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March 18, 2010

Alex Chilton: An appreciation

Posted: 11:20 AM ET
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“Everywhere I go, there are all these Big Star freaks, and they’re nice little guys who are usually in college, and they’re kind of lonely and misunderstood, learning to play guitar.”
- Alex Chilton, Pulse!, June 1992

This is how Alex Chilton, who died Wednesday, described the people who kept Big Star from being forgotten, before he re-formed the band with drummer Jody Stephens, before they put out another live recording as well as another album of new material.  People like me, I suppose, who own all three of the original Big Star albums on both vinyl and CD.

Brian Eno is credited with the observation that just 5,000 people bought a Velvet Underground album, but every one of them started a band. The same could easily be said about Big Star, and with much greater validity.  Their songs have been covered over the last 30 years by everyone from Elliott Smith to Wilco to the Bangles to a number of lesser-known artists.

The Replacements – also highly regarded, also with little commercial success – immortalized Chilton in a song called “Alex Chilton.”  Sadly, this was the first introduction many people of my generation had to a man who should have been catapulted into rock stardom based on the infectious quality of the sound Big Star produced.

Perhaps the most famous song in their catalog is “In the Street,” which would become the theme song for “That ‘70s Show.”  Two different versions of the song were served up over the opening credits, one in the first season, a second in the seasons that followed.  True to the legacy of so-called-failure that unfairly hung over Big Star - and to some degree Chilton - neither of those versions was actually the version performed by Big Star.

Alex Chilton’s early success came as frontman for the Box Tops, a band that had a handful of Top 40 hits – none of which he wrote.  It was his work with Big Star, creating and playing a style of music that most would eventually refer to as power pop, that defines his legacy.

The difficulties that transpired over the course of Big Star’s three-album career are well-documented and hardly require fully hashing out here.  In short, it boiled down to a distribution nightmare hard to even imagine in today’s digital age.  In places where they were being played on the radio none of their records could be found in stores, and in places where they were receiving little to no airplay the shelves were fully stocked.  By the time their third album was released the toll of all this misfortune could be heard seeping out of the record grooves in nearly every song.  Years later writer Erik Davis would refer to Big Star’s third album as “the kind of album they made Prozac to prevent.”

All this combined to create an almost mythical story.  Listening to those albums in college, myself an aspiring musician of the same aesthetic mindset, it was like listening to a tragic novel being read in slow motion.  How could this music have fallen through the cracks?  Alex Chilton wrote about the pains of being young, the universal emotions we all go through, and somehow managed to make it earnest, heartfelt and achingly real without making it embarrassing.

The tragedy finally gave way to hope.  In the 1990s there was finally a resurgence in interest.  Bands credited Big Star as an influence. Rykodisc released their three studio albums and a live recording on CD.  Alex Chilton even went back out on the road with a revived version of Big Star.  That version continued until his death; it had a gig booked Saturday night at this year’s SXSW.  Big Star became a symbol, unwittingly, of sticking to your artistic sensibilities, regardless.

In 1992 Chilton said, “People have been telling me I’ve been wrong every step of the way, and in retrospect it doesn’t look like I was so wrong after all.”  The 18 years that followed would prove he was right.

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Crawford   March 18th, 2010 11:34 am ET

I'll never go far without a little Big Star...RIP Alex Chilton.

Gary   March 18th, 2010 11:36 am ET

How sad. I treasure all of Alex's work and was even surfing the other day looking for the next new thing by him. I will certainly miss his obscure releases that absolutely thrilled me. Thanks Alex and RIP!!

Paul   March 18th, 2010 11:39 am ET

Amen, brother. Nice tribute to a great songwriter.

Children by the million mourn for Alex Chilton | Paul   March 18th, 2010 11:43 am ET

[...] CNN's The Marquee Blog. [...]

ALEX CHILTON DEAD AT 59 - Julie Kramer   March 18th, 2010 11:51 am ET

[...] from HERE [...]

Dan Del fiorentino   March 18th, 2010 12:15 pm ET

My heart goes out to his poor wife who was trying her very best to help him get to the doctors. What a musical loss this is as he gave us so much!

Tom R   March 18th, 2010 12:20 pm ET

With or without the "Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame" we all know who the legends are, and Alex Chilton was high among them.....

Yossarian   March 18th, 2010 12:37 pm ET

Why doesn't the headline reflect Chilton's most influential work in Big Star rather than as the singer for the Boxtops? When John Lennon died they didn't refer to him as "former Quarrymen guitarist John Lennon."

virginia   March 18th, 2010 12:48 pm ET

The quote attributed to Brian Eno is actually by Peter Buck of R.E.M.

r.i.p. Alex.

It's a sad,sad loss....

Mark   March 18th, 2010 1:16 pm ET

That music will last forever!

Jeremy   March 18th, 2010 1:25 pm ET

As a Big Star fan, this is a huge loss for me! I'm sad I never got to see them!

On a slightly related note, I wonder if he had health insurance. Sadly, most musicians don't. Sorry to turn this into a political discussion, but it would be tragic if this could have been averted.

mike   March 18th, 2010 1:34 pm ET

it doesn't say how he died????

Normal Guy in Thousand Oaks   March 18th, 2010 1:58 pm ET

No sweeter sound than Alex playing his Gibson Firebird, singing "Mod Lang" or "O My Soul." I will miss him for the rest of his life and treasure every Big Star song, every solo record, every Box Tops song. What a talent.

eyencyst   March 18th, 2010 2:00 pm ET

@yosarrian:can u read? the headline says "an appreciation".doesn t say either band...and if they mentioned The Box Tops more,its because Big Star never really had real "hits".the MAINSTREAM public mostly doesn t know who Big Star was.Box Tops were Top 40 hitmakers.that's why.The Quarrymen were very obscure and had no "hits" either.bad comparison.Just cause you like Big Star better(so do i) doesn t mean they were more well known.

eyencyst   March 18th, 2010 2:05 pm ET

@jeremy:if Chilton didn t have insurance there was no reason for him to go without as down here where we live,the New Orleans Musician's clinic provides insurance for musicians who are unable to pay.While i am not famous,i am a local musician and they provide insurance and health care for me and many others,who don t have nearly the stature that Chilton did.Let s hope he was taking advantage of the free health care.very sad. RIP...

Jason   March 18th, 2010 2:07 pm ET

"How could this music have fallen through the cracks?"

A profoundly sad question, but hopefully Chilton's passing will inspire more people to discover Big Star. He'll be missed.

A Big Fan   March 18th, 2010 2:12 pm ET

His song "The Letter" spoke to my generation who were in the Armed Services in the 60's (many draftees). It really hit home with us. I came of age with The Box Tops & they never fit into a catagory. "Sweet Cream Ladies " still makes me feel good when I hear it. Same with "Neon Rainbow." Thanks for the great memories.

Mark B.   March 18th, 2010 2:19 pm ET

from Big Star's #1 Record, I was infected. The melodies and harmonies, the crisp guitars, hooks and riffs. You could not listen without smiling. God bless the family and friends left behind and today...the music died ...just a little more.

Big Star Lover   March 18th, 2010 2:48 pm ET

This is one of the blackest events to ever happen is my own little world of music. I haven't been so upset by a musician's death since George Harrison died. (Nope, not even with MJ.) Big Star, even with all their problems and misfortune - they were *seriously* as good as the Beatles or Led Zeppelin or any of the rock/pop greats when they were at their best. An unlikely sound, but an infectious sound, uplifting while sounding as though something's about to fall apart. Big Star deserved better, and so did Mr. Chilton, who was no less a genius than any figure enshrined in the so-called Hall of Fame. Say hello to John Lennon for me, Alex. Maybe someday I'll get to shake your hand of light. Rest In Music.

Samantha   March 18th, 2010 3:14 pm ET

"Kangaroo" was the kind of song that left me in a state of mourning, and had I only known about it when I was a teen, I probably would have spent many hours indulging myself in it's slow, melancholy beat. The perfect song to be sad to.


djkevin   March 18th, 2010 3:22 pm ET

Saw him in Kansas CIty in the early 90s. Great show, a legend.

louee   March 18th, 2010 4:08 pm ET

Interesting to bring up the lack of insurance for musicians. It caused the death of a very respected musician from my town. He had back pain but didn't suspect anything awful. It was too late when he finally did go to the doc. It was a tragedy for his family and his town. This is the sad cost of doing without insurance.

Andy Ellis   March 18th, 2010 4:08 pm ET

If I had a nickel for every time I played September Gurls as a college radio DJ in the 70's, I could have retired in 1978. I even stuck with him through Flies On Sherbert. A sad loss. But the discs will spin on.

'Mats Fan   March 18th, 2010 4:15 pm ET

The 'Mats turned me on to him. Thank you Mr. Westerburg

Erin   March 18th, 2010 4:43 pm ET

Did he die in Memphis?

