December 28th was Alex Chilton’s birthday and in 2019 he would have been 69. He died suddenly and young. This is an appreciation of Alex and Big Star that I wrote for State in the doctors’ res room of St Davnet’s Hospital in Monaghan the day I learned of his death—after work, I should add. It was hastily written but deeply felt. My favourite was always Sister Lovers but I’ve grown to love the rest of Big Star—#1 Record in particular—even more since then.
This sounds a bit like goodbye; in a way, it is, I guess.
Alex Chilton, who led Big Star in making three of the most unbelievably beautiful albums in rock’n’roll history, died on March 17th in New Orleans. He died of a heart attack, at 59.
It is hard to overstate his stature, or that of the band he founded in Memphis in 1971 with Andy Hummel, Jody Stephens and the late Chris (‘I Am The Cosmos’) Bell. They are certainly contenders for the title of the best band ever to make popular music.
They never, of course, became big stars. Chilton opened their second album Radio City with ‘O My Soul’ (“I don’t have a licence / To drive in my car / But I don’t really need one / Cos I’m a big star) but by then the first album #1 Record had flopped on a grand scale; Chilton already smelled commercial doom. (He was intermittently an ironist, and intermittently a Romantic of Byronic proportions.) Big Star recorded three proper albums, none of which sold more than a few thousand during the lifetime of the band. (They reformed in 1993 and released a fourth album, In Space, that doesn’t really count for all kinds of reasons.) They were the archetypal posthumously seminal band, becoming legends only long after they disbanded in despair in 1974.
Peter Buck said that Big Star “served as a Rosetta stone for a whole generation of musicians”. The Replacements paid homage with an eponymous song: “And children by the millions sing for Alex Chilton when he comes ’round / They sing “I’m in love, what’s that song? / I’m in love with that song.” Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque was famously all but a retread of Radio City, and it was the imprimatur of TFC that prompted my generation to rediscover them. (We read the reviews, we pretended we knew Radio City, we all sneaked off to buy it, and we all went ‘Wow’.) And it’s been said that if everyone who bought The Velvet Underground and Nico went on to start a band, then everyone who bought Big Star albums went on to be a rock journalist. Certainly, stiff whiskies will be swigged by Dublin hacks tonight.
So we’ve established that Big Star were influential. Every floppy-haired indie combo with a tune in its head and a pair of power chords to rub together has owed something to #1 Record or Radio City. ‘September Gurls’, ‘In The Street’ and ‘Back of a Car’ are the benchmark for punchy, soulful, taut power-pop. There is no fat and not a note wrong with them.
But I am not sitting here today with a hole in my stomach because a the author of some seminal academic works of popular culture is no longer with us. My hack friends and I are staring wearily into our single malts because Alex Chilton wrote songs that ignited every emotion and embroidered themselves into our lives.
We will only know just how ingrained in us these songs are in the coming days, now that we are conscious of our bond with them; so every time we unthinkingly hum a Chilton line or remember a perfect moment soundtracked by a song, as we do daily, we will get a little jolt.
I never hear the glistening opening chords of ‘Watch The Sunrise’ without thinking back to a night necking beers with my friends Nick and Lorraine in 1998 in Elliott Smith’s local in Brooklyn; we were there because #1 Record was on the jukebox. ‘Daisy Glaze’ reminds me of thundery afternoons in Malawi with no electricity, trying to work out the chords on an acoustic guitar. And the first gig I went to with my wife: Big Star in the Red Box in August 2001. I should probably mention that one.
For me, it was always the third album; the album that never really had a name, that didn’t come out till the band was long gone, Third or Femme Fatale, which most people ended up calling Sister Lovers. That record never, ever gets old. There are oceans in it. The songs are finely constructed to make you think that they are falling apart. I don’t know if the rumours about Chilton at the time are true; if he was drinking or on heroin or shooting horse tranquillizers into his eyeball. Sometimes, it sounds like all three at once.
I just know that the songs on Sister Lovers fall apart and come back together and all but disintegrate but don’t. You get vertigo from songs like ‘Holocaust’ and ‘Nightime’ and ‘Kanga Roo’, like you are with Chilton teetering on the edge of the world. And Chilton conducted it like a maestro. As Chris Roberts wrote about the Dexys’ ‘This is What She’s Like’, Sister Lovers is the kind of music that you make when you have done perfect pop as well as it can be done and you are moving on to a purer form of expression. It’s Picasso pop.
Sister Lovers is really tough in parts. It’s harrowing, and you know you are in trouble if you’re relating too closely to about half of the songs (‘Big Black Car’ – ‘Sunny day, highway / If it rains it’s all the same / I can’t feel a thing / I can’t feel a thing… Nothing can hurt me / Nothing can touch me / Why should I care?”).
But what rarely gets mentioned in discussions of Sister Lovers is that Chilton saved for this album his most simple and pure expressions of uncomplicated love; the kind of emotions we live to feel. ‘Blue Moon’ is the one that is on repeat play in my mind. “Morning comes and sleeping’s done / Birds sing outside / If demons come while you’re under / I’ll be a blue moon in the sky / Let me be your one light / And if you’d like a true heart / Take the time to show you’re mine / And I’ll be a blue moon in the dark”.
Songs like ‘Blue Moon’, ‘I’m in Love With a Girl’, ‘The Ballad of El Goodo’ and ‘Take Care’ remind us how to live, which is as good a reason as any why Big Star are so important to us and why we are so very, very sad today. Alex Chilton is dead and that is a damn hard four words to write, but these songs are here forever.