I could barely believe it when he said yes. Well actually, to be more precise, I couldn’t believe it when, after asking whether the evasive, elusive, and reclusive Alex Chilton might possibly consent to an interview with me for my music column in the Boston Phoenix’s Stuff@Night magazine, his publicist checked with the man, called me back, and said yes, he would. What did I have in mind and how much time would I need? Talking about his new album of covers, of course, his career, and, ahem, Big Star. Shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes. I then made my usual joke about promising to make the interview as “painless” as possible, having heard about Chilton’s mercurial personality, his reputation for irritability and general cantankerous temperament. I was given a day, time, and a number in Louisiana (where he made his home) to call. My heart sank when, upon dutifully calling at exactly the appointed time and agreed-upon day, a soft voice that was unmistakably Chilton’s picked up. I introduced myself. “Oh, hi,” the voice said, wanly and a bit weakly, which gave me pause. “I’m so sorry,” he began. “But could you possibly call me back tomorrow at the same time at this number? I promise to be here and we can talk then.”
I felt a little sick to my stomach, convinced that, somehow, the moment I agreed to the new day and put the phone receiver down, I’d lose Alex Chilton forever. But what could I do? I had to say yes and hide my disappointment and a creeping dread that he had suddenly changed his mind. Not wanting him to hear the fear, I summoned as upbeat and casual a tone as I could muster. “Sure, absolutely no problem,” I said. “Look forward to talking to you then, Alex. Thanks and I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
The next day, figurative fingers crossed, I called the number, almost expecting it to be disconnected. But the same soft voice answered as promised, and I heard myself inexplicably push my luck by asking, as a courtesy, if it was still a good time for him to talk. He said yes, and magically, I was on the phone with the man chiefly responsible for writing and recording some of the most sadly beautiful, poignant pop music of all time. This was before I discovered the genius of a tape recorder and telephone hookup (told you I was an analog guy living in a digital world).
So there I was, furiously scribbling notes and as many complete sentences as fast as humanly possible, while I juggled asking questions from my list and he calmly answered. Throughout, Chilton was surprisingly candid, forthcoming, and thoughtful. And while I was careful to front-load questions about his new album and tour (which is what most artists care about promoting, bottom line), and had crafted the arc of the interview to ease into the ancient past, to my grateful surprise and relief, Alex readily and easily talked about the subject I obviously cared most about: Big Star.
Around the time he had begun describing his self-destructive descent into drug use, heavy drinking, and a world that felt like it was falling apart, the 20-minute mark had come and gone. I had taken note of it but did not want to cut Alex off in the middle of a painful memory and say, “OK, time’s up!” That, to me, would have seemed abrupt, jarring, and rude. Besides, he seemed to enjoy our conversation and had opened up considerably more than I thought he would. What reporter in their right mind would want to cut that short? In retrospect, I’ve wondered whether he was just indulging me, tolerating me. I’ve thought about this over the years and replayed the interview in my mind (damn, I wish I had that recorder back then) for one reason: because in one sudden instant, what happened next turned one of the professional highs of my life — and one of my best interview coups — into one of the weirdest, coldest, and most awkwards moment I’ve ever encountered.
“You know,” Chilton said, speaking slowly and drawing out the words in a Southern drawl that was icy and distant, “When we started, you said you only needed 20 minutes.” It was the tone of a man who had been lied to, tricked, betrayed. If daggers could be sent through phone lines to stab you on the other end, they would sound and feel like this did. Silence. Remember when you were playing dodgeball in sixth grade and took one right in the gut (or a lower part of the anatomy) and had the wind knocked out of you? This was like that. I regrouped, stammered an apology, explained the time had gotten away from me. And opted *not* to politely inform Alex that, had he been really paying attention to the time, he would have realized that it was he, not me, that took us cruising over the 20-minute mark. I finished by thanking him for his time and asking if he had anything he wanted to add. He calmly told me, “No, I don’t have anything to sell.” Which wasn’t true, of course. Then a pause. “But thank you.”
Upon hearing about the exchange, my editors were incredulous, but laughed at how surreal and difficult that moment must have been. One of them even informed me that I had just been awarded the rock critics’ purple heart for “surviving an interview with Alex Chilton.” A veteran music journalist pal told me that Chilton had likely turned on me because he realized he had given away more than he had intended, had let the balance of power shift to the interviewer, resented that he had been drawn out, and wanted to seize back, and wield, control. Because Alex Chilton was all about control (he reportedly never forgave producer Jim Dickinson for mixing “Sister Lovers” without him and says so in the piece below). Still stinging from the encounter, I did not introduce myself to Chilton when he passed right in front of me, unnoticed or at least unmolested, by the crowd before his show at the Middle East in Cambridge.
It took me a little while to be able listen to Big Star with my heart as well as my ears again. But of course I got there, or I wouldn’t be launching “RPM” with a tribute to one of my favorite bands of all-time. It took me longer to pull the dagger out, though, and convince myself that maybe, just maybe, because I was good at what I did, I actually unnerved Alex Chilton in a different way than he had unnerved me. Here was a most guarded and wary guy who found himself lured into a good conversation, out in the open, talking freely about drugs, depression, self-doubt. And upon realizing his candor, didn’t much like it that someone , to his mind, had gotten the best of him. In the truest sense of the word “best.”
