When I learned from a national news broadcast and major Internet sites that Alex Chilton had tragically passed away in mid March, of course I felt badly. But after thinking good thoughts for his family, I made a few puzzled phone calls and did some research to overcome what seemed to be a glaring oversight on my part: I had never heard of Alex Chilton or the band Big Star. I had heard the Box Tops hit “The Letter,” but beyond that, I knew nothing of this artist.
Then I found out that respected artist Paul Westerberg of Replacements fame had written a song called “Alex Chilton,” so feeling terrible pangs of inadequacy, I hopped on eBay (after calling my local vinyl merchants first) and bought two of the three Big Star LP’s (reissues).
Voodoo Jets producer (and talented rocker with The Neighborhoods) David Minehan had toured with Paul Westerberg in 1993 (post Replacements) in support of the album “14 Songs” and had met Alex Chilton on several occasions. Minehan had this to say about Big Star: “It took me awhile to get into Big Star, partly because most of the artists who were excited about the band and covering their songs were wimpy. It was sort of guilt by association, so I shied away. Then I started listening to their songs—I think I would suggest that to get to know Big Star, one might be best served starting with the last record (3rd, also called Sister Lovers) and working back. The third LP is a potpourri of bad vibes and bitter songs, but oh so beautiful. Once I got in, I got way in to Big Star. Amazing music…”
So fueled by Minehan’s enthusiasm, I bought the third LP (called “3rd” and released in 1978) and the second LP (called “Radio City” released in 1974). I so badly wanted to discover a new vein of pop music that I could connect with, but this just wasn’t it. These songs simply don’t reach me—and the sounds are so aggressive, the mixes are awful—it is just a very difficult band for me to absorb and enjoy.
The track Life is White from the 3rd LP has a too-loud guitar track panned right and a hideous harmonica track panned left that combine to obliterate the lead vocal. I found Radio City more palatable than the 3rd LP, but neither lit any fires for me. There is a track deep into Radio City called “September Gurls” that got me excited—why couldn’t they have made an entire record of simple, hook-driven pop songs like this one?
I went and grabbed a few LP’s out of my collection from the period just to stabilize my frame of reference—Todd Rundgren’s Something Anything from 1972 and Chilliwack’s All Over You from the same year. The styles differ markedly, but the listenability of both were so far beyond the Big Star LP’s—I think Big Star was part of a pop/alternative movement that although a legitimate art form, just misses me somehow.
Despite all that, people loved Alex Chilton’s work and seem to gravitate toward the poignant pain in his songwriting. Clearly he was a passionate artist making music for the love of it, and his place amongst us has been vacated all too prematurely. May he rest in peace.