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.”
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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