Alex Chilton Remembered, One Year After His Death
Alex Chilton passed away one year ago today. Big Star was scheduled to play SXSW in 2010, instead the show became a tribute, with friends and fans playing Chilton’s music and remembering his work. We posted a short obituary at the time, but I thought that a year later we could take a closer look at Chilton’s best songs, and, in many fans’ eyes, his greatest songwriting achievement, Big Star’s Third (also known as Sister Lovers).
I talked to several musicians who loved Big Star. And I wanted to make sure they represented the variety of musicians who admired Chilton, whether they were contemporaries and friends of Chilton’s, or young songwriters who weren’t alive when Sister Lovers hit shelves in 1978. Talking to these musicians and gathering their statements about Chilton, two common themes emerged: no matter what age they were, they discovered Sister Lovers (in what now seems like) the old fashioned way: through a friend or fellow musician or fellow record nerd passing them a copy. As Big Star drummer Jody Stephens told me, the band only sold about 4,000 copies of the album at the time. There are so many other ways to discover Big Star (Elliot Smith’s cover of “Thirteen,” The Replacements’ excellent tribute song “Alex Chilton” (now available on Rock Band), or Cheap Trick’s cover of “In The Street,” which was used as the theme song to That Seventies Show). It’s perhaps a testament to the strange beauty of Sister Lovers that it invites one-on-one discovery and understanding.
The second thing I noticed when I talked to or emailed these musicians are the qualities they loved: the stick-with-you beauty of “Thirteen” and “September Gurls;” Sister Lovers’s wild mood swings, the way Chilton could express joy and sweetness and the darkest depths of hate within a few minutes. And they are in awe of Alex Chilton, the way he focused fearlessly on making an album he would love first. I hope that, if you don’t already know Sister Lovers, this will encourage you to check out this beautiful, strange work. As far as I can tell, Chilton wasn’t much for fame — he had it when he was 16 and singing with The Box Tops, and he was through with it not long after. So I hope he would appreciate that these tributes focused on his music and creativity foremost.
If you’d like a closer look/listen at Sister Lovers and Big Star, some of the musicians below — Matthew Sweet, Mike Mills, and Jody Stephens — are joining Yo La Tango’s Ira Kaplan, Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake, The dB’s Chris Stamey and others for a tribute concert in New York City on March 26. They will play all of Sister Lovers, as well as a selection of other Big Star tunes. The profits will go to New Orleans Musicians Clinic and El Sistema NYC. Tickets are available through TicketWeb.
I was turned onto Big Star by my group of record nerd friends, but obviously they’re way beyond record nerd music. I first got their CD that has their first two albums ( #1 Record / Radio City). Certain songs hit you right away — like “Thirteen,” and “September Gurls” is just undeniable, but others grow on you. Sister Lovers — “Jesus Christ,” “Thank You Friends.” The whole record is epic, falling apart, but timeless.
It’s the kind of record that you play over and over again at different points in your life… pure American rock music but with obviously sensitive and sincere overtones. Sister Lovers never gets old — you put that on at the right time on the road, somewhere in middle America, maybe got a long drive to go. That gets you through for sure.
We opened for Big Star in 2009. My guitar player, Jesse, he was a fan for ages, and by then I was a super fan too. I talked to Alex — he was just smoking his Hunter Thompson-style cigarette holder thing and just being really nice. He was having a good time. It was definitely an honor to meet him. I did ask him what he thought of the song “Alex Chilton” by the Replacements and he said, “It’s a good tune!”
Big Star – “Jesus Christ”
Big Star – “Thank You Friends”
The first Big Star record was ‘72, so I would have been eight years old then. I discovered them in ‘81. I think it’s hard for anyone now to imagine what it was like buying records. To find something obscure, you had to know someone who knew about it. There wasn’t any internet, there wasn’t any way to find out anything. You pretty much decided what you liked by the cover or by someone else turning you on to it. In my case, I had an older friend who knew about Alex Chilton and Big Star. I started searching for the records and ordered them from faraway places like New York. I grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, right in the middle of the country.
