ALEX CHILTON - THE SINGER AND THE SONGS (DECEMBER 28, 1950 – MARCH 17, 2010)

23/03/10

Image: alex chilton image1

Alex Chilton was a soul singer. The music of Alex Chilton and Big Star has a huge emotional depth to it that has resonated through the years, which is why he had, and still has, a huge influence on people who form rock’n’roll bands. Well, the good ones anyway. It’s also why he never sold too many records, because regular folks can’t take that kind of honesty. They prefer the fake to the real and the overdone to the understated. Alex Chilton was one of the givers. His life was a triumph for art, truth, singing and rock’n’roll music. I don’t go for that underachiever shit that the “journos” always go on about - the guy made three of the greatest albums of all time!!! What a fucking talent! 

Let me tell you my Alex Chilton story. Indulge me, cos I’m a bit choked up here. In 1986 I released a record by the Replacements, called Boink!, on my label, Glass Records. It was a mini LP culled from some of their earlier releases but had an unreleased track called “Nowhere Is My Home” produced by Alex Chilton, which mightily impressed Nikki Sudden, who alongside his brother Epic Soundtracks, first turned me on to Alex’s music. Nikki and Epic are sadly no longer with us either. 6 years later I was working at Creation Records and I met Alex at Victoria Station straight off the Gatwick Express. Creation brought him over to London to talk about making a record. Me and Alan McGee took him out for a couple of drinks and had a real nice time. The next day Alex and myself went up to Glasgow together on the train for the weekend to record a hastily arranged session for BBC Radio Scotland with Teenage Fanclub. He told me some great stories, like taking acid for the first time with Dennis Wilson, and hanging out at Dennis’s place when Manson and “all those chicks” were around. I lapped all that stuff up. I love all those stories. He was damn good company. At the rehearsal for the Radio thing, Alex asked the band to play “Alcoholiday”, his favourite song from “Bandwagonesque”, which he then proceeded to sing, and yes he knew all the words. Imagine how you’d feel if Alex Chilton sang one of your songs, two feet away from your face. I tell you, walking into the Griffin, where all the Glasgow bands hung out, with Alex fuckin’ Chilton was totally genius. Cries of “No way!!” could be heard all the way up past the King’s Cafe to  Sauchiehall Street. Well, for some reason or another that record never happened, and I think that it was a great disappointment to him, as indeed it was to me. 

Alex, it was a pleasure and a privilege to know you for a brief time. You are the MAN and I remain, your fan. God bless. 

David E Barker March 2010.

Here are some other stories and  tributes from some of Alex’s friends and fans.

I feel lucky that with Teenage Fanclub we had the opportunity to work with Alex a few times and through that to fully realise what an amazing musician he was. I’d actually been reminiscing about working with Alex the day before I found out he’d died, remembering a radio session we recorded in ‘92 where, at his instigation of course, we worked on an instrumental version of a theme from the overture of Wagner’s Tannhauser. On the day I heard he’d died I went to a concert, the thought of which had prompted my reminiscence, where the Scottish Symphony Orchestra played the overture of Tannhauser. Of course, in my mind this was a beautiful little tribute to him, someone for whom the work of Wagner, Eddie Floyd, and Joe Meek were all part of the same thing. Alex was inspiring to me in terms of his songwriting, his eclecticism, his not just innovative but also accomplished musicianship, and all that allied with his disdain for sycophancy and bullshit. He was a great guy and I always enjoyed his company. Raymond McGinley, Teenage Fanclub

I was introduced to the music of Alex Chilton by Brian Taylor, guitarist in the first Pastels lineup. Brian, it's fair to say was not too impressed by many things, but Alex had found his favour, and he seemed to love everything from pop soul sides with the Box Tops through to raw but exciting productions for The Cramps and Tav Falco's Panther Burns. Me, I really liked Alex's voice and some of his songs; hearing September Gurls for the first time was unbelievably thrilling. Alex always seemed like someone who could move easily from era to era - 1960s, 1970s, 1980s. He was clever enough to keep moving and aware enough to usually have the right length of hair for the time. Eventually he started turning up in Glasgow thanks to super enthusiastic fans like Jason from V-Twin, and of course the Teenage Fanclub connection, which he knew was a good thing.  I met him a couple of times and he seemed kind of there, not there.  But somehow I expected this smart traveller to keep moving; moving through things and around them, to be here for ever or at least until he was 100. Not to be.  It's like the feeling you get from listening to so many of his lovely, sad songs. Stephen Pastel, Glasgow. March 2010