As a longtime news reporter, I frequently had been on both ends of contentious, even outright hostile, exchanges with people who did not like their authority questioned or their power challenged. Yet, the way in which our conversation turned from convivial to cutting hurt me in a way I can’t fully explain, and lingered for a long time. When I read the news that Alex Chilton had died of a heart attack at the age of 59 in 2010, I sat stunned, feeling as though a connection to a crucial part of my world had been taken. A severed connection, just as I had feared, and then lived, on that telephone call all those years ago. I reached for my Big Star vinyl, listened to Alex’s soft voice sing “Thirteen,” and decided I preferred to remember the yes.
One of our prized possessions here at the home office headquarters is a radio station promo 45 of Big Star’s “Watch The Sunrise” (with “Don’t Lie To Me” on the flipside), taken from the band’s seminal — and somewhat facetiously titled — debut album from 1972, “#1 Record.” The single, autographed by the band’s drummer Jody Stephens, sits high on a climate-controlled shelf, hermetically sealed in a plastic slipcase.
Alex Chilton, the man who wrote or co-wrote (with co-founder Chris Bell) most of Big Star’s material, is considerably more ambivalent about his band’s legacy — more ambivalent, certainly, than the legions of hardcore fans and artists who have long championed a group that sold few records in its lifetime and yet made an indelible mark on the underground/alternative rock landscape the of the eighties and nineties. The Bangles covered Chilton’s “September Gurls.” R.E.M. chatted up Big Star in interviews every chance they got. The Replacements even wrote a song called “Alex Chilton.” And pop artists from Matthew Sweet to Teenage Fanclub to Wilco to the Posies (whose members Chilton himself recruits for occasional Big Star shows) owe a substantial stylistic debt to the band. But still, Chilton doesn’t get what the fuss is all about.
“I think there are a *few* good songs among all of the stuff we did — not really so many great songs, but I think there was some good music there,” says Chilton, who’ll perform at the Middle East downstairs July 7 (local popsters Star Ghost Dog open). “I think some of what we did was pretty innovative musically. But you know, I discriminate between good music and good songs. I think it’s possible for there to be something that’s both musically good and is also a good song — it happens, but not too often.”
Still, for one of pop music’s most mythologized and epically irascible icons to downplay the merits of his band only seems to add to its mystique; it’s just one more way to keep people guessing and ensure the group’s star-crossed legacy as a brilliant if woefully ignored (at the time) and misunderstood outfit. And it’s completely in keeping with Chilton’s contrarian nature, and his penchant for the perverse. That said, despite his reservations about the band, the usually reclusive songwriter who’s mostly shunned interviews on the subject of Big Star — and the cult status that’s only grown around him since its demise — seems finally comfortable embracing the group’s legacy.
In an era when hard rock and big hair ruled the day, and rock bands like Led Zeppelin were stretching out solos and racking up record sales, Big Star’s sparkling, three-minute pop songs might have seemed anachronistic (the word a disc jockey used to describe the band’s sound back in 1974) and commercially risky, given the tenor of the times. “Well, I don’t know, ” he muses. “You can always choose to follow the fashion of the day if you want to — even if it’s something you don’t like — but that would just be to make money and nothing else. But if I was interested in just making money, I’d become an accountant. And I personally could never stand Led Zeppelin.”
Although both were birthed in Memphis, the strange-bedfellow pairing of Big Star’s mercurial music — whose lustrously gleaming melodies were set in deceptive contrast to their decidedly darker lyrical impulses — and Ardent Records, a label distributed by Stax, whose niche was predominantly black soul music, didn’t make the band any easier to market. In short, the consensus is that while critics loved them, nobody really knew what to do with Big Star’s records — or what to make of them. Which is, certainly in retrospect, peculiar and particularly short-sighted. As Chilton tells it, and the records themselves attest, the band’s goal was as simple and straightforward as that of any group of young upstarts with guitars and ambition.
“We wanted to get on the radio and have some hits and make some money,” says Chilton of the band he formed in 1972 with co-songwriter/guitarist Chris Bell, bassist Andy Hummel, and drummer Jody Stephens. “When we made the Big Star records, nobody really got a chance to hear them at the time and I thought, well, they haven’t done that well. Maybe in a better world. I didn’t notice that people had noticed (the band) at all until the late ‘70’s when Big Star fans started showing up to a lot of my gigs. It was only then that I realized Big Star had some staying power.”
