I remember the first time I saw Alex Chilton. I was in college in Atlanta, and I had met this sort-of-weird couple (they were probably “on the drugs”) through, I don’t recall exactly, some sort of common musical interests. I think I probably had a class in common with the guy.
Anyway, once they discovered I was Really Into Good Music – I don’t recall what artists I mentioned to seal the deal for them – they set about on their evangelizing task: to convert me to an appreciation of Alex Chilton.
I hadn’t ever heard anything by Big Star at that point — this was 1985 – but certainly I knew the Box Tops hit “The Letter.” My band of the time might have even played it; I don’t recall. I’ve certainly played it many times since then. I had read bits here and there about Big Star, and knew that some tastemakers appreciated them. But they were obscure: two albums, no hits, out of print.
In any event, this couple was mostly interested in showing me Alex’s particular brand of genius via an album called Like Flies on Sherbert (sic). Now, gentle reader, if you’re familiar with this particular slab of vinyl, you might understand that their approach was full of what we might call dubious wisdom. Like Flies on Sherbert is one of the most shambolic, dissolute, messy affairs ever committed to tape.
I have to admit I wasn’t impressed. I did hear a spark of some sort, but it was too sloppy for me. (I didn’t like the Replacements in those days, either. With age sometimes comes wisdom.) But luckily they didn’t give up. They next spun Chilton’s then-current release, an EP called Feudalist Tarts. Now this I liked. With a loose-limbed funk New Orleans feel, the six-song disc was full of delights. Not a powerful disc, the EP was really a subdued affair. And as I learned from the spare liner notes, it was recorded in a single day in a studio called Ardent in Memphis, Tennessee.
So I was mildly hooked, and these two characters knew it. Looking back it’s clear they had no motives beyond that of trying to turn on somebody to this particular artist. “He can’t like all those other acts and not know about Alex. He’s gotta hear this.”
So of course next was Big Star. The guy had vinyl copies of #1 Record and Radio City. (This was at the dawn of the CD era, and neither they, nor I, nor anyone I knew had a CD player). These albums were very rare, so they told me, so I couldn’t borrow them for long; just long enough to make cassette copies.
I did. And the experience of listening to those songs opened up a new world for me. Of course now it’s common to say that Big Star belongs up there on the list with Badfinger, the Raspberries and a select few others. I made a trip to a reliable used record store and was lucky to find new, still-shrinkwrapped copies of the first two Big Star LPs. They set me back $20 apiece – a lot of money for a record in 1985. But it was well worth the investment.
Not long after all this, Alex came to town for a concert. He and his sidemen — Rene Coman on bass, Doug Garrison (I think it was him) on drums; that was it. The trio set up onstage at the then-and-now-legendary 688 club, where I had seen Iggy Pop a few years earlier (with Glen Matlock on bass) and entertained the fairly-full-but-not-packed room.
The guy I knew warned me that Chilton was an erratic live performer, that he could be prickly and distant onstage, that you really didn’t know what you were going to get from him, ever. But he and the band were great. When Chilton played a couple of Big Star songs, about a third of the room turned something between reverent and ecstatic. The other two thirds didn’t know the material, I guess. The guy had warned me that Chilton didn’t always play Big Star stuff, that he was trying to live all those critical plaudits plaudits down.
A guy was standing next to me at one point. He was a slightly odd looking fellow: modified Prince Valiant haircut, big round thick-framed glasses, FFA jacket covered with award patches. I thought for a minute, then turned to him an asked, “are you Mike Mills?” He was. REM were serious acolytes of Big Star, I later learned.
I never got the opportunity to see Alex onstage again. I never saw the re-formed Big Star (Alex and Jody Stephens plus Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow — both of the fantastic Posies – taking over for Andy Hummel and Chris Bell). I eventually picked up the albums on CD, and a bunch of Chilton solo albums (including the shambling but brilliant Bach’s Bottom, but, still not yet a copy of Like Flies on Sherbert) and have amassed a small collection of Chilton and Big Star bootleg audio and video. And I bought the fantastic box set last year.
But none of it is the same, now. Neither better nor worse, it’s just different. It will be heard through different ears with Alex’s passing. A few hours ago, as news reports tell it, he died of a heart attack. He was 59. My condolences to those close to him. The rest of us, we still have the music. I’m expecting that future listens to Third/Sister Lovers will now be even more pathos-laden.
Goodbye, Alex. Thanks for sharing.
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