Saturday, March 20, 2010

Soul Deep: In Consideration of Alex Chilton

“Sometimes failure is more rewarding,” wrote Bill Reynolds in The Globe and Mail yesterday in concluding his obituary remembering Alex Chilton, who died last Wednesday of a heart attack in New Orleans at the age of 59. Chilton, the former lead singer of the ‘60s pop group The Box Tops ("The Letter," "Soul Deep") and co-founder of the influential 70s power pop band Big Star ("September Gurls," "In the Street"), was certainly no stranger to both failure and reward in his short life. In a sense, he took both extremes and created what critic Jason Anheny called “a poignantly beautiful sound which recaptured the spirit of pop’s past even as it pointed the way toward the music’s future.” Chilton was part of pop’s past and future in ways that became as much paradoxical as he became largely influential on later groups like The Replacements and (especially) R.E.M.

Howard Hampton had once described Kurt Cobain of Nirvana as Mark Chapman and John Lennon rolled into one: The first self-assassinating pop star. That observation comes from an understanding of the way pop shifted from the desire for success in bands from the ‘60s and the distrust of it in bands from the ‘90s and beyond. Of course, Alex Chilton was once part of that flowering of optimism when he fronted The Box Tops at the age of 16. Yet their first hit record “The Letter,” released in the summer of 1967, held hints of the discontent to come. The song may be about how the singer receives a letter from his girlfriend far away telling him that she can’t live without him. But his eagerness to reunite with her is tempered by the sheer exhaustion in his voice. Chilton sings “The Letter” as if he’s winded by trying to make it down the runway. (It came as no surprise to me when Joe Cocker would later soak the song in booze and turn it into another hit record.) When Stevie Winwood was a young teen fronting The Spencer Davis Group he sounded as bold as a baby Ray Charles, whereas Chilton sounded like he was fifty. The gravel stone depth of his voice, which brought appealing wistful buoyancy to the commercial pop of “Soul Deep” and “Cry like a Baby,” already held a future peppered with regret and loss. The Box Tops disbanded in the winter of 1970.

Coming from Memphis, Chilton was no stranger to the deep well of pining at the root of Southern soul music. This is why he was also largely influenced by the chiming transcendence heard in the glorious pop of both The Beatles and The Byrds. So in 1971, he teamed with guitarist/songwriter (and Anglophile) Chris Bell, bass player Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens to summon the spirit of The Beatles with their debut album ironically titled #1 Record (1972). The record, despite such appetizing tracks as “Feel” and “When My Baby’s Beside Me,” didn’t come close to being Number One. Stax Records, the great Memphis soul label, was haphazard in their distribution of the record. But perhaps the marriage of irony and earnest desire in a lovely acoustic ballad like “Thirteen” didn’t sit well with pop audiences either. Especially listeners who wanted their tunes dished up straight. In the song, a couple of kids are in love with rock and they celebrate its spirit of rebellion ("Won't you tell your dad to get off my back/Tell him what we said about 'Paint It Black.'"), but “Thirteen” also harbors rebellion’s defeat. (Adding more irony, the track “In the Street” would be the theme song for TV’s That ‘70s Show.)

While Big Star would follow up #1 Record with the driven desperation of Radio City (1974), it became clear that the band had also invoked the tumult of the Fab Four. Chris Bell wanted to spend more time in the studio crafting their music, whereas Chilton was eager to perform live. Their creative tensions, plus the poor handling of their records and audience indifference, led to Bell abandoning the group to a solo career that was tragically halted with he was killed in a car crash in 1978.

Alex Chilton and Big Star carried on, however, through 1978’s Third/Sister Lovers, which (like The Beatles’ Let it Be) captures the sound of a group coming apart. But unlike The Beatles, who erected a stage to dream on, while inviting others to dream with them, Chilton always distrusted the dream. And why not? The music business by the ‘70s had grown bloated and cynical. Anger and disappointment were for Chilton the affirmations of a love that gets torn asunder. (That spirit of Chilton I can always hear in The Replacements’ masterpiece “I Will Dare.”)

Contemplating Chilton’s death yesterday, I was drawn to one of Big Star’s later tracks, one that laments back over a career, called “Thank You Friends.” While the sentiment in the lyrics suggests pop sincerity when Chilton sings “Thank you friends/Wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you,” he’s also singing to those who couldn’t give a shit. There’s an underlying tone of rage in the beauty of the melody and the R&B-inspired backing harmonies that makes the song less an ironic stunt (like Sid Vicious’s “My Way”) and more Chilton’s claim that he stayed true to what he loved in pop despite the defeats suffered. “Without my friends, I got chaos,” he sings later in the track, “I’m off in a bead of light.” Alex Chilton was always a bead of light, a reminder of pop’s grandest aspirations and a recognition of its deepest failings. Maybe to re-phrase Bill Reynold’s summation of Alex Chilton, I’d say, like Bob Dylan, that there’s no success like failure. And failure is no success at all.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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