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eXiled Alert! / March 17, 2010

chilton1

Alex Chilton died of a heart attack a few hours ago. It’s a wonder his heart held out this long. Alex Chilton’s story always scared me more than the others–I’d figured he was already dead, for some reason–because in the romantic version of Alex Chilton’s life, he would have died decades ago, rather than drag it out the way 99.9 percent of us do.

Chilton was, for a couple of brief years in the early-mid 1970s, the purest, most dynamic talent in American pop music. But the hippies had no use for his talent, so Chilton was discarded for something more with the Zeitgeist, like Foghat or Yes. What’s so demoralizing about Chilton’s failed career is that there’s no villain to blame his wasted talent on. The early 70s were a bad time; the only humanoids to survive the hippie plague were the ones who went underground in New York to wait it out. Chilton was one of the few legendary fans of the Velvet Underground back in the dark hippie days, but Chilton wasn’t a New York hipster–he was a Tennessean– and back then, if you weren’t a hippie you’d better be a New York hipster, and if you weren’t either of those, you were nobody.

It was Scott Miller of Game Theory who first turned me and some of my friends on to Big Star, back in the mid-80s. Like a lot of 20-year-old guys, I was a big fan of self-destruction tales–Flann O’Brien was still my hero– but Chilton’s story always knocked me down. I think it was because of his downward trajectory, shaped like a trash chute–it wasn’t grotesque enough to seem fantastic and heroic, just flat reality. Chilton started off too high, a teenaged pop star with a Number One song; and over the next few years, he went in the opposite direction, away from hippie schlock and towards something like perfect songwriting, in surprising ways, at a time when the official hippie propaganda claimed that originality and breaking convention was rewarded. It wasn’t; so as Chilton’s songwriting quickly grew smarter and more inventive, his popularity went down, until finally, when he wrote perfect songs, they reached literally not one single person.

What killed Chilton’s fragile talent was when his record company decided not to even release his greatest work–Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers–because the hippie record execs who ruled pop culture at that time didn’t know what the fuck to do with an album like that. It didn’t have the right “vibe.”

chilton2

Chilton giggling as he commits career suicide.

Years after Big Star’s Third Album was recorded and then locked away, the punk/college radio scene finally rescued it from oblivion. But by then, it was too late to resuscitate Chilton’s broken talent. Alex Chilton was ruined. He wasn’t one of those tireless adapters like Lou Reed, who got a second wind after ’77 by hamming up his old punk act. And Chilton couldn’t adapt to cult obscurity well, unlike Jonathan Richman or Pere Ubu, who knew only that cult obscurity and thrived off of it. It must have been a shock to Chilton when he finally realized, around 1974, that talent didn’t win out, that talent was such a small part of it, that what mattered most was schmoozing, marketing, adapting, striving, co-opting. Being cool.

Just when Chilton was being rescued from oblivion in the mid-80s, there was a rush among college radio bands to claim his authentic-martyr-cred as their own. The Replacements won the competition with the song “Alex Chilton,” which pretty much ruined him for good, making him into an ironic 80s icon, the type who “doesn’t take himself too seriously” which was considered a really great thing to be by the late 80s. He’d've probably preferred being Lou Reed, but all he could do was shyly bat out some surf tunes in small concert halls sparsely attended by college radio DJs. The shows sucked, as any honest person will tell you. They were downright sad. Even the fabled late-recognition turned out badly; once again his timing was off.

Chilton knew he was ruined even as he recorded Big Star’s best and last album–he knew that he’d peaked creatively, because there was nowhere else to go after that. Songs couldn’t get better, range couldn’t be greater from “Kizza Me” to “Big Black Car,” and obscurity couldn’t get more obscure than having your record company lock up the tapes and fire you, ruining your career.

The album ends bitterly, sarcastically: “Thank you friends/wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you/I’m so grateful/for all the things you’ve helped me do.” But it’s not a satisfying and vengeful sarcasm as it was in punk–it’s just wearily bitter and demoralized/demoralizing. Joy Division’s songs were inspiring and fearless, they made you want to march into the line of fire. Chilton’s were at least as dark, but they made you want to lie down and let come what may.

