I’m late paying tribute to Alex Chilton, who died last week at age 59.
Partly my tardiness is intentional: I’ve been thinking about how to make this little intermittant blog useful for those who wish to explore music, and one recurring question has to do with how much homage should be in the mix. The automatic media reflex is to stop and appreciate the work of the deceased, and lots of times I’ve been part of that choir. But right after the great Vic Chesnutt died this winter, as I was gearing up to write about his wonderously trenchant, bracingly blunt songs, I stopped short. Since the mission of 1000 Recordings is to celebrate greatness, it seemed of limited value to restate what should be obvious, what scores of people had said, what was essentially in the entry for Is The Actor Happy?
Besides, words only take you so far. I feel the same futility with Alex Chilton: If you don’t get his songs, these wonderfully compact structures that seize and exhaust an idea in the time it takes some songwriters to clear their throats, no pretty adjectives piled high are going to help you. Even the Replacements deleriously giddy “Alex Chilton” – which, with the terse “I’m in love, what’s that song?/I’m in love with that song,” immortalizes the circuitry of pop obsession – might not do it. And it's one of the all-time best tribute songs.
To gauge Chilton, the quintessential underloved pop auteur, drop into a few places in his discography. Start where he started, in a band called the Box Tops, singing a stone-cold classic ‘60s radio song, “The Letter,” that entertained millions. Seek out the strikingly different albums by Big Star, which find him progressing through various tones and colors in pursuit of a singular pop/rock bliss. Spend some time with any of the jangle bands of the ‘80s – notably R.E.M. – and you will hear Chilton’s influence, echoing around the brambles and the barbed wire. Maybe that’s all the tribute necessary: Alex Chilton never sold skadillions after that first hit, but his ideas about melody and catharsis, and his knack for infusing simple songs with deeper meaning, wound up hitting just about everybody.