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Why have I never heard Alex Chilton?

First of all, this is Alex Chilton:

I have heard of him — or I’ve heard this song, anyway, which is very short and nearly perfect. He was barely sixteen when it hit the charts. It was right around this time when the term “blue-eyed soul” was coined, sometimes to refer to white boys who sing soul, but more often to deride white boys who tried their hardest to present themselves as soulful. This . . . is not that. Alex Chilton is the real thing, and I’ve never even heard his name. My loss.

Chilton had a weird on-again, off-again career until his death at age sixty in 2010.  His first band, The Box Tops, had a few hits, including “Cry Like a Baby,” where Chilton displays his endearing penchant for acting out his lyrics

Man, that voice. Normally I shut down when I hear anything that smells like a sitar, but I’ll make an exception.

The band only lasted a few years. Pitchfork says:

In spite of their success, Chilton grew unhappy with the Box Tops and precipitated the band’s breakup by storming offstage in mid-performance in late 1969. After turning down an offer to become the lead singer for Blood, Sweat & Tears– he thought the band was too commercial– Chilton worked to become a better guitarist and began an abortive attempt to record a solo album (the results can be heard on Ardent’s 1996 compilation 1970). Ultimately, he found himself back home in Memphis, where he joined Big Star in 1971.

In Big Star, Chilton dropped the soul-man vocal style he’d made his name on in favor of a reedier, more natural delivery.

Check out “Holocaust” from Sister Lovers (1978). Listen to the spare, meticulous layers in this terrifying song:

Ow. A radically different style from his Box Tops hits, but that arresting directness remains. His weakness for obvious rhymes avoids Paul McCartney-style cutesiness by looking directly at you and saying, ” . . . I know.”

Oh, you need a pick-me-up! Here’s “You Can’t Have Me” from the same album.

Doesn’t this sound familiar? (Okay, except for that bizarro part in the middle with the synth and the drums and the saxophones. I don’t know what kind of music this is.) That’s because everyone was influenced by Big Star. Does it remind you of Cream, The Beatles, REM, and any number of wannabe rough diamond indie bands who try so hard to show up with ready-made mystique? There’s a reason for that. Alex Chilton is in the back of everyone’s head, pouring out his heart and daring you to make a big deal out of it.

Over the next few decades, he produced a jumbled collection of undiscovered brilliance and inaccessible weirdness, both with Big Star and eventually solo, giving concerts and occasionally reuniting with old band members.

Here’s The Replacements, who straight up wrote a song called “Alex Chilton:”

Children by the million 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.”

And it would have been true, in an alternate universe, where things (and people) aren’t so difficult. But yeah, I’m in love with that song.

One more: “O My Soul” from Big Star’s second album, Radio City (1974):

People forget that this kind of stuff came out of the 70’s, along with so much that was wretched and ridiculous. Great song, right from the heart of rock and roll, but nothing lazy or rote about it.

It’s never too late to add old stuff to your list of new music, especially if you don’t even know you’ve heard it before.

***
ImagebBy Marcelo Costa (Big Star @ Hyde Park) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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