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RIP Alex Chilton

By in Culture

Alex Chilton is gone. He died in a New Orleans hospital of what doctors called a heart attack. Fans, of course, know better: Chilton died of a broken heart — too many powerfully sad songs.

You might be asking yourself at this point, “Who the hell is Alex Chilton and why should I care?” That’s a reasonable question. Chilton never received the superstar acclaim that contemporary rock ‘n’ rollers Brian Wilson, John Lennon or Mick Jagger did, but that doesn’t mean his songs weren’t every bit as breathtaking.

Chilton momentarily experienced fame with his band The Boxtops. Their song “The Letter” charted at number one in 1967. But it was with his next band, Big Star, that Chilton came into his own in terms of songwriting.

The first Big Star record, ironically entitled #1 Record, was a commercial flop. It sticks in the craws of angered music aficionados to this day. Even more upsetting was that the second Big Star record, Radio City, shared the same fate.

Radio City is quite simply power-pop manifested: it’s a pop record the whole way through, while, just below the surface, like the initial tremors of an earthquake, punk is forming a heartbeat.

Alex Chilton was a punk without pretension. He didn’t spend hours fiddling with hair-spray, nor did he waste any time shopping for studded bracelets, platforms or spandex pants, but in a very real sense, he marched to his own drum.

By the time of the third Big Star record, called Third (or, sometimes, Sister Lovers), Chilton had become a fiery iconoclast, making highly original music with cacophonous overtones.

Third hurts. I wouldn’t recommend playing it at a birthday party or a wedding dance.

It goes to the dark places — but it has redemption too. “Holocaust” is one of Chilton’s darkest songs, but there’s also a joyous representation of the world on the day of Christ’s birth, complete with an entourage of “angels from the realms of glory.” The song is called “Jesus Christ.” No emotion is held back on this record — and why would it be? If he hadn’t already, on Third, Chilton embraced being an artist; he didn’t want to be a celebrity superstar, after all.

Accordingly, interviews and video footage of Big Star and Alex Chilton solo projects are rare. He didn’t care to do interviews and he certainly didn’t seek out attention from the press. Music was his business.

Like Flies on Sherbert was the first solo record from Chilton. It came out in 1980. The record is still maligned by reviewers for its muddy mixes, drunken performances, sloppy single-takes and false starts left on the final versions of the songs. It’s the same approach Neil Young took to Tonight’s the Night, which was similarly despised by music critics.

But there’s magic in Like Flies on Sherbert, for those who can take it. The beautiful madness of this record crystallized my love for Chilton. (I don’t have a copy, so I have to trade with a friend periodically and play it to death for a couple of weeks.) Like Flies on Sherbert has the feel and energy of Chilton let loose in a recording studio, tossing around ideas and instruments with reckless abandon. It’s another expression of freedom that exposes the heart of this genius musician.

As an artist, Alex Chilton put it all on the line, so that we can hear it ring out clearly today. The passion of Chilton’s heart lives on, despite its breaking. Rest in peace, Alex Chilton.

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image: Danni Siemens

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