And no song was more demoralizing than “Holocaust,” which ends: “You’re a wasted face/you’re a sad-eyed lie/you’re a Holocaust.” Chilton wasn’t art-bragging the way most bipolar avant-garde artistes would, the way even Ian Curtis bragged–Chilton’s star had burned out, he was through, and that was that: “Your eyes are almost dead/can’t get out of bed/and you can’t sleep.” All that was left was a vague, sluggish realization: “Everybody goes/even those/who fall behind.”

And that was it for Alex Chilton’s talent. He lived another 35 years after his peak, living as a fast-aging, flesh-and-blood reference for college radio DJ hipsters. And he played parties. A journalist I know in New York told me she knew Chilton’s name only by the Replacements song and because a friend “once paid Chilton to play at his party.” Like I said, it’s a wonder his heart lasted 59 years.

Chilton never got around to killing himself. Maybe that’s why his story is so demoralizing–it’s too real, too believable. After all, not many people do kill themselves–and that’s demoralizing enough.

Here’s “Holocaust,” in case you’re curious:

Mark Ames is the author of Going Postal: Rage, Murder and Rebellion from Reagan’s Workplaces to Clinton’s Columbine.

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29 Comments

Add your own

  • 1. killcity  |  March 17th, 2010 at 11:21 pm

    In the end, Conor Oberst’s vocals probably killed him.

  • 2. FrankMcG  |  March 17th, 2010 at 11:48 pm

    More proof that free market capitalism doesn’t work.

  • 3. Grimgrin  |  March 18th, 2010 at 12:18 am

    It’s so sadly appropriate that Big Star’s “In The Street” was the theme song for “That 70′s Show”. And that it was redone by Cheap Trick in order to make it sound ‘more 70′s’.

    Couldn’t sell the record when it was actually out, became the theme song when nostalgia was popular, still didn’t get any credit.

  • 4. Graham C  |  March 18th, 2010 at 12:19 am

    “Chilton was, for a couple of brief years in the early-mid 1970s, the purest, most dynamic talent in American pop music.”

    ^ This looks like Mark Ames may have fallen into a bad of music critics who rank the artists of a particular era: Forgetting that black people exist.

    (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hYKYka-PNt0)

  • 5. wYSeGuy  |  March 18th, 2010 at 1:32 am

    Ames you fuck, why didn`t you notice this guy was alive and turn us onto him earlier?

    Ames, you’re one lazy fuck. You’re also a sometime guest on MSNBC.

    And now this guy is dead.

    I’m downloading all his stuff now.

  • 6. pedro  |  March 18th, 2010 at 4:07 am

    Sounds like a Pink Floyd knock off I’m afraid

  • 7. Berkshire Hunt  |  March 18th, 2010 at 5:06 am

    Downloading all his stuff now? Please make sure that you do that legally, so that the record company can thrive off his legacy.

  • 8. Kat  |  March 18th, 2010 at 6:23 am

    His later years were not as depressing as you describe.

  • 9. Motor City Kitty  |  March 18th, 2010 at 7:41 am

    I saw Chilton play solo in the mid-90s and didn’t find him tragic at all. I went to the show with zero expectations and was pleasantly surprised. He actually seemed glad to be there and his guitar playing was still a joy to hear. He was even good at the Big Star Nostalgia Revue I saw a few years later.

    Seriously, he wasn’t some cadaverous self-parody like Keith Richards. Sure, he never made another Sister Lovers, but I don’t require my heroes to drop dead once they’ve peaked.

    I think you’re being a little dramatic.

