“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.”
— Paul Westerberg, 1987
I still remember precisely where I was when I first heard Big Star: the front room of the condo Kirk & I lived at during the exact center of the 1980s. At that point, Big Star was just a rumour, a murmur that had begun to percolate from the burgeoning indie scene. We, of course, were both DJs at CSUF’s radio station, KFSR, and Kirk was also the Music Director.
Being Music Director had a really nice perk: keys to the Music Library in the Speech Arts building. The Music Library held 1000s and 1000s of albums going back decades. A certain portion of those records had been deemed suitable for KFSR by the previous Music Directors, but that left a vast treasure of undiscovered music to dig through. So we did.
Of course, this really was like looking for gold in a silver mine (or trying to drink whiskey from a bottle of wine), and usually led to escapades like the great Heavy Metal Record Toss, which was competition to see who could fling a vinyl record the furthest from the stage of the CSUF Ampitheatre. I think that Tim won that one.
But occasionally, we’d find some amazing stuff for the radio station, and one time, we found Big Star.
Like I said up front, we were looking for Big Star, and one day, there it was: a double-disc set that packaged together #1 Record and Radio City. So we rushed back to the condo, put it on Kirk’s turntable and listened as the opening notes of “Feel” filled the air.
Big Star has been in my life ever since. We taped those albums, and started playing the shit out of them on KFSR, spreading the word about this band that was doing what we loved years before we even knew we loved it.
Seriously: #1 Record and Radio City are fucking primers on pop music; as timeless and indispensable now as they were the moment they were released. And in late 1984, they felt like a revelation on the same scale as R.E.M. or The Replacements.
We weren’t alone, of course: one of the memes that spread like wildfire through the Amerindie underground of the mid-80s — passed via college radio stations, ‘zines, and scruffy bands crashing on people’s floors — was “Holy shit, have you heard Big Star?!?” By the time they entered my consciousness, Big Star was well on their way to joining The Velvet Underground and the Stooges as a tentpole of underground rock.
In fact, with the Bangles covering “September Gurls” (which felt like penance for “Manic Monday,”) and The Replacements singing his praises in one of the most heartfelt tribute songs ever penned, it seemed only a matter of time before Alex Chilton would become a household word. Well, at least to the same households to which Lou Reed was selling scooters.
Instead of “don’t settle for walking,” which was the tagline of Lou’s infamous Honda commercial, it would be “send ’em a fax” for Pitney-Bowes or “why send a letter when you can email?” for Compuserve.
But unlike Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, Alex Chilton never really broke out of the underground. And I think that he was fine with that. In fact, one might argue that he never really tried. When the demand for new Alex Chilton music first peaked, he responded with the tepid, ironic High Priest, which felt like was warmed-over white soul, and seemed to bear little relationship to what his newly-minted fanbase wanted: more amazing pop gems. But they weren’t to be found. Not then, not ever.
By that time, of course, we weren’t really surprised: we’d snatched up the 1985 reissue of the desperate, disconsolate Sister Lovers, and while the exquisiteness of that record outweighed the disintegration, you could see how the disintegration could easily take over. And even if you come back from the dark place suggested by that record, I could see where you might never again wanna get anywhere near the tracks that originally took you there.
Over the years, I’ve heard much of what Alex Chilton did after Big Star, and while a post-mortem re-reckoning is obviously on the horizon, it does seem to me that — besides a few exceptions like the hilarious “No Sex” single — either his muse or his will sputtered out after the Sister Lovers sessions. After that, he didn’t really give a shit about what his fanbase wanted. Which, BTW, was something that we respected, and probably accounts for the outpouring of love and grief that has accompanied his death.
He became such an original, iconoclastic figure that he even got away with money-grabbing reunions and selling his songs to TV shows. Why? Because he needed the cash and he got the exposure. Look, as far as I’m concerned, Big Star should have taken over the world in the first place; Alex Chilton should be mourned by more than just music geeks. So if the fact that “In The Street” was the theme song to That 70s Show meant that even a few more people found their way to Big Star, that’s awesome.
And in the case of the reunion shows, we wanted to see him perform these songs, even if he was somewhat indifferent to the whole enterprise. I knew that, but I still jumped at the chance to see the 1994 Posies-powered Big Star reunion show at the Fillmore. And I’m glad that I did. Just because.
In the end, part of the appeal of Alex Chilton and the music he made with Big Star is how accidental it all seems, how uncalculated it was. I think that was at least part of why he was so ambivalent about it. In some of the interviews he gave, you could see that he was actually somewhat gobsmacked over all of the attention focused upon what was only a couple of years out of his life.
Fair enough. But what was for him a couple of years of music-making has become for many of us a lifetime source of unmitigated pleasure. May the gods rest your soul, Alex Chilton.
john r says
I have read many different tributes to Chilton over the past few days and this is easily the best! Thanks also for introducing me to his music! Those three Big Star albums are always near my turntable, I treasure all three pretty much equally.
Jim Connelly says