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RIP: Alex Chilton, Pop Auteur, Dead At 59

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MEMPHIS COMMERCIAL APPEAL: Alex Chilton, the pop hitmaker, cult icon and Memphis rock iconoclast best known as a member of 1960s pop-soul act the Box Tops and the 1970s power-pop act Big Star, died Wednesday at a hospital in New Orleans. The singer, songwriter and guitarist was 59. “I’m crushed. We’re all just crushed,” said John Fry, owner of Memphis’ Ardent Studios and a longtime friend of Chilton’s. “This sudden death experience is never something that you’re prepared for. And yet it occurs.” Chilton and Big Star had been scheduled to play Saturday as part of the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. MORE

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: One of the biggest names at this year’s SXSW music festival in Austin, Tex. was reunited ’70s power-pop pioneers Big Star, who had a gig scheduled for late this Saturday night. The festival was hit hard by tonight’s sad news that Big Star frontman Alex Chilton has passed away at age 59. Big Star drummer Jody Stephens and bassist Andy Hummel were also scheduled to appear at a Saturday afternoon panel devoted to Big Star’s legacy. Chilton had not been expected to participate at that event; a rep for SXSW says that his bandmates are considering going ahead with the panel, recast as a tribute to their late friend. The rep adds that the status of the band’s Saturday night performance is “still up in the air” at this time.

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“Alex Chilton always messed with your head, charming and amazing you while doing so,” SXSW Creative Director Brent Grulke said in a statement. “His gift for melody was second to none, yet he frequently seemed in disdain of that gift. He seemed as troubled by neglect as he did by fame. He wrote the most accessible pop songs that turned into something quite sour on closer reflection. It was impossible to know what he was thinking. But it was always worth pondering, because that’s what a truly great artist makes us do. And make no mistake: Alex Chilton was an artist of the very highest caliber. It’s too early to do much but cry about our loss right now, but he’ll be missed, and missed more as the ages pass and his myth continues to expand — that music isn’t going anywhere. R.I.P. and thank you, friend.” MORE

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ROCK SNOB ENCYCLOPEDIA: BIG STAR. It has been said that the genre of power pop–frail white man-boys with cherry guitars reinvigorating the harmonic convergence of the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Byrds with the caffeinated rush of youth–is the revenge of the nerds. Big Star pretty much invented the form, which explains the worshipful altars erected to the band in the bedrooms of lonely, disenfranchised melody-makers from Los Angeles to London and points in between.

Though they never came close to fame or fortune in their time, the band continues to hold a sacred place in the cosmology of pure pop, a glittering constellation that remains invisible to the naked mainstream eye. Succeeding generations of pop philosophers and aspiring rock Mozarts pore over the group’s music like biblical scholars hunched over the Dead Sea Scrolls, plumbing the depths of the band’s shadowy history, searching for meaning in Big Star’s immaculate conception and stillborn death.

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Big Star was the sound of four Memphis boys caught in the vortex of a time warp, reinterpreting the jangling, three-minute Brit-pop odes to love, youth and the loss of both that framed their formative years, the mid-’60s. Just one problem: It was the early ’70s. They were out of fashion and out of time. Within the band, this disconnect with the pop marketplace would lead to bitter disillusionment, self-destruction and death. But that same damning obscurity would nurture their mythology and become Big Star’s greatest ally, a formaldehyde that would preserve the band’s three full-length albums–No. 1 Record, Radio City and Sister Lovers/Third–as perfect specimens of classic guitar pop. That Big Star’s recorded legacy would go on to inspire countless alternative acts is one of pop history’s cruelest ironies–everyone from R.E.M. to the Replace-ments to Eliott Smith would come to see Big Star as the great missing link between the ’60s and the ’70s and beyond.

big_star_press_pix.jpgThere is a dreamy, pre-Raphaelite aura that surrounds the legend of Big Star. Like the doomed, tender-aged beauties in Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel The Virgin Suicides, the tragic career of Big Star would unravel in the autumnal Sunday afternoon sunlight of the early 1970s. The band’s sound and vision hinged on the contrasting sensibilities of songwriters Alex Chilton and Chris Bell. In the gospel of Big Star, Bell is the sacrificial lamb–fragile, doe-eyed and marked for an early death. Chilton is the prodigal son, returning to Memphis after traveling the world, having tasted the bacchanalian pleasures of teen stardom with the Box Tops in the 1960s.

