Alex Chilton, RIP

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
March 18 2010 3:18 PM

Alex Chilton, RIP

This is a guest post from The Big Money Editor Jim Ledbetter

Fox's That '70s Show featured a version of Big Star's "In The Street" as its theme song. In a classic bit of postmodern alchemy, this means that Alex Chilton's perfect song about teenage boredom is now far better known than it was in the 1970s but only a small percentage of that larger fan base even realizes that he wrote it.

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To the purist, the sitcom's bowdlerized rendition (it's performed by Todd Griffin in Season 1, and Cheap Trick in Seasons 2 through 8) is offensive. It omits the sloppier sides of adolescent angst, particularly the line "Wish we had/ A joint so bad." Yet thinking about Chilton since his death last night at the age of 59, it seems sadly apt that it's his legacy to be mostly edited out of a popular sitcom. A teenage byproduct of extended bubblegum culture, he spent the rest of his life trying to match his oversized melodic talent to some other genre and not only failed but much of the time didn't even appear to try. It is common for rock critics to say that a guitar riff or song is "tossed off"; for Chilton, entire decades were tossed off.

I can't imagine what it would be like to achieve international rock 'n' roll fame at the age of 16, which is how old Chilton was when, as the lead singer for the hastily assembled Box Tops, he belted "The Letter" into a megahit in 1967. Even then, his artistic identity was obscured; it was Wayne Carson Thompson's song, and if radio listeners thought they were hearing the gravelly voice of a 60-year-old black singer, well, that was partly the point.


 

That experience taught Chilton everything he needed to know about the rock and roll business: It was sleazy, it was mass-produced, and the relationship between money and art was as arbitrary as it needed to be. Big Star, Chilton's band that put out three albums in the early '70s that are still well worth repeated listening, was a reasonably sincere effort to bring art and commerce into some clearer harmony. These records contain the biggest legacy Chilton offered rock music: lush power pop with minimal but effective lyrics. At the time, a few bands such as Badfinger were succeeding with similar sounds, but their influence could really be heard a generation later in Teenage Fan Club and Matthew Sweet.

But Big Star records didn't sell, and Chilton slid into a long period of what can charitably be called experimentation. Modern music is overflowing with examples of artists who pursue new sounds, with or without the support of their fans, sometimes yielding great artistic success (Miles Davis), sometimes unlistenable self-indulgence (Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music). With Chilton, the goal seemed less to innovate than simply to retreat. He couldn't succeed with his own music, and couldn't stand to reproduce others' songs in a straight way, so in 1979 he released Like Flies on Sherbert, a deliberately mutilated compilation of half-assed songs. This was followed by Bach's Bottom, which not only rhymed with the place he found himself rock bottom but was a depressed pun about the band that made him famous.

With so many rock artists manqué, we look reflexively, almost hopefully, for the bottle or the needle. With Chilton, it was hard to tell, and seemed beside the point; his more fundamental problem was that he couldn't find a musical role that was genuinely satisfying.

The New York punk scene revived him to a degree, mostly as a producer, and a modest Chilton cult and legend began to grow. Everyone cites this lyric from the Replacements song "Alex Chilton": "Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes 'round," but dozens would be closer to the truth. And if the public was indifferent to him, Chilton, who supported himself with dishwashing jobs, seemed to feel the same way. Who else would put out a collection of jazz standards like "Let's Get Lost" and "My Baby Just Cares For Me," as Chilton did in 1994, and undermine it by calling it "Clichés"?

I saw him live in the mid-'90s at the old Knitting Factory, and one verse into a requested Big Star song I think it was "In the Street" he stopped and said: "I can't sing this song. What was I, 19 when I wrote it? And for complex musical reasons we're not going to go into, we can't play it in a different key." Which is kind of funny, but few were laughing. He also went through a stage where he would only play covers of cheesy Italian pop songs, which is exactly as rewarding as it sounds.

Yet he continued to tour, sometimes driving himself around in an old station wagon. One hears that the royalties from That '70s Show are what kept him going in recent years, and, Lord knows, he earned it. It's hard not to sympathize with someone who can't or doesn't want to go back to a phony commercial success. And that's the way I will think about Chilton: like Danny Bonaduce or the kids from Facts of Life , caught between the trappings of fame but unable to grow up in public.

 

Juliet Lapidos is a staff editor at the New York Times.

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