Thursday, March 18, 2010

We've Lost Alex Chilton

Alex ChiltonImage by Karen Hoffmann via Flickr

"Children by the millions sing for Alex Chilton when he comes 'round
They sing 'I'm in love'
What's that song?
I'm in love with that song..."
-The Replacements, from the song "Alex Chilton"

Alex Chilton passed away unexpectedly last night at the age of 59, at his home in New Orleans, Louisiana.

I had just logged onto one of the message boards I frequent online, one that is not a music-related board. The first thread topic that jumped out at me was "RIP Alex Chilton." I just stared for a moment before I actually clicked on it, hoping perhaps that by hesitating I would increase the chances that it would turn out to be just unsubstantiated rumor and quickly proven incorrect. Sadly, it's true. Alex Chilton is gone.

Chilton's name is perhaps better known in rock critic circles than rock fan circles, and that is truly a shame. However, virtually everyone who has ever turned on a radio or a TV is familiar with Chilton's work.

"Invisible man who can sing in a visible voice..."
- The Replacements

Back in the year I was born, 1967, it would not have been uncommon to hear Chilton's voice growling out of transistor radio speakers. That's his gravelly vocal propelling The Box Top's classics "Cry Like a Baby" and "The Letter." As the 1970's dawned, Chilton had moved on to form the legendary Big Star, and with that band penned many songs that could easily challenge for the title of Best Pop Song Ever. Most casual fans are more familiar with other artist's covers of Big Star's material, notably The Bangles cover of the jangly "September Gurls" and Cheap Trick's reinterpretation of "In The Street" as the theme song to That '70s Show.

In the 1980s, Chilton's solo material received less attention than it deserved, until he was celebrated in song by The Replacements on their 1987 album Pleased To Meet Me. That same year, Chilton had a minor college-radio hit with "No Sex." Chilton continued to record up through turn of the century, and continued to play live shows either as a solo act or as part of Box Tops or Big Star reunions, until his passing.

"If he was from Venus, would he meet us on the moon?
If he died in Memphis, then that'd be cool, babe."
- The Replacements

The Replacements did not accurately predict where he would be when he passed. Though Chilton was born and raised in Memphis, he had settled in New Orleans in the 1980s. His name briefly surfaced in the news in 2005, when he was initially among the missing in Hurricane Katrina. An apocryphal story made the rounds that he was eventually found sitting in a bar wondering what all the fuss was about; in actuality he had simply boarded himself up in his home with enough provisions to last a couple weeks and waited for the storm to pass, eventually being rescued by helicopter.

Choosing a clip to post in tribute to Chilton is difficult - he wrote so many wonderful songs. "In The Street" still ranks among my favorites, and the way Chilton wrote it originally and recorded it with Big Star is a very different reading than it received as a TV theme. RIP, Alex.

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  1. great job, Bryan, on a man i really respected.

  2. Still a tough loss to accept, isn't it? Too young and too talented to go yet...