At the time, however, frustrated and chagrined at their lack of success — actually, the utter absence of recognition or acknowledgment of their existence is more like it — Bell quit Big Star, his confidence in his music, his perceived audience, and himself badly shaken. Essentially, without Bell’s Omega to Chilton’s Alpha, the group dissolved and for all intents and purposes disbanded, broken by public indifference and the personal paralysis it brought. Or so it seemed.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, there seemed to be a flicker of interest and murmur of momentum in Big Star’s music; a small clap of thunder following the fast flash of lightning. Big Star reconvened, but this time, they entered the recording studio without the emotionally troubled and fragile Bell, whose periodic clashes with Chilton for creative control of the group had, over time, become a source of tension. (Tragically, Bell died at age 27 in a one-car crash two days after Christmas, 1978). With Chilton solely and firmly at the helm, the band made what is widely considered to be their definitive masterpiece, 1974’s “Radio City,” a heartache-suffused evergreen of light and shade. In a case of life imitating art (and vice versa), a bright sun soon cast lengthening shadows.
“My life was very placid around the time we began making the Big Star records. And in 1973, I started drinking a lot and using a lot of drugs. It seemed like everybody was doing it, and it had a bit of charm about it,” he says. The late-night parties at Ardent started, and Chilton never left. He regularly crashed on a couch at the studio, frequently passed out in a haze of heroin, pot, booze, and debauchery. But beyond the blur, and beneath the surface status quo, pressure was weighing on Chilton, fueling his habits and driving him downward into a spiral of self-destructive behavior. “I was worried about my future too a little bit, and worried about my second album, and worried that I wasn’t going to be a success,” he concedes candidly, after a moment’s reflection. “Finally around 1975, I quit doing drugs. And suddenly I realized I had a drinking problem.”
Around that time, Chilton had begun work on what would become Big Star’s posthumously released final album known, variously, as “3rd” and “Sister Lovers” (the latter title referring, allegedly, to the fact that Chilton and Stephens were both dating sisters at the time). Despite its place in the pantheon of the great puss, piss, and blood-letting rock albums of all-time, it is a record whose very existence, Chilton announces, he is immensely bitter about. When he speaks of an album more than two decades past its release, there is fresh venom in his voice. “Sister Lovers” was and is not, he insists, a proper Big Star record, nor was it ever necessarily meant to be. Instead, the material drawn from those sessions represented a raw venting of the psyche; an airing out of the Id and an exploration of directions not yet decided upon. They were, he claims, unfinished experiments with sound, mood, texture, and feel; an ongoing rehearsal with the tape rolling.
The album-in-the-works “was ruined by (producer) Jim Dickinson before it ever got out of the studio,” Chilton says in a withering tone that is part derision and part lament at what might have been. “He and (engineer) John Fry took the project out of my hands … and I will dislike Jim Dickinson for the rest of my days for that.” Nevertheless, the album — a chaotic, brutally bleak portrait of emotional desolation (first released by JVC Records in 1978 and then re-released by Rykodisc in 1992) — ranks with Chilton’s most compelling, if scabrous and soul-blasted, work.
These days, Chilton’s got a lot more to talk about than Big Star, which only represents one facet of his 35-year career. He recently released “Set” on Bar/None Records, a raggedly inspired album of assorted R&B covers, jazzy standards, and personal favorites that he and his band cut in one night at a New York studio. And earlier this year, the specialty label Sundazed reissued the catalog of Chilton’s pre-Big Star outfit, the Box Tops (that’s a 16-year-old Alex singing lead on the band’s best-known number, “The Letter”). In fact, the choice of material on “Set,” from Allen Toussaint’s “Lipstick Traces” to soul standards like “Never Found A Girl”, harks back more to Chilton’s days as a blue-eyed soul sensation than they do the Anglophilic power-pop that fueled Big Star. But as several of the album’s other covers attest — the Tin Pan Alley lament “I Remember Mama”; the jazz instrumental “April In Paris” — Chilton, as always, refuses to be pigeonholed. Is there any single element in a song that consistently catches his ear?
“I wouldn’t say so. There’s just something that I relate to in the lyrics or a bit of melody that may grab me,” says Chilton, who — believe it or not — claims he doesn’t think of himself primarily as a songwriter. He’s as much an interpreter, he says, a singer and appreciator of other people’s songs. Indelible and feverishly adored as his original work is, Chilton’s covers-heavy solo catalog, and his eclectic choices on “Set””– and the fact that he even made it in the first place — bears out his assessment of his strengths and predilections. But that doesn’t mean the songs he covers aren’t him — and just as malleable.
“Every song I do has sort of a relationship to the way I feel and the way I think at the moment, and the way that I feel and think can change,” he says. “(Soul music) was just something I grew up with (in Memphis), and I know it well. Somehow, black American music is a particularly strong force to me and growing up in an environment where I heard that kind of music, I just became particularly attuned to it — it just appeals to me.
“I play with three different outfits (the Box Tops have also occasionally reunited for shows) and each one has its own particular character,” he continues. “The other two groups have more of a prescribed sound and they have a certain purpose in mind. So if I’m playing with the Box Tops, then we’re playing soul songs, and if I’m playing with Big Star, then we’re playing pop songs. And if I’m playing with my own band, we play whatever I feel like doing. And the audience just better be ready.” Spoken like, if not exactly a big star (that is, if fame and riches are your definitions of celebrity), then certainly a singular one.
Here’s the link to the trailer for the new Big Star doc, “Nothing Can Hurt Me”: