I'm In Love With That Song
Alex Chilton of The Box Tops and Big Star, dead at 59
by Will Brennan
Alex Chilton passed away in New Orleans on March 17th, 2010. He was 59 years old and a heart attack was apparently the cause of his death. He was getting ready to play the SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas with members of his legendary band, Big Star.
Alex Chilton was one of those figures in music who lurk on the outskirts of town, who are talked about more than actually heard, who's legend looms as a large shadow cast over the musical landscape. Paul Westerberg wrote the song "Alex Chilton," recorded on The Replacements Pleased to Meet Me, where he envisions Chilton as a savior/alien, someone who's above it all and part of it all, imagining that everyone knows him and his songs.
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."
Then he goes on to say -
I never travel far without a little Big Star.
It's one of Westerberg's most well known songs, a dose of double irony, since Westerberg falls roughly into the same category as Chilton - acknowledged musical trailblazer, an ideosyncratic musician who deserved larger recognition, got universal critical acclaim but always lurks on the outskirts of town. Because, perhaps, in a world where the axis is off and minds are clouded with manipulation, it would be incongruous for them to become famous. To wish for it is probably to hope for a complete impossibility.
Chilton had a strong taste of fame early on, as lead singer of the 60's band The Box Tops. when he was only a teenager. "The Letter," and "Cry Like a Baby" were huge hits, but the group disbanded and Chilton moved to Memphis, his home town. The Box Tops were poised to be a force in music as large as, say, The Rascals, and they were all the more remarkable because Chilton's voice evoked the soul of a man much older, and less white. But Chilton had obviously soaked up the soul of Memphis - he was the real thing.
Chilton's next band, Big Star, was formed in 1971, and their first album, #1 Record, got critical acclaim, but sold poorly, blamed mainly on bad marketing and distribution. The same thing happened with their second release, Radio City. By the time their third record, Third/Sister Lovers came out, the band, who had a history of fighting, had broken up. The record had limited success.
The real reason Big Star never rose to the top of the pop charts may have been a more problematic and insolvable one, though. They were massively talented, wrote great songs, (mostly by Chilton and Chris Bell) put out brilliantly produced records, but they didn't exemplify any one particular musical trend. Big Star was all over the place, they combined many elements of style and influences - Beatles, Kinks, Stones - country, (The Ballad of El Goodo, Way Out West) blues rock, (Don't Lie to Me) stellar melodic pop, (When My Baby's Beside Me) heartfelt ballads, (Give Me Another Chance, What's Going Ahn) gorgeous folk with open tunings ala Joni Mitchell, (Watch The Sunrise) Memphis soul-jazz, (Oh My Soul).
They came at a time when The Beatles had broken up and people were looking for some new direction in music to appear. The more popular groups of that time were mainly one thing - blues rock, country rock, pop. Big Star was just too much for the public to get a grip on, they were spilling out in all directions, they had too many ideas, they were just too good. If they'd had one breakout hit, it might have changed the destiny of the band, but that didn't happen.
What Big Star left is three great, major records in the canon of music.
Alex Chilton continued as an independent solo artist but put out what were mainly tossed off records. Big Star had reformed and had been touring in recent years.
Chilton and Big Star were an influence on bands and musicians such as REM, Beck, Ryan Adams, Jeff Buckely, Wilco and others. Chilton and Big Star will continue to loom large on the outskirts of town, casting their shadow, until that day the world catches up, brings them into the town center and erects up a well deserved statue. Maybe a hip filmmaker will fill his movie with Big Star, and everyone, by the millions, will say, "What's that song? I'm in love with that song."