Where Bell was precious and naive, Chilton was nervy and sardonic, but the band’s steady downward spiral would set him on the dark path of personal disintegration–booze, pills, violence and attempted suicide. Years later, he would reinvent himself as an irascible iconoclast and semi-ironic interpreter of obscure soul, R&B and Italian rock ‘n’ roll. Drummer Jody Stephens, the wide-eyed innocent of the group, and bassist Andy Hummel, the sly-grinning sphinx with the glam-rock hair, were the shepherds in the manger, midwives to the miracle birth. In the aftermath of Big Star’s collapse, Stephens would become a born-again Christian, and Hummel would go on to design jet fighters for the military, anonymous and happy behind the wall of secrecy his job would require. – JONATHAN VALANIA

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  September’s Girl

Big Star and the Big Uneasy.

by Jonathan Valania

It’s roughly five 10 years ago and I’m heading over to Alex Chilton’s house, a charming Creole cottage of Civil War vintage he’s in the midst of restoring. Chilton is a forbidding totem of American music with a formidable pedigree: white soul prodigy; guiding light of Big Star; progenitor of power-pop purity, pill-addled punk and swampy garage blooze; indie’s aging princeling of white failure. He’s a musician’s musician, and each entry on his resume has spun off countless imitators and innovators. He got his house for a song, he tells me, because it’s located in one of the Big Easy’s more depleted neighborhoods. He’d warned me in advance that cab drivers were reluctant to venture there during the day and wouldn’t even consider it after dark.

As the cab slows at a stop sign, two men in tracksuits approach and the driver waves them off, slamming the locks down and rolling up the windows. I see the suspicion in his eyes as he shoots daggers at me in the rearview mirror. What business would a white boy have here other than scoring drugs?

“Why are you going here?” he demands.

“I’m going to visit Alex Chilton. Do you know of him?”

The cabbie ignores me. As the sun dips below the skyline, I begin to wonder how I’m going to get back to my hotel.

“Will you come back and get me later on?” I ask.

“Hell no!”

When we finally get to Chilton’s house, it looks like a beached tugboat in the weeds. Bars cover the doors and windows. Once inside I tell Chilton about the cabbie’s uneasiness.

“Well, one of them did get shot down the street a month ago,” he says straight-faced, before turning indignant, adding, “But it’s broad daylight! What a pussy!”

Chilton is the only white person in the neighborhood, he confirms, though that could soon change. A Caucasian couple is looking to buy the place across the street.

“There goes the neighborhood,” he deadpans. “I’ve always lived in black neighborhoods. I’ve always related to black people more than white people. If I lived in a white neighborhood, all my neighbors would be washing their BMWs and tending to the garden, and I can’t really relate to that.”

Chilton said something else to me that day that would become evident in the wake of the recent flood and the diaspora that followed: “In the South they don’t care how close the black man gets as long as he doesn’t get too big. In the North they don’t care how big the black man gets as long as he doesn’t get too close.”

Next week sees the release of In Space by a reconstituted Big Star, effectively ending a 27-year hiatus and a looming power-pop legend that has grown in that time. In Space doesn’t really work as a Big Star record, with only a few tracks even remotely connected to #1 Record or Radio City in texture and tenor. But with its giddy forays into white soul, sock-hop bop, surf rock and jazzy splatter, it’s a pretty darn good Alex Chilton record.

Chilton stayed home to ride out Katrina and wound up trapped in his house for a week. The water came up only to his front step, but evacuation was deemed too risky for even this fearless straddler of racial boundaries as New Orleans devolved into a sunken pirate ship. Fortunately, a rescue boat finally spotted the white sheet he’d hung out his window, and Chilton was delivered from evil.

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alex.jpgForever to be known as the guiding light in Big Star’s twinkling constellation of pure pop, Alex Chilton would probably have it any other way. It’s unlikely Chilton will ever again give power-pop fetishists what they crave so hungrily: more of the same. The irascible singer/songwriter cipher has spent the past 33 years confounding people’s expectations, including his own. Nobody figured a 16-year-old white kid could sing with the soulful growl he wielded during his tenure with the Box Tops in the ’60s. Big Star’s feathery weave of the Beatles and the Byrds was hardly par for the course in the shaggy dog days of the early ’70s, which, in part, explains why the band never really sold any records before disbanding. And from the late ’70s onward, his solo career zigs, sometimes brilliantly, when his audience zags. In the ’90s he pretty much dispensed with songwriting altogether, settling into the role of semi-ironic interpreter of obscure soul, R&B, jazz and Italian rock ‘n’ roll nuggets. Last year’s Set (Bar/None) continues this trend–from the honky tonk rhumba of “Single Again” to the lipsmacking soul of “Oogum Boogum” and the reefer hoodoo of “You’s a Viper”–but there is no question that the material is delivered with an abiding love for the source material. And “Never Found a Girl” and “Lipstick Traces” are as catchy as anything Chilton has done, with the possible exception of “The Letter” or “September Gurls.” The long-suffering faithful will be glad to hear that Chilton is writing again, so stay tuned. – JONATHAN VALANIA

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