R.I.P. Alex Chilton

Categories: Music

Maybe Alex Chilton, dead at 59 of a heart attack, would recoil at the fond remembrances of him now sneezing out through the digital ether: Salutes from the floor of the House of Representatives, odes from pretty much everyone on the self-serious list of revered alternative or indie acts over the last 30 years, and what feels online like an explosion of the I-knew-him-too cult of Chilton into the we-all-believe gospel of Chilton.


Big Star at the Fillmore '07

Or maybe not. Chilton had earned misgivings about the recording industry and sometimes a disinclination to please his fans, but the power of his music is greater than even the current digital veil of sorrow would suggest. A Memphis native, Chilton broke into fame at age 16 with "The Letter," the first hit single by his band the Box Tops, a group that recorded a few more memorable singles before parting ways. But Chilton's most important contribution was made with the power-pop band Big Star, who recorded three stunning albums that were slight, edgy and infectiously melodic in ways little rock music was before and much has been since. Big Star had the chiming, buzzsaw guitars, the perfectly arching pop melodies that sharpened youthful yearning to a razor's edge, the agile rhythms and the relentless instrumental ability that fueled the energy of early punk and the attitude of '80s college rock.

For many, discovering Chilton's music was a life-altering experience. With little commercial success and notorious distribution problems, Big Star's records went out of print. They were found by a generation of adorers on imported records, through tapes passed on by friends, and through songs like The Replacements' "Alex Chilton." Like uncovering the missing link between '60s pop and '80s punk, finding Big Star was for many a transcendental moment of coming home, of discovering their origins.

Not me. I was handed Big Star's Radio City on a digital platter in my late teens and didn't even come around to it right away. After growing used to the 30 years' worth music that Big Star fostered, I grew to love the band's blistering guitars and soaring melodies, its power and its pop -- but it took me a bit to grasp how important their music really was. Today we take it for granted that music can have both a bleeding edge and a tragic heart, but Big Star blazed that path in the early '70s with albums like #1 Record and Radio City.


Replacements, [Westerberg] "Alex Chilton"

Still, when I listen to Big Star, I rarely ponder how "important" its music was, or how many other seminal bands (and even movements) it influenced -- I'm just too busy enjoying it. Chilton's greatest legacy is that songs like "September Gurls" and "Thirteen" and many, many others still stand up to the years, still extract and blast out some essential human feeling like only great art can. Chilton may have had his issues with being adored, although later in life he seemed to embrace his cult. But as any heavy listener knows, his songs leave us no other choice.

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