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Jason Panella

Alex Chilton dies at 59

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"Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton." - (The Replacements)

The legendary songwriter/guitarist from Big Star and the Box Tops died from an apparent heart attack on Wednesday.

In a way, Chilton might have been my favorite songwriter, ever. Celebrity deaths usually don't impact me as much as, say, a loss in my family would. But considering the emotional impact that Chilton's music (especially with Big Star), this might be the exception. I can't sleep because of this.

More here.

Edited by Jason Panella

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Like 99.999999% of the world, I paid no attention to Big Star when they were actually a recording and touring band. I recall seeing #1 Record in a music store when it was released. It was Big Star's debut album, and my first exposure to the band, and I remember being vaguely amused by the audacity of a bunch of unknown musicians who would dare to call themselves Big Star and name an album #1 Record. But that was the extent of my interest. I certainly wasn't going to buy it. Who the hell had ever heard of Big Star?

And that was the way it went. Nobody bought the three albums the band released. The band broke up. Chris Bell, who may have been Alex Chilton's equal as a songwriter (and that's really saying something) died young and tragically in an auto accident. Nobody knew who Alex Chilton was except perhaps a few rabid music fans who remembered his soulful vocals as a teenager in The Boxtops.

I'm fairly sure it was Michael Stipe who brought the band to my attention. Somewhere in the early '80s, in the flush of those first few, great R.E.M. albums, I recall reading Stipe's admiring comments about Alex Chilton and Big Star. Since, at the time, I thought R.E.M. could no wrong, I tracked down vinyl copies of the three Big Star albums. They were, and are, enigmatic and marvelous. There were great songs there, for sure. But it was weird to hear these Memphis kids with their blatant Anglophilia. It was as if The Beatles had landed in the cotton fields. The first album was a pristine but derivative homage to Beatlemania. The second album was sloppy and loud, and utterly compelling and melodically brilliant. And the third album was just a dissolute, despairing mess. It was hard to believe that all three albums came from the same band.

But that was Alex Chilton. He was a superb pop craftsman who didn't give a flying f&$# most of the time. He conveyed an air of cynical nonchalance: in the studio, on stage, in real life. And he wrote songs of such incredible depth and self-loathing that they could break your heart. He frittered away most of the good years, and I love him dearly. And now he, too, is gone too soon. Rolling Stone Magazine put all three of the Big Star albums -- and there were only three, as far as I was concerned, although later and inferior incarnations of the band put out a few others -- in their list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. They were right. As Paul Westerburg of The Replacements sang, "Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton." As usual, he exaggerated. Even in their belated renaissance, Big Star were never more than a cult favorite. But he still got it right in spirit. The tens of thousands who finally paid attention, far too late, know that Alex Chilton was one of the greats. I'll miss him, and this is a sad day.

Edited by Andy Whitman

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I don't have the deep emotional connection to Big Star that you have, Jason, but I do understand your feeling. I'm not typically affected by celebrity deaths (not beyond the usual "whoa, that's weird" reaction), but for some reason, this one has stuck to me a bit more. I don't know--I'm tempted to draw some sort of moral meaning from his life and death, but I'll avoid the temptation and just say that the world will miss him.

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Sad day, indeed. Those first two Big Star albums were a huge influence on me when I was younger. And so continues the legacy of the band that could never seem to catch a break.

"Thirteen" belongs near the top of the pile on our Greatest Songs of All Time thread.

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I don't have the deep emotional connection to Big Star that you have, Jason, but I do understand your feeling. I'm not typically affected by celebrity deaths (not beyond the usual "whoa, that's weird" reaction), but for some reason, this one has stuck to me a bit more. I don't know--I'm tempted to draw some sort of moral meaning from his life and death, but I'll avoid the temptation and just say that the world will miss him.

Good words, Marty.

