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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Alex Chilton: 1950-2010

Alex Chilton

I count it a rare blessing that I was able to see Mr. Chilton, the lead singer and songwriter of Big Star, once before he died. To me, and thousands of others, his music means more than he ever knew, or wanted to know. He seemed at times to resent his becoming a cult icon. Then again who wouldn't. He was a musician who became canonized for his toiling in obscurity, in difficult and impossible conditions, that somehow managed, in those circumstances to write some of the greatest songs of all-time. I don't blame him for resenting being celebrated for what is probably his crowning achievement, an album chronicling the break up of nearly everything: a record label, a band, himself.

To the American Underground of the early 80's he was god. He was the key, the link to the honest, authentic, American rock music of the 50's and 60's, and to their own attempt to save rock music from synthesizers, disco beats, hair metal, and the aftermath of punk.
In his own time, he was one of the first frontmen whose voice exhibited vulnerability and displayed an almost innocent worldview at a time when verbose and pompous rock was the order of the day. Without his contributions, as a musician as an icon, it would be difficult to have ever have seen a Michael Stipe(REM), an Elliot Smith, a Paul Westerberg (The Replacements). I wonder how many people have heard the Replacement's song about him than have heard his own music? He would produce albums by The Cramps, and his influence was also felt on the goth movement, his songs heavily covered by influential bands like This Mortal Coil. When Big Star's CD's made their recordings more available in the 90's it fed into a resurgent power-pop movement with bands like Teenage Fanclub, Matthew Sweet, and what would become Wilco.

He was criticized as being lazy; by spending most of the 70's and 80's releasing cover records which often bordered on the bizarre and drinking. But he did what he always did; his own thing, whether it was popular or not. That's what made him great, that was one of his flaws, and that's what made him so human. And while it wasn't what people expected, his covers demonstrated his deep love for early rock music, and the early musicians who never got what he had, and maybe never wanted: attention.

We almost lost him when Katrina hit; he was missing for days afterword. But he survived. In an irony that he would have found annoying, today his heart gave out on him. The world has lost one of its great musical treasures. But we'll always have what he would want to be remembered most; his music.

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