MAYBE IT REALLY WAS MEMPHIS (Alex Chilton R.I.P.–Redux)

[NOTE: I’m snowed under this week so I’m posting an unpublished piece I wrote on the occasion of Alex Chilton’s passing in March of 2010.]

“Hanging out, down the street, the same old thing we did last week”

Big Star: “In The Street”

In 1975 my family was living in rural northern Florida when my sister’s oldest boy moved down from Memphis. I was in high school, he was just out, and over the next year and a half he introduced me to two significant experiences:

The first experience was a running, detailed, part-scary, part-hilarious, part matter-of-fact informal history of life on the mean streets of Memphis circa the early-seventies–what, in other words, exactly was going on when kids hung out down the street and did the same old things they did last week.

The second experience was my introduction to the radio–still vital then, no matter what you may have heard.

My nephew moved out to get on with his life in less than two years. I’m still chasing the music.

Somewhere fairly early in the chase (maybe a decade or so) I came across Big Star.

Imagine my surprise at hearing the world my nephew had so vividly described dragged out of the air and put on wax. Imagine my further surprise at finding this had been done with little–albeit telling–reference to specific detail. (Even today, when I listen to #1 Record or Radio City, I keep searching for the lines about knocking down mailboxes with baseball bats and deciding whether to toss the day’s supply of rotten eggs at houses or hookers which I know must be there right next to “bust the streetlight, out past midnight!”).

Like most great artists, though, Alex Chilton was defined as much by what he left out as by what he put in. I have no idea just how closely his (or Big Star founder Chris Bell’s) actual experiences tracked with my street-tough nephew’s (though I can say that what they did describe tracks very closely indeed). But I know it’s no accident that the feel of listening to those straight-from-the-lower-middle-class-’hood stories and to Big Star’s music were so indelibly linked.

Which is to say you didn’t have to be a survivor of a knife-fight in front of your own house (saved from four crazed white boy assailants–and on a day when you weren’t even running with Bill Black’s nephew**–when a jacket yanked at the collar came miraculously off your back and a yell from your sister came just in time for you to dodge a bowie knife thrown at the back of your head)–or on the public high school record as the fastest white boy in Memphis (which is maybe at least part of how you live to tell about these things) to catch the strange, compelling combination of alienation, fear and intimacy in Big Star’s best music.

The record of this accessibility is well-catalogued now. Among the five great American bands who built the bridge from the “garage” ethos of the sixties to seventies’ punk and eighties-to-today alternative (the Velvet Underground, MC5, Stooges and New York Dolls being their compadres) Big Star were unique in several significant ways.

They were urban but southern (which in the seventies still meant somewhat closer to a rural than industrial sensibility). They were relatively apolitical (which translated into deeply personal stances I would argue ended up being the politics that mattered most–even before taking into account how much, “I’m starting to understand, what’s going on and how it’s planned,” might mean to those of us who grew up in the shadows of Viet Nam and Watergate). They were (perhaps as a result) less openly aggressive–even the assaults were seductive. And, finally, in what was seen then as a quirky aside but spoke more and more powerfully down the years as alienation has become the national monomania, their eventual leader was the only member of those great bands who turned his back on actual–as opposed to theoretical–commercial success.

For all of those reasons, Big Star’s music stayed off the radio–and got around. And, when it had finally gotten around enough, it found–or made–relevance everywhere: in the Los Angeles of Jane Wiedlin and Vicki Peterson, in the the San Pedro of D. Boon and Mike Watt, in the Minneapolis of Paul Westerberg, in the Athens of Mike Mills and Michael Stipe, in the Seattle of Kurt Cobain and, yes, in small North Florida towns, too.

Some of those artists paid direct tribute to Chilton, others may not have cared for him at all. But they and thousands like them were each shaped by environments he and his band made possible. All were children, in a sense, of a man who was famous for being cantankerous and dismissive of his own music (and of Big Star in particular).

That, too, is not unusual for artists of every stripe but it is, in a way, disheartening to contemplate in those with real, not to say monumental, accomplishments. It would be nice to believe there was some internal space to which a man who had been (as leader of the Box Tops) one of the half-dozen greatest white soul voices in rock history, a seminal producer and song-writer and a solo artist who could be great or terrible but could never, ever be accused of standing still, could repair to let his defenses down and accept how much he had meant to so many.

But he was surely right to be wary of too much adulation or self-congratulations–or any unearned idea that the past is merely a warm place to visit. One way and another, “don’t push me ’round,”–an attitude that defines a lot more about Memphis than just its music–has both created a great deal of what is most worthwhile in this world and exacted a terrible price. One way and another, the hard fight to break away from those streets which Big Star illuminated so memorably caught up with everyone from Elvis Presley to Johnny Burnette to Al Jackson, Jr. to Bill Black (not the mention his nephew, see below) to Chris Bell himself.

Whether it finally caught Alex Chilton–in another time and place (i.e., some years down the road in New Orleans)–is harder to say.

What can be said is that in the city where the three great cultural movements of mid-twentieth century America–blues, rockabilly and soul–found their surest footing on the way to changing the world for the better, Chilton and his Big Star brothers made a sound that was unlike anything before it and forged a way ahead that provided a framework for most of what has remained vital in white rock for nearly forty years.

Perhaps more importantly, they made–and inspired–music that has never stopped being a place where those who prefer to be not quite so alienated as the national monomania demands can still find a home.

(**Later beaten to death in Memphis. My nephew wasn’t sure of the details. Sometimes it’s safer that way.)

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