I initially fell in love with Big Star when I was in high school, which is kind of funny considering I'd never heard their music before. But I was a full-on '90s power/jangle pop fan by then, spinning Matthew Sweet, R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub, the Posies, etc. The first time I heard a Big Star song was at a visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with my parents; there was a section with headphones and you could listen to one-minute snippets of 'important' songs, including "September Gurls." My folks wanted to keep moving. I just stood hunched over the listen terminal for 15 minutes or so, listening to the sample over and over. That was probably the only worthwhile thing in the museum, at least as far as I'm concerned.

But when I finally started picking up the bands albums, it was like the clouds rolled back and revealed something. I couldn't always relate to Chilton's lyrics, but I could at least empathize. Even the songs I didn't like so much on those albums (and there are at least a few on each) are still brilliant in their own way. Even the revival Big Star album In Space has a few gems that only sparkle because of that magic Alex had.

Hopefully without sounding hard-hearted, the wake of devastation left by hurricane Katrina was roped in close when Chilton was missing from his New Orleans home. I remember checking the news online every few minutes or so, even pouring through message boards to see if anyone had spotted him. He didn't flee the town, but ended up just smoking and hanging out in a flooded bar, which (if I recall correctly) is where they found him hanging out a week or two later. I kind of admired that mixture of independence and, well, irresponsibility that characterized much in his life. He did his thing, even if he never ended up as a big star. But I'll never forget his music, and how it shaped my life.

So do ya, do ya wanna dance? I think I will Alex, and will keep on dancing.

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God Bless Steve Cohen.

A guy I knew in college, told me of Alex Chilton and this whole flock of weirdo's in Memphis. Tav Falco, The Cramps, it was weird and wonderfull, raw and scary because I couldn't tell if they were damaged or just refusing to polish what they were doing. I came to Big Star after that.

It is still hard to reconcile the Alex Chilton of Like Flies on Sherbert and Tav Falco's behind the Magnolia Curtain or even The Cramps, Songs the Lord Taught us with the Alex Chilton of Big Star.

I'm still working on my(50 of 40) list of favorite songs, Kanga Roo is on it. He loved the Beatles and the Velvets, Slim Harpo and Hasil Adkins. He taught me to love the same.To be open to all of it and not to be afraid to play like a 14 year old.

Thank you Alex. I will miss you.

Edited by draper

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Guest thom_jurek

I actually saw BS play as an opening act for Mott The Hoople of all people in 1973 at Masonic Auditorium in Detroit. I bought the albums the next day simply because they played like they meant it--Detroit loved them and WABX played "ON The Street" regularly (there was no "rotation" or programming then) and besides, I liked the record covers. I bought "Third" as a Gemm import (remember that outfit Andy?). Can't say I thought they were geniuses, but I was shocked they were from Memphis given the other Southern rock I was listening to. And while I understand it's hard to reconcile the guy in BS from the guy who played with P{anther Burns and recorded Bach's Bottom and Like Flies On Sherbet, I happen to LOVE two of those three records--Bach's Bottom is too weird for even me. When I got the awful news, I reached for those two records before the Big Star titles because that was the Chilton who presented himself live and on record for most of his earthly existence. The Big Star records are classics, no doubt, but there are few garage records that have as much pure grit as LFOS and Behind The Magnolia Curtain. I saw Panther Burns with "LX Chilton" on guitar in Paris and was blown away at all thew songs they knew from the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, in country, blues, pop, lounge, rock and roll, jazz ballads and standards, all done with a grimy bar band sense of indulgence and a devil-may-care attitude, and that guitar player; he looked happy and was just tearing it up as a member of a band he didn't have to sing in. I knew who it was, but he was a wholly different creature from the guy I had seen perform just five years before.

Edited by thom_jurek

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Right on, Thom. I had a hard time with Chilton's solo stuff until a few months ago, and I think it clicked. Like Flies is an absolute mess in the best sense of the word.

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Guest thom_jurek

NOt much of a video, but a great listen to a track from the raw and wild Behind the Magnolia Curtain with "LX Chilton" on guitar here.

Again, no real video, but here's the most accessible track from his first solo album called Bach's Bottom called "take Me Home And Make Me Like It," http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PyspgKhUbCM.

