Thursday 26 April 2018

the boys and gurls of indie rock honour a fallen star

There are some artists who live so large in your imagination, you come to believe they are immortal. The normal laws of nature don't seem to apply. And when one day you get a text to say that they have passed away, it gives you a real jolt.

I've been listening to Alex Chilton's music since I was a teenager. I hold this truth to be self-evident: that 'September Gurls' is the most perfect three-minute pop song ever written. Its evocation of youthful lust and angst says all there is to say on the matter.

I never get tired of hearing those sweet power chords. Their sparkle remains undiminished, even though their creator is no longer with us -- Chilton having succumbed to a heart attack on Paddy's Day in New Orleans, aged 59.

He had been due to play the South By South West festival (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, last weekend, with the band he co-founded in 1971, Big Star.

The legendary power-pop purveyors had reformed intermittently since the mid-90s but this gig was to be special because original bassist Andy Hummel was due to be on stage with his old bandmates for the first time in 35 years.

As it was, the show turned into an all-star celebration of Chilton and his music, with (deep breath) R.E.M.'s Mike Mills, M Ward, the Meat Puppets' Curt Kirkwood, Evan Dando, John Doe, Chuck Prophet, Chris Stamey, Sondre Lerche, Amy Speace, Susan Cowsill and the Watson Twins all guesting alongside original Big Star drummer Jody Stephens and Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies, who have been an integral part of the reconstituted Big Star since the mid-1990s.

The showcase began with a message from Chilton's widow, Laura, who described the singer as "the most considerate and sincere person I'd ever met".

"He had a blase attitude toward death," her message continued. "It didn't interest him."

Jon Spencer, of the Blues Explosion and side project Heavy Trash, spoke warmly of Chilton, whom Spencer had invited to open for him on a tour 10 years ago. "He'd drive by himself, not with his rhythm section," Spencer recalls. "He had a late-model 1970s Sedan -- a big ol' car, with his amp and guitar in the trunk. He just made his own way, showed up and did his thing.

"Not only was he an amazing guitar player and a beautiful singer and songwriter, but I think he did a lot of very personal, unique, idiosyncratic music," added Spencer.

The first Chilton song I heard was a raucous cover version of his 'Hey Little Child' by local guitar heroes the Stars of Heaven, which surfaced on a compilation album recorded live at Dublin's now defunct Underground venue in 1985.

Years before Teenage Fanclub would become the keepers of the Big Star flame for a new generation of indie rock fans, Stephen Ryan and Stan Erraught's mob were dropping Chilton classics like 'Free Again' and 'Jesus Christ' into their live sets. The latter remains one of the very few Christmas songs in rock'n'roll that doesn't make you feel like regurgitating your mince pies.

Teenage Fanclub's raison d'etre was said to be to recreate the sound of Big Star's second album, Radio City. They succeeded.

They prefaced one of their B-sides with a clip from an old radio interview Chilton did in the 1970s, and even became his backing band for a number of shows in 1996 -- a gig from Glasgow's 100 Note venue recorded live for radio was posted on to YouTube in the wake of Chilton's death.

Here, Alex sounds energised as they run through standards from Dan Penn to Ernest Tubb to the Beach Boys, all sung in his soft Memphis drawl.

A few months after these shows in 1996, I heard Teenage Fanclub play an immaculate version of 'September Gurls' at the Feile At The Point. And the Glaswegians reportedly named their third album, Thirteen, after Chilton's unforgettable ballad.

I also have fond memories of hearing the late Elliott Smith nail a note-perfect version of 'Thirteen' to an empty room at a soundcheck on the day of a Dublin gig in the late 1990s, while I was waiting to interview him. Elliott caught the song's sense of innocence and desire perfectly.

I was lucky to catch Big Star's first ever shows in these islands -- they headlined a tent at the Reading Festival in 1993, under the respectful gaze of John Peel, and the next day played their own show at the Clapham Grand in London. With those shows, a star was re-born.

Their only Irish show came later, in 2001, when they played the Red Box (now Tripod).

Despite the adulation he received from successive generations of music fans and musicians -- Yo La Tengo were another band who acted as Chilton's backing group -- Chilton always seemed to have an ambivalent attitude to Big Star -- he refused to speak about his old band in interviews.

Musically, he branched out quite far after Big Star: his solo records took in fringe punk, lounge crooning, swamp rock, rockabilly and weird country.

He made an acoustic solo album, Cliches, full of old standards made famous by the likes of Chet Baker and Nina Simone.

If there was no pattern to his ever-changing musical moods, that's the way he always operated -- after all, he started off as a teenybopper heartthrob fronting The Box Tops in the late 1960s. Looking at their old TV appearances on YouTube, one is struck by how ill at ease Chilton looks -- but then he was of an age when most of his peers were busy studying for the equivalent of the Junior Cert.

The day after his death, his friend Steve Cohen -- a Democrat representing his home town of Memphis -- paid a warm tribute to Chilton in front of his fellow Congressmen on Capitol Hill. (See it online at

From Dublin to Washington, a true star is mourned.

Irish Independent

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