I have strong memories of being a senior in high school. And a lot of the listening I did of Third and other Big Star was in headphones, or else it was in my car. I remember sitting in my car and listening to this weird, deep, emotional music. But it was also really melodic, and I always liked melodic stuff, so it was really the person in it that I related to, this guy that could be funny or weird or aggressive or sweet and honest. He really got himself and his feelings into the songs.
A lot of things fall away in the annals of time and people never notice or they care a much smaller amount. With Big Star, I feel like they’ll be up there with all the greats of the era, in the future, for as long as anyone cares about it. For as much as there is a rock history, I think it’s joyful that he’s got his place in it.
Big Star – “Big Black Car”
Dee Dee (Dum Dum Girls)
I can’t remember when I heard Big Star for the first time — I assume it was my first year of college, when I heard a lot of stuff for the first time. I was hooked instantly on that voice and those sublime pop songs.
DDG recently covered “September Gurls” for the A.V. Club, and it was a lot of fun. I first heard that song in eighth grade, as covered by The Bangles, and as precocious young Virgo, decided it was about me. I was happy to learn it was a Big Star cover years later.
“Thirteen” remains my personal favorite. Something unreal about the way Alex Chilton taps into the early-teen perspective so perfectly. It sweeps me up in the teenage drama every time I listen to it. It is so easy to slip into it, and relate so exactly with one side or the other.
That to me is the best thing about music — making that visceral connection and becoming the song. Alex Chilton was so good at that.
Big Star – “September Gurls”
Big Star – “Thirteen”
Mike Mills (R.E.M.)
Peter Buck turned me on to Sister Lovers. When R.E.M. first got together, Peter showed me a lot of music that hadn’t quite made it down to Macon, Georgia in the ‘70s.
[Sister Lovers] was so deeply personal for Alex and Jody. They weren’t really trying to create a record that would be popular or necessarily trying to make a “great” record. They were making a record very selfishly, just letting out the music that was inside them or the feelings inside them. So that’s why it connected with me so well. I don’t remember the sadness in there when I first got acquainted with it. I hear so much more sadness in there now. I remember it being kind of disjointed, but I don’t remember it being as dark as it is. Fame is fine as long as it comes on your terms. Alex had a taste of it with the Boxtops, but that wasn’t really on his terms. He was just a young kid singing with some older guys. Had those first two Big Star records done well, he would have been his usual cynical self, but I think he would have been able to handle it because it would have come more on his terms. By the third record, he’d given up on that and was completely disillusioned and more cynical than he’d ever been, and that’s one of the driving forces behind this record. I wouldn’t say that Alex’s songwriting influenced us in any direct way, simply in the sense of listening to all three of those Big Star records, just wanting to write songs that good, just seeing how well-crafted those songs are, it just gave us inspiration to try to match that.
Big Star – “Stroke It Noel”
Chris Chu (The Morning Benders)
I’m not sure how I first heard about Big Star, but I do remember a friend at school telling me: “They’re that band that has the theme song on That ’70s Show. You should get #1 Record.” So I did. And I liked it. But to be honest, it never really rocked my world, and it wasn’t until years later, when I stumbled across Third/Sister Lovers that I really “got” Big Star. Listening to Third for the first time was a completely exotic experience for me. With #1 Record, Big Star sounded polished and ready for success, by the time they made Third they sounded completely obliterated. I had read extensively about The Beatles and The Smiths breaking up, but I had never heard a band really fall apart like that. They sounded defeated and tired and bitter, but beneath all the chaos and broken vocal takes and guitar noises and lyrics about death, were these incredible pop melodies and beautiful musical moments. Alex Chilton is such a pop dude at heart, and I love that through all the shit you can still always hear that. Listening to Big Star 10 years later, I’ve realized it’s that special voice that keeps me coming back. Alex was an incredibly honest songwriter, someone that could always make himself heard through all the muck, through all the fucked up record labels and band breakups, and somehow, nearly 25 years after Big Star had broken up, his voice and songs found their way to me, and I am forever grateful
Big Star – “O, Dana”
Will Sheff (Okkervil River)
You know how there’s some records that you listen to that you wear them out, and you actually can’t even hear them anymore? You put them on and you’re like, “Ugh, I love it but I’ve heard it too many times.” There’s a very small group of records that I don’t feel that way about, Sister Lovers is one of those.