Finally, Alex playing "In the Street" from his now rare Live In London record recorded after Like Flies On Sherbet and Panther Burns http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yohhv9XMC5k.

Edited by thom_jurek

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Pitchfork's got a pretty great report on the Big Star tribute from SXSW. I can't believe they were able to pull all of these people together within a few days of Alex's death. It reminds me of the story about Merle Haggard driving all night from Chicago to Texas so he could be present for the death of Bob Wills.

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Mark Steyn chimes in, focusing on Chilton's #1 single with the Box Tops ("I was stunned when I found out Alex Chilton was only 16. It's such a mature voice, and with a real growl, like he's living the situation.").

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Like 99.999999% of the world, I paid no attention to Big Star when they were actually a recording and touring band. 

Me neither, and despite some threads here devoted to Big Star and the efforts of Michael Stipe et al. to bring Chilton wider attention, I still knew nothing about him or the band when, late last year, I gave my screener of Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me a spin. I didn't last long. 

 

I think I'll try again tonight, having read a review of the new book A Man Called Destruction in today's Washington Post. The review concludes: 

 

Here’s hoping “A Man Called Destruction” can join the 2012 documentary “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me” to restore Chilton to his rightful place in the rock-and-roll firmament.

 

I should do my part, shouldn't I?

Edited by Christian

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Like 99.999999% of the world, I paid no attention to Big Star when they were actually a recording and touring band. 

Me neither, and despite some threads here devoted to Big Star and the efforts of Michael Stipe et al. to bring Chilton wider attention, I still knew nothing about him or the band when, late last year, I gave my screener of Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me a spin. I didn't last long. 

 

I think I'll try again tonight, having read a review of the new book A Man Called Destruction in today's Washington Post. The review concludes: 

 

Here’s hoping “A Man Called Destruction” can join the 2012 documentary “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me” to restore Chilton to his rightful place in the rock-and-roll firmament.

 

I should do my part, shouldn't I?

 

 

I just watched "Big Star:Nothing Can Hurt Me" last week. I'm still not fond of the third album, which everybody else hears as some sort of shambolic, depressive masterpiece. It just sounds shambolic and depressive to me. But the first two albums, the power pop albums, still sound great. Chris Bell was the secret sauce. It wasn't the same without him. 

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I just watched "Big Star:Nothing Can Hurt Me" last week. I'm still not fond of the third album, which everybody else hears as some sort of shambolic, depressive masterpiece. It just sounds shambolic and depressive to me. But the first two albums, the power pop albums, still sound great. Chris Bell was the secret sauce. It wasn't the same without him. 

 

Boy, do I ever agree with this. Third is just not great to me at all. It was the one Big Star album that my friends were praising in the mid 80's and I just never thought the songs were very interesting. I connected much more with the broken-hearted boy of the first album, with the chiming guitars and vocal harmonies. It wasn't till the 90's when I discovered Chris Bell's solo album that I discovered the real mojo of that first record.

 

The documentary spends a decent amount of time on Bell, but it should have dug deeper into his tensions with God/ sexuality which i think helps explain a lot of the ache in his tunes.    

Edited by Greg P

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The documentary spends a decent amount of time on Bell, but it should have dug deeper into his tensions with God/ sexuality which i think helps explain a lot of the ache in his tunes.    

 

 

Forgive me if I've mentioned this before, but the extra footage on the Blu-ray release digs a bit more into Bell's faith and sexual tensions. It doesn't go into it as in-depth as I would like, but I realize that Bell seemed to bottle a lot of that up. 

 

And regarding Third, I really like about a third (ha) of the songs and really can't stand the rest. But then, I like about 2/3 of #1 Record (the folksie stuff on side B really bores me). Radio City, though? Perfect album. 

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So I'm "watching" the film while needing to do some personal writing and some work I brought home for the weekend. Righ now I'm focused on the personal writing, which is nothing more than typing up some handwritten notes, but even that keeps me from watching the film in any sort of focused manner.

 

However, I like what I'm hearing of the music in the film. I'm going to check out some Big Star on Spotify and maybe watch the film again after I've familiarized myself with the band's output.

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