Monday, January 08, 2007

Like Flies on Sherbert, 1979, Alex Chilton

Like Flies on Sherbert
Alex Chilton

I once read something along the lines that aside from Rod Stewart, no one had betrayed their talent more than Alex Chilton. The fact that Alex Chilton’s career has not followed the neat path laid out for him, after scoring a few hits as lead singer for the Boxtops and garnering overwhelming critical sycophancy for the first two Big Star albums, has lead many critics to deride Chilton’s post-Big Star output. Chilton’s later works—his uncommon and seemingly whimsical covers of Volare and The Oogum Boogum Song for instance—have done more to disappoint critics and Big Star fans than Like Flies on Sherbert, but to be sure, Flies’ wanton, fractious and ultimate destruction of the Big Star myth has ruffled more than a few feathers. Mark Jordan of The Memphis Flyer referred to the fact that the album has “among Chiltonites…taken on the status of a cult masterpiece,” as “largely [being] a case of the emperor wearing no clothes. Ultimately, [falling] well short of that mark.” Jordan, like many conservative listeners misses the point of Like Flies on Sherbert—it is not about the quality of composition or songsmanship, or (obviously) musicianship; it is a document, a punctuation mark in Chilton’s career (a semicolon rather than a period), a statement of purpose and a musical ethos. It is a masterwork of petulant defiance and the final widening of the gulf between (what Chilton thought of as) Chris Bell’s Beatles-paint-by-numbers songwriting style and Chilton’s catch-as-catch-can musical obstinacy.

The first time that I saw the name Alex Chilton, it was as the producer of The Cramps albums Gravest Hits and Songs the Lord Taught Us, and also The Gories phenomenal I Know You Fine But How You Doin’ record on Crypt. All of which were grim forebodings of what Chilton would become as the seventies wound down. In 1997 I checked out a book from the downtown San Francisco Public Library called The Spin Alternative Record Guide, which besides it’s name and it’s sponsor was an indispensable text in my musical education. Among the bands I discovered between those pages were The Young Marble Giants, Nikki Sudden, The Swell Maps, Richard and Linda Thompson, Wire, The Modern Lovers, The Stooges, and most germane to this essay, Big Star.

Some time later, perhaps a matter of months, I ran across a reissued copy of Radio City on Big Beat at a record shop in Berkeley that specialized in imports. I took it home, listened to it, and did not really care for it, save for maybe I’m in Love With a Girl, which sounded like Elliot Smith to me. At the time, I was too young and in to all things twee and feminine sounding, especially Heavenly and things of that nature (oh, how people change!). I put it away and did not listen to it much for about a year. I remember looking at the cover though, and trying to figure out which one was Alex Chilton—the singer of Cry Like a Baby and The Letter—not knowing he was the short one on the right pointing at the viewer. I eventually warmed up to both Big Star albums, and soon got to the point where I could tell, like with The Beatles, the difference between lead vocalists, that is to say, when it was Alex, and when it was Chris Bell doing the singing (#1 Record only). It was not long before I began searching for Chilton’s solo material, and Bell’s lone solo work, the Geoff Emerick-mixed scattershot masterpiece, I am the Cosmos (which I will review in my next entry).

The Original release of Flies was a 500 record run on the local Peabody label. It was recorded at Sam Phillips Studios in 1978, over what must have been a number of boozy, druggy and chaotic sessions. Jim Dickinson produced, which is to say that he let Chilton run roughshod like a child, a fact that shows in the almost uncontrolled and unfocused nature of the output. All Music Guide’s David Cleary had this to say of Flies sound quality: “Sadly, this release is a dreadful disappointment. Production values are among the worst this reviewer has ever heard: sound quality is terrible, instrumental balances are careless and haphazard, and some selections even begin with recording start-up sound.” Again, the overwrought, cynical and mean conservatism shows through in the banal observations of a rather conventional critic.

Many reviewers unfortunately refuse to see a record on its own terms. Like Flies on Sherbert is a cathartic blast of rock impressionism and an obvious example of not only the deconstruction of the Big Star myth, but of rock and roll in general. The album is a collection of originals and obscure covers (save for the lamentable opener, KC and the Sunshine Band’s Boogie Shoes) like Elvis Presley’s Girl after Girl, Ernest Tubb’s Waltz Across Texas, and the Jimmy Newman-penned swamp-country classic Alligator Man.

Cleary is correct in assessing that precision is not really what Chilton and company were after here, but in calling it dreadful or terrible is more an indictment of him as a listener than Chilton and Dickinson as architects of the album’s sound. There is a primal essence in each track, and a trashy devolution at work here; a kind of catch-as-catch-can innocent brilliance that sets the listener on a collision course with an audacious musical wreck. Chilton’s originals too, are strong, including the brilliant My Rival, a shambling mess of a song about jealousy and rejection that would not sound out of place on an early Pavement record. The title track is the final nail in the coffin of Chilton’s boy-band past, a deconstruction of sixties pop, rendered perhaps unlistenable, in a bad acid kind of way to some, by Jim Dickinson’s reliance on effects laden keyboards and piano.

Chilton and Dickinson obviously never intended to record a conventional album and, more to the point, probably never intended to record a classic of rock deconstructionism either, but their instincts, starting with the Big Star Third/Sister Lovers album began to blaze a path toward that eventual end. It’s not the kind of thing that one could go on doing forever, because once you tear it down, you can never build it back up again; you can not go home again. And to that end, I am sure Chilton has disowned this record, like he disowned the Big Star records before. But it doesn’t really matter if David Cleary or even Chilton himself like the album, it is a document that is out there in the ether. It has been re-issued many times, and is a touchstone for many fans. Like Flies on Sherbert is an album of immense depth, that, I think should be viewed like Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night, and Skip Spence’s Oar; as albums that are documents of a time and a place, records that embody an essence of emotional immediacy and represent a certain skewed mentality at a given time.



Blogger Larry O. said...

Very thoughtful. I love this album.

12:08 PM  

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