Children by the million...
have actually never heard of Alex Chilton
by James Mann
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."
--from "Alex Chilton" by The Replacements (Pleased to Meet Me, 1987).
Can't blame the 'Mats for indulging in a bit of rock and roll hyperbole -- after all, it was their claim to fame. But the sad fact is, there probably aren't a million people on the planet who even know who Alex Chilton is.
Alex Chilton died Wednesday night in a New Orleans hospital at 59. That's damn young, but this is a guy who weathered teen fame as a Box Top, was instrumental in creating both power pop and indie rock with Big Star, released a wealth of solo material (some brilliant, some depressingly bad), hell, he even survived Katrina. He did his time, and we are all the better for it.
Even if the millions don't know his name, they know his art. Maybe it's the old-beyond-his-years vocals of "The Letter" and "Cry Like A Baby" as a teenager in the Box Tops, endlessly played on classic rock and oldies radio. Or "In The Street" from Big Star's debut #1 Record, showing up reworked by Cheap Trick as the theme to That '70s Show. Maybe it's Jeff Buckley tackling "Kanga Roo" from Big Star's final, morose masterpiece Third/Sister Lovers. Yeah, Alex Chilton is everywhere, and there isn't a band formed since Big Star that doesn't owe something to them.
Chilton triumphed when he hung his heart on his sleeve and served up his emotions raw. His excesses were legendary, and a lot of the fables about him are probably true, a scary prospect. I saw him once with Tav Falco's Panther Burns, and I wish I hadn't; Chilton wasn't at his best, and witheringly dismissed a request for a Big Star song with "You're in the wrong decade, pal." Like the Replacements who lionized him, he had his bad shows, bad records... but when he was good, he was untouchable. I believe fame -- both its highs and the lows -- wore on him:
Try to understand what I'm going through / Don't blame me for what folks will do / For some of us it's not a good time, but you're going to get choosed to / And you'd better resign yourself / You get what you deserve/ You ought to find out what it's worth/ And you've gotta have a lotta nerve.
Alex Chilton had a lotta nerve. And talent, and heart.
Take care not to hurt yourself/ Beware of the need for help/ You might need too much/ And people are such/ Take care, please, take care
Some people read idea books/ And some people have pretty looks/ But if your eyes are wide/ And all words aside
This sounds a bit like goodbye/ In a way it is, I guess/ As I leave your side/ I've taken the air
"Take Care," Big Star, Third/Sister Lovers
Maybe children by the millions do know him, after all. He surely knew them, and all of us.
Alex Chilton, take care.