We were in LA mixing an album and Alex is passing through town. He has a show at McCabes guitar shop and invites us down. Alex plays a great set and we hang out afterwards and drink beer. He tells us that he's going to be playing at a Beach Boys fanclub event the next evening and that we should “really” come down as it's going to be “very special”. 

We make our way to a small theater in Santa Monic, once inside, us and the fifty other people there take our seats and watch The Beach Boys Hawaii concert movie along with a load of outtakes and rare and unseen clips. Next, we are treated to a set of Beach Boys tunes performed by a band that includes Brian Wilson producer Andy Paley, who are accompanying a number of guest singers. Alex does a great version of Solar System. The show builds to a climax and it seems that the night is over when unexpectedly, Rodney Bingenheimer appears at the front mic and announces that there is to be one more performance, and at that, Brian Wilson shuffles onstage and up to the piano. He sits down and self deprecatingly starts to play "I'm a little teapot" (with the handle and spout arm movements) before launching into "Do it again" and then "God only knows". We are at the front of the stage about five feet away from Brian, gobsmacked. This is his first public performance in a long time. He's fragile but brilliant. Alex is at the other side of the stage and looks over at us with an enormous grin on his face. Thanks for that Alex. What a treat.

Alex Chilton, was a great singer and performer and a much better songwriter than he would have you believe. He is man who told Charles Manson where to get off....but that's another story. Norman Blake, Teenage Fanclub

We did some west coast dates with Alex in 1988 around the time of High Priest. We were all mightily impressed at the Chilton Soundcheck, which involved parking his guitar and his amp on the stage before going straight back out of the venue again in search of good times. (It was a trick he repeated in London in the nineties, striking terror into the hearts of his "minders" by disappearing into the Streets of Fear around King's Cross.)

Then in 92 I ran into him in New Orleans. He wasn't supposed to be drinking, but he took me on a 2 night binge that ended up in a transvestite cowboy bar called "Roundup". It was only supposed to be a one night thing, but when I went out around town the next day I found him banging on the window of a bar that I was passing, beckoning me in for round two, as it were.

Of course, he was a proper Southern Gent, courteous and charming and prone to the occasional "Vietnam moment" where he would sort of glaze over and start muttering incomprehensibly at some unseen foe for a second before snapping back into your reality once again. Like a lot of southern people he had a genuine belief in astrology. Our birthdays were close together ("December boys got it bad") and he called me "the Jack of Hearts". Guess we all knew who the King was.

In New Orleans we went past this bar, which he told us was Muddy Waters' club. "I had some of the best nights of my life in there," he said. I figured he meant that he'd played some gigs there. "No," he replied, "I was the janitor."

That struck me as typical of him. He said that he only really rated three or four of his own songs and was much happier just being a singer, covering other people's stuff. For somebody who had done so much and meant so much to so many, he seemed almost entirely uncorrupted by any kind of "ego". Even after the Big Star revival of the nineties, he would still regularly turn up and play on old sixties revue packages in odd places like Canadian leisure centres.

I never heard him refer to Jody Stevens as anything other than simply "The Drummer". Once in London, Joe Foster was talking to him about the fact that there were Big Star tee shirts on sale; he was concerned that Alex was getting his fair cut of the proceeds. With consummate unconcern Alex told him "Aaaah, that was the Drummer's idea." Case closed.

Alex Chilton was the real thing. Raised in a house full of music in Memphis, he lived the true and proper rock and roll life all his life. I'm not sure that we shall ever see his like again. Pat Fish, The Jazz Butcher