MAYBE IN A BETTER WORLD: Alex Chilton Comes Clean

L-R: Jody Stephens, Andy Hummel, Alex Chilton.

L-R: Jody Stephens, Andy Hummel, Alex Chilton.

Import cover for Big Star's "Third" (or "Sister Lovers") LP.

Import cover for Big Star’s “Third” (or “Sister Lovers”) LP.

Alex Chilton still doesn’t get what all the fuss is about. Well, most of the fuss, anyway. Chilton concedes that his celebrated band, Big Star, had “a *few* good songs”, but he also makes a  distinction between what he calls “good music and good songs.” The pair of albums the band recorded during its lifetime, *#1 Record (Ardent, 1972) and *Radio City* (Ardent, 1974), have their share of  the former, Chilton claims, but not so very many of the latter. We’ll respectfully agree to disagree and leave it at that.

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 ensure Big Star’s legacy as a woefully ignored (at the time), wonderfully anachronistic little outfit. Here were Memphis kids playing gleaming, Anglophilic power-pop during the wankfest-dominated days of early ‘70’s  prog-rock and heavy metal — and having their work distributed by a *soul* label (Stax Records), no less.

“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.”

In some ways, Chilton’s new, covers-only solo album, *Set* (Bar/None) — a rough-and-tumble collection of gritty R&B nuggets, Tin Pan Alley standards, and jazzy instrumentals cut in one night in New York City — is more of a throwback to his earlier days as the teenaged lead singer for the Box Tops, a blue-eyed soul combo with whom he still occasionally performs. Although the Box Tops scored big with tunes like “The Letter” (which went to No. 1 in ‘67) and “Cry Like A Baby” (No. 2 in 1968), it was Chilton’s stormy, brilliant work with the hitless Big Star and the personal tumult that followed that’s made his legend.

“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 … But 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. 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*) — a record he claims “was ruined by (producer) Jim Dickinson before it ever got out of the studio. 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 (re-released by Rykodisc in 1992) — ranks with Chilton’s best work. Even if he himself might believe it only had “a few good songs.”

Watch awesome vintage Big Star footage and listen to “Thirteen”, courtesy of Rhino Entertainment and some intrepid YouTube user. Click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NnEzkeaopmA&feature=share

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