His Life Was Right, Alex Chilton Passed Away Last Night

Thursday, 18 March 2010

At around one o'clock this afternoon, the wind got sucked from my lungs with four simple words. At one o'clock this afternoon, my wife/girlfriend/partner was sitting at the dining room table sorting through the news of the day when all of a sudden she stopped dead. She went blank and blinked, then she turned to me and uttered those fateful four: "Alex Chilton is dead."

And punctuated it with "Holy shit," but it didn't matter – I was already reeling.

I became familiar with Alex Chilton in the same way a good number of folks did: through The Replacements. Yeah, I came into it late, sue me, but it was through Paul Westerberg, the brothers Stinson and Chris Mars that I became acquainted in passing. I was a fan of theirs and started to learn about Chilton and Big Star through the band's music.

I was stunned by the songs. The interplay between Chilton and guitarist Chris Bell was jaw-dropping and the music they made with bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens was the finest form of rock; it was romantic and exciting and heartwarming and heartbreaking all at once.

No wonder they were called 'the best band you never heard' or some equally trite but somehow meaningful sentiment.

And then the stories started to present themselves. Stories like how Big Star eventually collapsed as both Bell and Chilton began to come undone; stories like how Third/Sister Lovers was the final nail in the band's coffin, but it was almost deliberately designed to be – with its' synthesizers and abstract stings and loneliness. How Chilton became very insular and removed from the music business, yet would still crop up at the strangest moments. There was that moment when Alex Chilton halted an alcohol and acid-fueled frenzy that found Butthole Surfers singer Gibby Haynes naked and terrorizing a German festival by simply asking to borrow a guitar. How, according to Westerberg, the sessions that eventually yielded both "Alex Chilton" (on which the band's muse played) and Pleased To Meet Me were both magical and terrifying all at once because of Chilton's incredible presence.

So of course I had to absorb as much of this magical music as I could.

I was never disappointed. The thing about Alex Chilton's music (for me) was that, even as introspective and melancholy as he might get (somehow he made the heartache and hurt in the covers of "I've Never Found A Girl" by Booker T. Jones and "Goodnight My Love" by George Motola and John Marascalco is own – he seemed to feel them, seemed to live them) there was still a glimmer of excitement and hope in his voice. It might have faded or brightened depending on the song, but that was part of the appeal of it; it was a warm place that listeners could live and die with depending upon how involved they chose to get. It was hard not to fall right in with the combination of voice and sentiment though – if you heard it, you weren't just in for a penny, you were in for a pound.

The Big Star reunion show scheduled as part of this year's South By Southwest Music Conference did not proceed as planned, although the surviving band members did release that they would still play in tribute to Chilton. Presumed to have passed from a heart attack, the songwriter left just days before he was to take the stage, and that lost chance will end up being the final heartbreaker for fans, and yet somehow perfect too. Alex Chilton was a folk hero to the alt-rock nation (a fact attested to by artists including R.E.M., THe Replacements, Dave Alvin, Matthew Sweet and Frank Black to name the smallest imaginable number), but his conflicted relationship with the possibilities of both fame and obscurity. The singer walked that fine but celebrated line for his entire career and while his passing is certainly tragic, it's sort of apt, perfect and heartbreaking, somehow. Chilton was the first and best at making listeners feel all of those things at once and, because the end seemed to live that out to its natural conclusion, that's sadly beautiful – somehow.

Comments are closed.