It’s Tuesday on the late A.M. side, folks; hungover as hell, I am thus completing a month of sitting shivah for recent passings of pop music figures greatly admired and grudgingly respected, in that order.
I’m presently bending my lobes to a live tape of Alex Chilton, from twenty five freaking ears ago last month. Now, that should have read years, natch, but it does feel like the ongoing time I’ve possessed of this tape has caused much wear and tear on that many pairs of ears. Certainly as many of them involved listening to this wayward Memphis gent whose departure has affected me like few relative rock icons have. There were even a few cherished instances spent within proximity.
Case in pernt: 1981. I was avidly a fan of Big Star and the solo stuff; Alex’s Like Flies On Sherbert solo disc in particular was a firm favorite among my immediate clique of devotees of off-road-ditch-bound musical expression. It was with a few of said like-minded geeks that I went to Washington DC’s 930 Club to see Our Guy.
Ugh and triple ugh; visibly, he was not the bright-eyed Anglophilic sharpie that we knew from the covers of Big Star sleeves, or even the Box Tops. Point of fact, Chilton looked like at least seven shades of thrice-denuded landfill; we’re talking someone whose mere presence would shame even the lowest of Reno slot-machine joints. Bloated from booze and who knows what else, wearing sunglasses after dark and slept-in jeans, Chilton’s sole sartorial concession to Professional Show Biz being a dark blue smoking jacket.
Fortunately Chilton had an amazing band behind him, inexplicably choosing to be a singing not playing front man (one of his many perverse gestures of the night). On guitar and bass were two fellow Memphians; the guitar player, I later divined, was one Jim Duckworth. Even then I was resistant and skeptical of technique over visceral intent when it came to axemen. But I was won over, despite myself: indeed, Duckworth’s impeccably raw and tasty chops would result in being headhunted by LX’s bud Tav Falco and then, later, Jeffrey Lee Pierce of the Gun Club. And yes, I saw each of those bands with Duckworth when they hit DC.
Meantime, on the pagan skins Chilton had installed Jim Sclavunos, who some of you these days might know from that living monument to pretension Nick Cave’s mob.
Things moved from focus to blur within the half-hour set, woozily swaying from loose-limbed rockabilly to Johnny Mathis’ “Chances Are” (!), with barely a smatter of Chilton originals and nothing from his previously celebrated combos. There was this bridge & tunnel nutjob who clearly didn’t know Alex from Adam, offering up a coke-spoon necklace to him between tunes. And then before doing Porter Wagoner’s C/W rehab oddity ‘Rubber Room’, Chilton entreated the soundman to lay on the slapback vocal echo, Sun Records style . When said feat was accomplished, he said ‘now that guy knows what he’s doing!’.
To which some punter shouted, ‘so do you, Alex!’. In response, Chilton lifted his shades, smiled for the first and only time that night, and said ‘True!’.
Fast-forward then to a night of curveballs: spring 1985, again at the 930 Club, the source of the aforementioned tape. Only the barest mind-boggling whispers of what Chilton had been up to since that dreadful ‘81 visitation – was he really working as a dishwasher in New Orleans, or a tree surgeon? – but the place was packed.
Talk about a before and after shot; rail thin and appearing in the rudest of health, Chilton came out once again hoisting a guitar and backed up by a cracking rhythm section. A brief tune up, count five and whap, right into ‘In The Street’. Powerpop nirvana thus transpired. Chilton still didn’t mind airing a few salvaged pop nuggets, including a Carole King girl-group smoochfest and an assured medley of Slim Harpo swamp-rockers (Chilton even laying on the requisite wheezy Harpo mouth-organ). This was a ploy that became a standard element to any Chilton solo set over the years, which enthralled as much as enraged those who came to hear variations on ‘September Gurls’, for sure.
And yet, if one was open to it, it only reinforced the performing persona Chilton had assumed, that of an all-around entertainer (albeit one with an astounding if languishing back catalog of truly classic rock). I remember he even made a point on that night of repeatedly reminding the crowd to tip their waitresses.
And now he’s gone (cue ‘Take Care’ from Big Star 3rd/Sister Lovers; a more prescient fade into the sunset couldn’t be better conceived).
Two quick, final thoughts: first, knowing that one of his other passions was astrology, I can’t help but imagine if Chilton had lived another twenty years or so and decided to give up performing altogether, how cool it would have been for him to cash in on his stargazing abilities. I for one would have loved the idea of opening one of the weekly free rags, and turning to the weekly horoscope column by Alex Chilton.
And second? Conscious of the love he had for his adopted hometown, I sure as hell hope that he got a proper New Orleans funeral, second line and all.
Was going to ruminate on that old scalawag Malcolm McLaren, too, but will have to save it for next time (which will be sooner than never, for sure, with much newish music to discuss!).