The Replacements wrote a song about Alex Chilton during the 1980s, when he was a cult figure who hadn’t quite been rediscovered yet. It reimagined Chilton as the world-conquering pop superstar he only really was at the very start of his career, and never again: ‘Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes ’round / They sing “I’m in love. What’s that song? I’m in love with that song.”‘
Chilton had his first #1 hit at the age of 16 with The Box Tops, with “The Letter,” a sneering, propulsive slab of teen pop that stands head and shoulders over a lot of its peers – seriously, look at the video above and check out the star power blooming in that kid.
He then resurfaced in the mid-70s as part of Memphis’ Big Star, one of the most influential power-pop bands of all time, crafting unforgettable anthems like “In The Street” and “September Gurls” before moving on to brittle, beautiful broken gems on the gorgeous Third/Sister-Lovers album. Big Star got ‘rediscovered’ by many of us in the 1990s through some great CD reissues, and their cult only continues to grow decades later – like the Velvet Underground, they became legends only long after they were gone.
But after Big Star crumbled apart, Chilton’s career from the late ‘70s to his sadly early death at age 59 in 2010 was a strange hopscotch through genres, laced heavily with sardonic wit and a weird irresistible ennui. He spent the rest of his life carefully taking apart all the things he’d built up – perfect pop songs, aching singer-songwriter ballads – creating a kind of ramshackle, slacker troubadour persona where almost every song seems delivered with a wink and a mildly insincere croon. It’s the sound of irony, the art of falling apart.
Yet while I adore Chilton’s tighter, more remembered Big Star and Box Tops work, there’s a strange charm in him crashing his way through tunes like “My Baby Just Cares For Me” that I find unforgettable. Live albums of him from the period sputter and crackle with devil-may-care slacker pop, but Chilton himself is never less than magnetic. Sometimes you feel him pushing a song just as much as he could before it broke apart.
It wasn’t for nothing that one of his best albums is called A Man Called Destruction. He was the spirit of punk rock incarnated in a teen crooner’s body.
The man wrote some of the great songs of the 1970s, but after that he worked as a dishwasher, a tree-trimmer, a janitor, and a wayfaring gig musician. He moved to New Orleans, where the city’s jazz added a cool, chilled-out vibe to his sound. His sporadic albums mixed loose-limbed originals like “No Sex,” “Bangkok” and “Lost My Job” with out-of-the-box covers of all kinds of ‘50s and ‘60s rarities. He called an album of covers Cliches. He called another one, um, Loose Shoes and Tight Pussy.
Sometimes Chilton could get so loose he’s practically in pieces – since his death, we’ve seen a fair bit of barrel-scraping in unreleased music come out, some of it great, some of it unlistenable.
Do I wish Alex Chilton had written some kind of Pet Sounds-type final masterpiece that had gotten him the acclaim he deserved before the end? Yeah, sort of, but I also appreciate diving into the bits and pieces he left behind, of a man who had nothing to prove and who spent his time scribbling around in the margins and between the lines of the craft he peaked at by age 25.
One thought on “Alex Chilton and the art of falling apart”
Enjoyed that, Nik; I recall the profound impression ‘The Letter’ made on me as a youngster just starting out learning to play the guitar. In the early seventies I saw Joe Cocker perform it. I don’t recall ever having had a chance to see Alex Chilton in the UK, sadly….