Continued from Part Four…
In the final part of my wide-ranging conversation with Big Star, we explore what the late Alex Chilton was like as a person, and learn about the future of the Big Star saga. – bk
BILL KOPP: Alex’s public persona was always complicated. I think he was seen as alternately charming and prickly, and sometimes both. And I got the impression, when I would think about it, that in real life, he probably wasn’t radically different from that. From your perspective, what was he really like?
JON AUER: I think that some of the myth was mean in terms of how he presented himself. But my take on Alex personally, I think some of it was just an act, and it was a good barrier to keep up. He was a person who joined the Box Tops at a young age and was put through the machine. And [with Big Star] he was playing with music that at the time, nobody wanted to even give the time of day to. It was actually considered a failure, not a success, and not deserving of perhaps of the praise that was being heaped upon it now. Like, “Where were you all back in the day?” I think he went through a dark period where he just didn’t want to know. I wasn’t there when he was a dishwasher, so I can’t say. If the books are true and the stories I’ve heard are accurate, he went and dropped out for a while and did those kind of things.
But when I got to know him, at first, he was very at arm’s length, but not in a mean or unkind way. By the end of our run together, he was married the last couple of years, and he seemed like he was starting to lighten up overall and really enjoy it and smile during shows. I’ve got to imagine if I were him, it would have been fun to mess with people.
And there were moments where he just wanted just to hang out and talk about anything else but Big Star. I had some friends who would talk to him about gardening, or the Reconstruction after the Civil War. And he would go on and on, and someone would walk in and say, “Hey, Mr. Chilton, I think you’re the greatest!” And he just kind of shut him down. He wasn’t a jerk about it. He’s just like, “I just don’t want to do it.”
Also consider this: He never really cashed in on Big Star. If you want to average it out over 17 years, we never went on the victory lap: “Let’s all buy a house in the Bahamas.” Some of the best times I had with him were just hanging out. There’s a picture on my Instagram of us in Japan. He’s playing my SG; it’s a shot in a mirror, and I think Jody’s wife took it. The look on my face, I’m just so happy to be there. I think he was showing me how to play “Rock With You” by Michael Jackson, the Rod Temperton song. And those are some of the moments he was just most himself, because there was no one looking. As soon as he thought there was someone looking, maybe he thought they were going to see something he didn’t want them to see.
I think a lot of people are like that, though, to some degree. I like to think that some of that was just an act; he was a funny motherfucker. But I’ve got to say it was really intense when we found out that he passed away, because were two days away from going to South by Southwest to play. We just had been having such fun; the vibes were good. And I got that call from Jody. You can imagine what Jody was going through; everybody was coming at him, of course. And my ex musical partner Ken was in the air, at that point, flying. So it fell on me to turn that into a tribute. But anyways, a shame, for sure.
Tell me about this five-piece project, because I don’t know too much about what’s in the future. You said it will involve Chris Stamey, Mike Mills, you, Jody and Pat Sansone.
The five piece is something that evolved. It’s a detour away from what had been happening with Big Star post Alex’s [death]. It was Big Star’s Third that was the brainchild, really, of the impetus of Chris Stamey, because he was like, “Somebody’s got to represent Big Star’s Third. It was a lot to do.
And I think it was Jody who suggested recently, “What if we just strip this? Let’s get back to it being more of a rock affair, a band.” It’s funny because in a couple of the interviews we’ve done recently, Jody has said that it circles back perfectly. It bookends to what we’re talking about playing house concerts. It’s more personal, he says, because there’s less people. Not that the other things haven’t been great and wonderful, but it’s just like, “We’re kind of like a band now, right?” And it’s a revolving musical chairs. I’ll sit at the Mellotron for a couple songs, I’ll play acoustic. Mike Mills sings lead on some things and puts the bass down and has been known to beat on the cowbell during “In the Street.” And Jody gets out front and does “Blue Moon” and “Thirteen.” It’ll melt your hearts. He’s become such a great singer.
In 2022 we played Memphis, appropriately enough. We played Athens, Memphis, New York, Philadelphia, Washington D.C. Anywhere from 600 people to 1500 people, and we sold out most of those things. It was amazing. It was such a good time. And you talk about tears… when we did “Thirteen,” “The Ballad of El Goodo,” I looked out and it was like, “Where are the Big Star tissues?”
It’s been a busy year for everybody. Wilco has been on tour this year. Mike has been on tour with the Baseball Project, and Jody’s been doing Those Pretty Wrongs records; they’re amazing. But 2024 is also the 50th anniversary of Radio City. So I’ve got a funny feeling…