems at home in his contrary posture. In Pulse!, he recalled a friend who would say, “‘You’re right, Alex, the world is wrong.’ And hell, he was joking when he said that, but I believe it.” Clarified Chilton, “The world is wrong. I am right.”
And just when it seemed that most of the world—wrong or not—had completely forgotten him, Chilton resurfaced with an incarnation of Big Star, featuring original drummer Jody Stephens and the Posies’ Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer as replacements for retired bassist Andy Hummel and late guitarist Chris Bell, respectively. (Bell died in an auto accident in 1978.) All it took to resurrect one of alternative rock’s most revered entities was a phone call; when the Poster Children failed to appear at the University of Missouri’s 1993 Springfest, music directors at the college radio station rung Stephens, then project director at Ardent Studios. Stephens admitted in Rolling Stone, “I said, ’Sure, if you can contact Alex,’ not thinking they’d reach him, much less get him to agree.” Big Star ’93 performed a two-hour set for roughly 300 “beaming” celebrants, perhaps all of whom had discovered the band on vinyl long after their split nearly two decades earlier. There was talk in the music industry of similar shows to follow, and Zoo Entertainment planned a live release for the fall of that year, tentatively titled Columbia, Big Star Live, April 25, 1993. True to form, Chilton had confounded expectations once again.
With the Box Tops
The Box Tops: “The Letter”/“Neon Rainbow,” Bell, 1968.
Cry Like a Baby, Stateside, 1968.
Super Hits, Bell, 1968.
Greatest Hits, Rhino, 1982.
With Big Star
#1 Record, Ardent/Stax, 1972.
Radio City, Ardent/Stax, 1974.
Third/Sister Lovers, reissued, Aura, 1978.
01 Record/Radio City, Stax/Fantasy, 1992.
Big Star Live (recorded in 1974), reissued, Rykodisc, 1992.
Like Flies on Sh erbert (German import), 1980.
Bach’s Bottom (British import), 1980.
High Priest, 1987.
19 Years: An Alex Chilton Collection, Rhino, 1991.
(Contributor) Love Is My Only Crime, Veracity (German), 1993.
Live in London, Rev-Ola, 1993.
Also released solo album One Day in New York.
Billboard, June 19, 1993.
Creem, February 1988.
Details, My 1992.
Guitar Player, October 1992.
Detroit Free Press, September 2, 1993.
New York Times, February 24, 1977; May 30, 1988.
Pulse!, June 1992; September 1992.
Rolling Stone, December 3, 1987; August 25, 1988; March 19, 1992; December 10, 1992; June 10, 1993.
Spin, May 1992.
Village Voice, December 18, 1984.
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