On Saturday, July 31st, we gathered at the Secret Theatre to celebrate the life and music of Alex Chilton. Chilton, who passed away this March, was an iconoclastic musician and one of the most influential songwriters of his generation. He achieved early success as the lead singer of The Box Tops, with whom he recorded the number 1 hit 1967 single “The Letter” and several other hits as a teenager. Chilton had every reason to expect this level of popular success to continue for the rest of his career. But despite the consistently accomplished songwriting and hook-laden production of his next band Big Star, he never charted again.
But since the ‘60s, Chilton has become an icon for innumerable rock musicians. Steve Wynn, of Dream Syndicate and a headliner of the show at the Secret Theatre, tells a story of making the Greyhound pilgrimage from L.A. to Memphis to meet Chilton. The teenaged Wynn had only the address on the back cover of Chilton’s most recent album, but the evening of his arrival, he found himself at a bar with the man himself. Chilton was glad to have the young man around, as long as he was buying the beer and cigarettes. The way Wynn describes it, Chilton was always loquacious and forthcoming, except when it came to his own music. He couldn’t understand why anyone would be interested in that.
Chilton’s albums with Big Star became more and more popular with a certain set over the years, eventually passing into the pantheon of overlooked masterpieces. Despite himself, perhaps, Chilton played the role of elder statesmen in his later years, a canonical piece of indie rock history. He was to perform a set of Big Star songs at South by Southwest just days before his death, in fact. He was a reckless legacy act, pulling off performances in the way only a seasoned performer dares. In one of the clips of “Nothing Can Hurt Me,” a forthcoming Big Star documentary from Drew DeNicola and Danielle McCarthy that was screened at the event, we see Chilton and Big Star preparing for a 2009 gig at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple. The band hadn’t rehearsed for the show, and Chilton didn’t even show up for sound check, as usual. It’s never been about presenting polished performances for Chilton – because polish is anathema to his music, and because his band has chemistry and charisma and, more than anything else, his songs.
It was appropriate, then, that the band at the Secret Theatre had never played together before the day of the show. The musicians, led by Little Embers’ Anthony Rizzo, come from home genres as diverse as country, psychedelic, and noise rock. The net result of the group, though, was an intimate and well-executed homage to Chilton’s recorded output. The band performed songs from all periods of Chilton’s career, from early Box Tops hits, through selections from all three of Big Star’s albums, to tunes from Chilton’s more experimental solo album Like Flies on Sherbert. And with musicians including Steve Wynn, Jim Sclavunos (of Grinderman and one of Chilton’s later bands), Franklin Bruno (of early-90s cult act Nothing Painted Blue and the Mountain Goats), and younger New York indie rockers including Adam Falcon, Ryan Milligan, Todd Michaelsen, and Alice Texas, the band evoked the essence of Chilton’s spontaneity.
It was a tribute to Chilton’s spirit that they could pull this off without sacrificing the unassimilable risk of his live performances. The most poignant moments of the set were when something slipped up just slightly – when a drum rhythm was slightly askew, or when one of the guitarists lost track of the chord progression for a bar. The audience was so close to the music that we were there with them at these moments of friction, and nothing could quite match the frisson when the music, almost inevitably, pulls back onto the rails. The whole service, from the memorial reading of essays, to the Youtube clips of Alex in his youth and his drifting middle age, brought us where we needed to be to experience this intimacy.
We came to the show with varying degrees of familiarity with Chilton’s work. Some have been fans for decade or had even toured with him. Others were only aware of his work in the vaguest sense, perhaps only even knowing him as the writer of “In the Street,” the theme song of “That ‘70s Show.” And others were given his records at a certain age, as if they were treasured Beatles 7-inches, objects connected to a deep source of meaning in the same sort of way. But regardless of where we were coming from, we all left with a sense of what it would have been like to be in the presence of the man, and a sense of why it mattered to know him.
Drew Jaegle is an LIC resident and musician. He is currently working on a new rock-oriented project with his band, The Icons, and on material with a hip-hop group that is still to be named.