  • 10. CapnMarvel  |  March 18th, 2010 at 10:13 am

    Yeah, so…albums don’t get any better than ‘Sister Lovers’? Alex Chilton couldn’t top a song like ‘Holocaust’? Really? I know you come from 80′s era pigeonholing culture, Mark, but you performed two pretty ridiculous logical jumps here:

    1. Big Star spent two albums putting out great, but ultimately lightweight bubblegum pop. They were trying to compete with the British Glam movement (T. Rex, Bowie, Sweet, etc.) NOT Yes (who were tossed aside themselves critically and commercially in 1973) or Foghat (who weren’t anything until 1976 anyway). But since Bowie or T. Rex in 1972 weren’t too bad themselves, plus had a visual kick Big Star definitely lacked, they won and Chilton lost. Since 80′s hipsters were also all over Ziggy Stardust’s dick, it was easier to blame completely unrelated bands like Yes for Big Star’s failure than for what actually happened.

    2. Chilton recorded ‘Third/Sister Lovers’ after two complete chart failures – yes, it was ‘courageous’ and all, but with two strikes already he pretty much decided not to swing for a single but to bash the ball boy over the head with the baseball bat. The fact that the mainstream music biz decided to bury the album should be no surprise at all. All the 80′s punkers used to talk about how much they loved Syd Barrett (a very similar case, imho) and denigrated the bloated old Pink Floyd, but no one bought Syd Barrett’s albums, either, and those who did out of some punk ethos rarely listened to them more than twice. Same with ‘Sister Lovers’ – it’s a daring statement, but to expect it to have been a million seller and redeem Chilton’s career is foolhardy.

    3. You also failed to mention that Alex already’d had a pretty major chart success in the 60′s as a member of the Box Tops with ‘The Letter’. That group, albeit pretty good, then subsequently went nowhere as well. Plenty of 60′s artists never had the chance to make it big once, never mind a second time like Alex did. Perhaps Alex Chilton just sucked at managing a music career.

    Listen, give Alex Chilton his due. There are songs on the three Big Star albums that should be played daily on the radio (the role Chris Bell played in the writing of some of those tunes shouldn’t be downplayed either). He sang completely differently as a teenager on ‘The Letter’ than he did as a helium-voiced pop-glammer in Big Star. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time to be a power pop savior. But the guy essentially fragmented himself in 1974 and did not have the talent, the friends, or the work ethic to recover his career even as successive waves of punk/alt/ironic hipsters began to champion him and prop up what amounted to a two-time loser with sporadic bursts of talent.

    In short, it seems like the hipster/punker ethos is to worship those who try once and blow apart forever, and to dispose of those who keep trying even with diminishing returns (like your Lou Reed example). It’s a punker’s wet dream to be able to wonder what someone’s career could’ve been ‘only if’. Well, go ahead and dream – Alex’s career was never going to be more than about 20 great tracks long.

    And the Placemats song of the same name sucks balls.

    RIP Alex.

  • 11. Kat  |  March 18th, 2010 at 11:14 am

    Motor City Kitty,
    Like this: “… I don’t require my heroes to drop dead once they’ve peaked”.

    Agreed– this post was a little dramatic.

  • 12. wYSeGuy  |  March 18th, 2010 at 12:05 pm

    so that the record company can thrive off his legacy

    Speaking of legacy, does the poor guy have a wife and kids? Or even a set of octogenarian parents? If yes Ames (and Berkshire Hunt[away]), I’ll download now and buy later.

  • 13. mijj  |  March 18th, 2010 at 12:30 pm

    Jeez .. big deal.

    It seems like the guy had the means and ability to express himself. And did so.

    But .. oh no! .. (sob) .. big bucks and glamor and popular appeal didn’t come his way!

    Only a tragedy to the shallow and witless.

  • 14. mark dubya  |  March 18th, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    This is heart wrenching. The recent 8mm film posted to youtube was amazing. Now, you want to cry when you look at it or be joyous. I’m not sure. “Thank you A.C.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JC0Wa3P_dO0

  • 15. Christo  |  March 18th, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    He also produced the Cramps’ classic first few singles. Not *all* depressing!

  • 16. JEFFREY  |  March 18th, 2010 at 1:30 pm

    met Alec chilton at the I-beam in San Fransisco our conversation would not last another sentence if i did not get him high.If i knew what i know now….I would have locked him in a studio until he wrote a song telling us it will be ok..If I only knew what i know now

  • 17. killcity  |  March 18th, 2010 at 4:07 pm

    Dear “CapnMarvel” aka Chuck Klosterman,

    Did you kill Chilton? Okay, maybe not, but Calvinist creeps shouldn’t become rock critics.

