Thursday, March 18, 2010

A thought or two on Alex Chilton

I remember where I was when Joe Strummer died. I wasn't too into the Clash but I knew enough to know (from my parents) and what I had read about punk rock that his passing was a big deal, the type of thing that you remember where you were and exactly what was going on at that moment. That was the closest thing that I've had to a musician that I genuinely adore pass away until now.

Like many people, I got into Alex Chilton, and Big Star, because the Replacements wrote a song about him.

What you often find when looking into Big Star is a lot of people saying something along the lines of "you have to understand that no one was doing anything like this before Big Star was doing it, you have to remember that they were the only band that sounded like this and they affected so much that followed."

Here's the thing about a statement like that: I usually end up not liking those bands nearly as much as I'm supposed to. "Oh, you like The Lawrence Arms, well they're just doing what Naked Raygun did twenty years ago." Okay, great, I can appreciate that BUT with twenty years of musical evolution, I find the descendants of Naked Raygun or Joy Division or even Gram Parsons to be more interesting than the fore bearers. Sorry, I know that makes me a terrible hipster.

Big Star is the exception to the rule. I found them a little primal at first. I wasn't too into the jangly guitars or the sound in general, but by the time I turned 20 I got it. And I love Big Star not because of their influence or what they're supposed to mean to the evolution of indie rock, but just because the songs are so fucking good. These were and are some of the best pop songs I've ever heard.

And their story is one that I find fascinating. The commercial flops, under-appreciation, tension, failure. And most of all I was always drawn to Alex Chilton for reasons that I still don't really understand. I mean, the Mats are rarely paying sincere respect to anyone. You know that they loved all those older songs they were covering, but they were also being dicks about playing them. Their respect for Alex Chilton was always without a shit-eating grin, which, when you look at the history of that band, there is rarely anything done without a shit-eating grin.

I can't help but liken the guy to Brian Wilson. A writer of gorgeous pop songs about youth and the passing of time, only Wilson's subject matter was always a youth that seemed too good to be true, too 50's sitcom, too ideal. Alex Chilton was certainly an idealist but you get the sense that he lived it more. Brian Wilson was talking about an ideal that he was always on the outside of--cool cars, surfing, girls. You can't help but get the sense though, that Alex was writing about himself on "Thirteen". Wilson was singing about what he heard kids were doing on "I Get Around," but Alex seeemed to be actively participating in the story of "Down The Street."

Brian Wilson sang about what he perceived to be the ideals of a youth he never really lived, but I think Alex Chilton was singing about the ideals of his own youth.

That's not to discredit Brian Wilson, I love Brian Wilson, and that may be buying a little too much into Big Star seeing as though Alex Chilton had a number one hit when he was thirteen, but I think the fact remains. For whatever reason (or reasons) it just never came together for Big Star but anyone that knows knows. We got the gift of three gorgeous albums, and each gets more interesting as you go along.

The news bummed me out pretty bad last night and I plan on listening to nothing but Big Star when I work tonight.

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