Tom   March 18th, 2010 4:54 pm ET

Big Star was a fine band. Not quite as "Power Pop" as the musically superior Raspberries but fine none the less.

DickMC   March 18th, 2010 5:19 pm ET

Raise a glass to Alex Chilton. Music and lyrics with genuine heart and haunting soul. A so sweet voice and a cool attitude soaked in pathos and dark humor. Unappreciated by the masses and the market...their loss. The cool kids held on. Cool kids, hold on.

karlolof   March 18th, 2010 5:19 pm ET

Alex Chilton. i saw him live back in the early 90s. RIP

Pamela   March 18th, 2010 6:55 pm ET

Alex! Say it ain't so!! What a nice guy & a huge talent.... I still recall the night you gave me your bed in a sweet act of gentlemanly kindness. Prayers to your family & friends. Sing on, children!

Jim   March 18th, 2010 7:05 pm ET

I am floored. Forget global warming; the temperature of this planet dropped 50 degrees when Alex Chilton left. I love BIG Star, and will miss him immensely.

Brian   March 18th, 2010 7:36 pm ET

Alex Chilton and Big Star are proof that the music doesn't need to be the best selling to be influential and enduring. The flavors of the day may come and go into the discount bin, but someone will always be discovering Alex and Big Star. Thanks for all of it Alex, and RIP.

Mike   March 18th, 2010 7:49 pm ET

It was 1967, and I was in the U. S. Army stationed in Heidelberg Germany when some dude down the barracks hall was playing
"The Letter" on his "45 RMP" player. It played CONTINUOUSLY for what seems like hours. I was ready to shoot his (or my) brains out!!Now I look back fondly on that time and place. . . . .

j.r.   March 18th, 2010 7:56 pm ET

Grew up spinning the Box Top's 45 "the Letter" and later had the pleasure of seeing Alex & Big Star back in the 90's. In between, without even realizing (at the time), my musical tastes were being influenced by him and my lifelong love of Power Pop and Alternative and an array of unsung writer/artists. I'm proud of/stand by my collection of artists most people wouldn't necessarily recognize by name.
So raise a glass to Alex Chilton...but also to all the other underrated unsung artists that got "raw deals" when distribution, lack of/ or misguided marketing execs, A & R changes at labels 'caused them to be dropped or labeled "uncommercial", press backlashes & corporate radio tanked many a talented bands' careers. The general public has sadly missed out on alot great music..... Don't forget to spin your Posies, Raspberries, NRBQ, dBs, Marshall Crenshaw, Don Dixon, the Knack (RIP- Doug Fieger), Replacements, Jonathan Richman/Modern Lovers, Bis-QUITS, Cheap Trick and NUMEROUS Power POp/New Wave/Punk and Alternative bands/artists that never got their proper due or barely saw the light of day. Love 'em while we still got some of them around and stay forever young!

Doug Shiloh   March 18th, 2010 8:44 pm ET

Strangely enough, I mentioned Alex Chilton in conversation this past week. So the headline that he died was a shock.

Where did Chilton stand musically with me? I saw him solo in the mid-80s at a basement gig at "State & Madison" billiards in Rockford, Illinois. Maybe 200 people. Standing room only – about 25 feet from the stage.

My top concerts I've ever seen include the Rolling Stones (1981), Prince (1983), Foreigner (81), Annie Lennox (2007), Hootie & The Blowfish (2008) and Bob Dylan (2009). That concert with Alex ranked right up there in my top list.

stevierayhendrix   March 18th, 2010 10:49 pm ET

Nice piece there Nick. We wore those records out and then did our best to write songs with that same teenage heart and Memphis soul ...and of course failed miserably. What Chilton was able to do that most of the Post Beatles pop music failed to do was have that R&B background, that folk music background, that country music background. Pop music didn't have to be white-washed and two-dimensional. It took a while for the world to catch up with Big Star but being into them was (and is) a badge of honor among musicians and songwriters.

marck   March 18th, 2010 11:54 pm ET

Oh those harmonies on Daisy Glaze...

A very sad day for music.

Josh   March 19th, 2010 12:03 am ET

All this talk of Big Star and the Box Tops, and so little of his solo stuff, which is top-notch... I think I even saw someone putting down "Like Flies on Sherbet", which I absolutely love. The single "Bangkok" b/w his awesome cover of the Seeds' "Can't Seem to Make You Mine" is worth seeking out, too. This is not to mention he produced early work by the Cramps, Gories and the Panther Burns, nothing to sneeze at. In my opinion, there were few musicians whose influence on good rock n'roll can rival his legacy. RIP, Alex.