  • 18. Sister Wolf  |  March 18th, 2010 at 4:52 pm

    How dare you say that it’s “demoralizing” that “not many people kill themselves.” Why don’t you read some statistics on suicide and then decide if that number is “enough” for you.

    I’d rather you kill yourself than continue propagating such immature bullshit.

    Love, SW

  • 19. S  |  March 18th, 2010 at 6:16 pm

    Great article. A surprising number of whiny and indignant bitches in the comments. Chuck Klosterman: go choke to death on a horse cock.

  • 20. Mark Watson  |  March 18th, 2010 at 7:04 pm

    Chilton’s “Like Flies on Sherbert,” is another great record, in that drugged-genius-train-wreck sort of way. Listen to it if you get the chance.

  • 21. Flatulissimo  |  March 18th, 2010 at 10:00 pm

    Yeah, sorry Ames, but I’m a college radio DJ type and so I’m going to make a stupid pedantic remark as if my opinion matters–which it clearly doesn’t. Forgive me, O great one.

  • 22. Tyrone Slothrop  |  March 19th, 2010 at 2:35 am

    Chilton is dead, so what? It seems like he experimented slightly at the edges of pop without any of the true genius of someone like Scott Walker.

  • 23. Flatulissimo  |  March 19th, 2010 at 7:14 am

    Hahahaha! Awesome. Thanks, Ames.

    (But calling Scott Walker a “true genius” ISN’T pendantic? Not enough, I guess. I win!)

  • 24. Plamen Petkov  |  March 19th, 2010 at 7:16 am

    Who?

  • 25. rothko  |  March 19th, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    Ames is utterly right, Big Star were fucking godlike, anyone who says anything even slightly disparaging about Alex Chilton and his legacy is a complete fuckwit, end of.

    That buttclown up the page comparing them to Pink Floyd – for real holmes, cut off your ears and then throw yourself into the ocean’s cold embrace.

  • 26. Destro  |  March 20th, 2010 at 8:56 pm

    I am listening to other overlooked early 70s music that the record companies did not get and were overlooked – only to become cult albums.

    Aphrodite´s child – Album 666 The Four Horseman

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=selfqEH-JnY&feature=related

    and from 1973 Pentagram’s “Forever My Queen” among other great but obscure songs from an obscure but influential band.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c7JTD_73kpI&feature=related

    The fact that the songs/bands I picked have Satanic overtones is coincidental (but oh so 70s).

  • 27. Frank  |  April 13th, 2010 at 10:35 am

    Ames,
    I am obsessed with you. Why did you have to write something mean about Zach? I haven’t slept a wink since.

  • 28. E.D  |  October 3rd, 2010 at 11:46 pm

    Alex fucking Chilton…To all of you pretensious a-holes out there,quit bitching and comparing.Alex is untouchable,ALL of his bands and projects were good.Is there no place in your heart for a well-written,simple,honest-to-goodness pop song? If so,you’re too cool to live.I’m not even going to mention myriad of bands and singers he influenced from The Replacements to Elliott Smith.As long as there are fans of real music Chilton will live on.

  • 29. Graham C  |  November 30th, 2011 at 7:01 pm

    Okay, this is a very belated comment, but a comment it shall be nevertheless.

    @ 10

    Beautiful. Miss the website. (http://web.archive.org/web/20090118190110/http://www.capnmusic.org/_

    @ 17, 19, 25, 28

    You are idiots.

    @ 17 in particular

    Calling people “Calvinist” is not an especially good idea when it’s obvious that you only know what a Calvinist is because John Dolan told you.

    @ 28

    “Is there no place in your heart for a well-written,simple,honest-to-goodness pop song?”

    Sure, I like “California Gurls” alright.

    Ask me if there’s a place in my heart for sentimental grandiloquence.


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