Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Alex Chilton,1950-2010. R.I.P.

Singer/guitarist Alex Chilton died today suddenly of a heart attack. He was 59.

Chilton is perhaps best known as the lead singer of the 1960s pop group The Box Tops. Their first single "The Letter" hit number one on the Billboard Charts in the summer of 1967 when Chilton was only sixteen. The Box Tops would score other hits such as "Cry Like a Baby", "Neon Rainbow" and my personal favorite "Soul Deep."

The Box Tops would disband in early 1970 but by the following year Chilton would form a new band called Big Star. Unlike the Box Tops, Chilton assumed songwriting duties along with guitarist and singer Chris Bell. Modeled on The Beatles (or more specifically Lennon & McCartney), Big Star did not have much commercial success with their first two albums (#1 Record and Radio City) and would break up by 1974. However, a third album of previously unreleased material titled Third/Sister Lovers (a.k.a. The Third Album) was made available in 1978. Listen to Chilton's vocals on "Holocaust." Shortly after the release of Third, Bell was killed in a car accident on Chilton's 27th birthday.

Big Star would prove to be an influence on artists such as R.E.M., Jeff Buckley (he covered "Kangaroo") and The Replacements. In the case of The Replacements they actually recorded a song titled, "Alex Chilton." Fifteen years later, Chilton and the other surviving members of Big Star would reunite. They would perform together periodically until the end of Chilton's life. In fact, Big Star was scheduled to perform this Saturday at the SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas.

I had the opportunity to see Chilton perform in concert twice here in Boston. The first time was a solo performance in the summer of 2001 at the Paradise Lounge. I actually bumped into him in the bathroom but he seemed preoccupied with his thoughts so I didn't want to bother him. He was mostly singing '50s covers that night and for whatever reason he really didn't seem to be into what he was doing. When I asked him to sing "Kangaroo" he shot me a cold stare. Apparently, Chilton wasn't such a big fan of Big Star's music and told an interviewer in 1995, "In general, I think it's overrated. There are only a few songs that I can stand to play anymore."

Nearly five years later, I saw him with The Box Tops. They were opening for Eric Burdon and The New Animals at Oldies 103.3 Free Summer Concert on the Esplanade on the Charles River. I had won VIP tickets through Oldies 103.3 and took a couple of my friends along. I was there principally to see Burdon but Chilton was an added bonus and he was much better that night than he was nearly five years earlier. Several months after this concert, Chilton had to be rescued from his home in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

Chilton's musical tastes were difficult to pin down. How many artists try their hand at both jazz and punk rock?

Shortly before I went to see Chilton in concert that first time I composed this poem with him as well as the late Nick Drake in mind. It would appear in my first poetry chapbook Oysters & The Newborn Child:

A Skin Too Few

The hat drops
I remove the box top
And out came the big star
That the scientists said was light years far
The information it revealed
Needed to be disclosed
The star said the box had to be sealed
I could not agree to what it proposed
The public needs evidence empirical
Not just a statement lyrical
The star said, "Then off I shoot,"
Thus making my protests moot
The sight of the constellation
Was of small consolation
With my hand I tried to reach
But failed to listen to what it had to teach

If only I knew
When I was born
That I would have a skin too few
And that my welcome would be quickly worn
My existence you rescind
Like crumpled paper picked up by the wind
Is everything that I ever meant
Summed up by the smell of dried roses' scent

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