Shawn   March 19th, 2010 12:40 am ET

Alex Chilton was an god. I first heard of him from the Replacements song, which is genius in itself. If he was good enough for Paul Westerberg, then he's good enough for me!

Glenneboy   March 19th, 2010 3:33 am ET

Thirteen is the best pop song of all time. And that is a FACT!

Rico   March 19th, 2010 7:08 am ET

Back in the 90’s my wife & I had lunch w/ Alex. He shared his deep appreciation for New Orleans historical houses, etc… invited to come down anytime to visit and tour the city. Really nice guy and had a great love for New Orleans. I regret not taking up his offer. God be with you Alex.

J.D.   March 19th, 2010 8:12 am ET

The Replacements' song was the first time I heard of Alex Chilton. I saw him play in Carrboro NC in front of only 30 people and he put on show like there was 3000. Great show. RIP Alex Chilton.

Butler   March 19th, 2010 11:22 am ET

I first saw Alex in the biggest dive in Buffalo, drove all the way from Toronto with other devotees. We witnessed greatness, genius and madness. This was after Big Star, after the Cramps production, around "Like Flies" and I still remember it, all in a haze of course. Alex was beyond special, a performer and songwriter unto himself, an inspiration to so many but never achieving celebrity status but beloved by all he touched. If you can listen to any Big Star song and not have your heart strings pulled, you nothing about music. God Bless You Alex and all the art your have wrought.

Emily   March 19th, 2010 11:42 am ET

I was introduced to Big Star through the Replacements and the writings of Rob Sheffield and had developed an intense attachment to Alex Chilton.

R.I.P., buddy. The last time I was this bummed about someone famous was when Ted Kennedy died, and before that, only Johnny Cash.

MKat   March 19th, 2010 11:44 am ET

I feel so blessed to have called Alex Chilton my friend. I know he never really sought out the spotlight so maybe that's part of the reason that few critics gave him his due. But sitting here, right now, listening to "Night Time", tears flowing AGAIN, I will never understand why Big Star wasn't HUGE!

I started out as a Box Tops fan, went through all of Alex's phases of music and marveled at every one.

He was as wonderful a person as he was a musician.

Alex, I know I promised that "next time" we'd plan that dinner and heart just breaks more each day knowing you are gone.

God bless and God Speed!

J. Bone   March 19th, 2010 11:47 am ET

My heart goes out to Mr. Chilton's family and friends. 59 is way too young to lose somebody. Third-Sister Lovers is one of the greatest albums ever produced by anyone..ever. I am glad Prozac didn't stop it. If you don't have it or haven't heard yourself a favor. It not only rivals Exile on Main Street and the White Album, it stands along side great works of art in any medium. Alex Chilton, you were one of great ones we will always talk about.

Craig 9   March 19th, 2010 12:12 pm ET

A true genius is gone. Thanks for everything, Alex.

THE MOLE   March 19th, 2010 12:31 pm ET

Knowing very little of Alex Chilton, I found a 12" of "No Sex" in a thrift store... very timely for the 80's. wish I had seen him perform as many did.

pc   March 19th, 2010 2:52 pm ET

It's great to see all these kind words and tributes to Alex Chilton. I'm glad to know he found some peace and happiness in his life. When I met him in the early 80s when he began touring, he seemed a bit lost, but so tough, as if he was covered in callouses inside and out. He savored the unconventional and purposely evaded being pegged–as an artist or a person. If you commended the Box Tops, he'd say that his voice had been manipulated and he hadn't been allowed to sing in his true naturally higher more gentle voice. We shared a meal together at a rib joint late one night after a show in Berkeley, and just as I was thinking of sharing some meaty ribs, he announces he only eats healthy food and orders a salad. He always kept you on your toes, if a bit unbalanced. He did this to himself too, and I think it kept him fresh and independent. Rest in peace, Alex. It's sad to lose you so young, but your music and legend lives on, whether you like it or not.

MJR   March 19th, 2010 3:13 pm ET

Nice tribute, Nick. A friend turned me on to #1 Record in the mid '70s, and I've been a fan ever since. With Radio City, Alex and the band really created something new and enduring. This is a big loss.

Trond   March 19th, 2010 6:29 pm ET

There is a quote of Alex Chilton that I love: "All my songs sounds like hits to me" How true.. RIP, Alex

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