It's nearly 24 hours after learning that Alex Chilton has died, and I'm still stuck in the denial stage. Much like his music, the frontman for Big Star always seemed like he would live forever. Back in 2005, during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Chilton had disappeared, and we'd feared we had lost him then. When he finally showed his head, no worse for wear, I just assumed he'd outlive us all.
Chilton spent over 40 years of his shortened life as a professional, and his work can easily be divided into four distinct periods. The Box Top Years (1966-1970), Big Star (1971-1974), Solo (1976-1995), Revival (1993-Present). While he continued playing solo shows, the big draw at the end of his career was the reformed Big Star, with original drummer Jody Stephens along with The Posies' Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow (lineup was scheduled to play this Saturday at SXSW). He started out playing bluesy songs that were written by someone else (with The Box Tops) before moving on to innovating both rock and the recording studio with his original work in Big Star. His solo career was an odd mix of the two, with Chilton bouncing between artsy studio originals and interpretations of rhythm & blues nuggets from the past.
It was his work in Big Star, though, that really demanded our attention. The songs were equally wide-eyed and wise, sloppy and precise, ultimately suggesting that anything was possible. Much like The Velvet Underground before them, they didn't sell a lot of records, but a good percentage of those who made a Big Star purchase went on to form a band. I was exposed early, but didn't grasp their greatness until college, when bands like The Replacements, R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub and The Posies made it easier to hear why. Saw Chilton play a solo show in '95 on his A Man Called Destruction Tour, and he was cool, charming and even a bit sleazy... exactly how I imagined him. Saw him again a couple more times with Big Star (thank you Posies) over the years, but haven't had that itch scratched since the Katrina scare. Now we'll just have to make do with the recordings.
There's yet to be a definitive collection of Chilton's work, both for the number of labels and genres it encompasses, so I thought I'd put together a double CD of his work going from the Box Tops all the way to his fairly recent live solo album (Live in Anvers).
Playlist: Essential Alex Chilton (tracklisting)
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee) did his best to pay tribute to Chilton on the House floor today as well.
Previously: Power Pop 1966-1978 - Pioneers / Big Star - Keep an Eye on the Sky (Review)