I bought Sister Lovers when I was in high school, I think I was a sophomore. I didn’t have the cool older brother who got me into all the music that Big Star inspired subsequently so it made no sense to me. It just seemed like craziness to me. I listened to it and thought it was gibberish, out of control weirdness. That’s a quality that I’ve grown to love about Alex Chilton, about his completely never ever taking himself seriously, and not being afraid to be ridiculous and even crass and juvenile, which are not prized qualities in a respected artist. And that’s one of the things I love about him, is that he did not give a shit, which is the hallmark of a true, eternal artist, is that unwillingness to speak in anyone else’s tone but his own. At the time I found that really threatening and strange. But I was drawn into the beautiful and melodic qualities his voice had.
Alex Chilton’s feel, as a singer and songwriter, is there’s sublime beauty in what I’m singing but I really seriously don’t care about you. And I love that about him, that snotty asshole delivery, paired with this obvious sublime, deep sensitivity of his soul. You can hear that it’s there in everything he does. He’s got a beautiful voice, but there’s something so guarded about it, and on that record it’s ragged, bleeding, open. He was creatively at the ultimate peak of his powers but writing from a place of despair. Not that the album was despairing, but there’s a way in which when you completely give up caring at all, you kind of throw your vanity in the toilet, and you’re like “Fuck it man. All I care about is making this and I don’t care if anybody hears it and, in fact, fuck anybody who even wants to hear it. I give up. I officially give up.” And sometimes when you do that it’s a wonderful thing, because you’re not making work that’s vain. You’re not making work that’s self-consciously striving for something, you’re just trying to make yourself happy, and I think that’s what comes through in that record.
Big Star – “Holocaust”
Jody Stephens (Big Star)
The interesting thing about Big Star is there was a whole range of emotions with the first, second, and third albums. Sister Lovers is pretty melancholy and dark and emotionally raw, and people say that album got me through some pretty tough times. That wasn’t exactly on my mind when we were recording that that it would have that effect later on. I think it’s just a brutally honest, emotional record that people relate to because they go through bad times.
I do feel a part of Sister Lovers, however I don’t feel… you know as we were recording the third album and events were unfolding, it was a pretty dark period to sit through or go through. So I had those uncomfortable feelings associated with the record for a long time, and now when I sit back down and listen to the record, I no longer have those uncomfortable feelings, not nearly as prominently as I have had. I can be a bunch more detached from it now than I could be then. One thing I love about being in Big Star was recording Chris [Bell], Alex, and Andy [Hummel]’s songs. That was the best part. So I can listen and enjoy the songs without all the odd emotional baggage that went along with it at the time. And something else too. I’ve been listening to the third album again and I once again realized what a free spirit Alex could be in the studio. Whatever feeling strikes him in a moment can turn into something cool. There were funny moments when Alex was directing the background singers and getting them to do things they never thought they’d be doing. Like in “Thank You Friends.” Listen to the background vocals, especially towards the end. They were the Duncan Singers, and they do things they probably never thought they would, and it was just funny listening to it. It was funny when Alex stepped up to the mic and sang “yeep yeep yeep” in “Dream Lover.” And there were pretty high moments… when you hear those strings that Carl [Marsh] and Alex came up with, just how wonderful they were, as that oboe was being laid down and it just so brilliantly fit into “Blue Moon,” how wonderfully it worked. I don’t mean that it worked that way for everybody, but for me, hearing stuff go down, it was like walking through a wonderland or a first snow.
Big Star – “Dream Lover”
Big Star – “Blue Moon”
[Alex Chilton photo by Stephanie Chernikowski]