Thursday, March 25, 2010

Thoughts Upon the Death of Alex Chilton

I have been thinking—of course—of Alex Chilton lately. Death is a terribly unfortunate thing, particularly for the deceased. But for us, the ones left behind in their wake, it’s still an awful thing to grapple with. I never met Alex Chilton. I only idolized him. I wasn’t kin or friend, in that I have no true right to mourn, and I’m sure I am not mourning in the same type of way, for my mourning is for a time, a time that has passed.

Alex Chilton’s death makes me mourn for myself, or more to the point, for my former self, the self that could invest so much time and emotion, so much feeling in a figure I could never possibly know. I had only child-like love for a batch of strange forlorn ballads, some of which spoke to me in a lyrical way, others, in a kind of misfit language; a silly piglatin-like language that was ugly and brutal in its insistence on being unaccepted.

For the dislocated, Alex Chilton’s music—post-Big Star—was like a series of prideful anthems, unfinished, unadulterated, rough, and completely distant. There was no genius to Alex Chilton, no brilliance, save for his complete disregard for genius and brilliance. And that ethic stood against failure. To listen to Alex Chilton is not to regard expression as success or failure, but only expression. Was it pure? I have no idea. Did he give his all? I doubt it. But in those vibrations, those distorted moments between what is inside and how to represent it, he created ages, epochs of uncontrollable bliss for me and my kind who hate the expected and the boring gloss of rock and roll’s dumb course.

Big Star was different. In the Alex/Chris iteration of Big Star there was what most people see as a shimmering beauty to that music; and they’re not wrong, it did shimmer, it was beautiful. I don’t want to tie all that beauty up with the third Big Star album and what he did after. It’s just not fair to Alex Chilton or to Chris Bell, Andy Hummel, and Jody Stephens (I could care less for this new version of the band).

When I heard the third record I never knew guitar music could be that way. I didn’t know a voice could move so much freight, I didn’t know you could use the term “Holocaust” in such a way. I can’t listen to that song now without weeping. But for who? For Alex? For who he must have been weeping for when he wrote that wreckage of a ballad? Or for myself? Who, as a young man fell full-force in love with that song. Now I am older and I might be that thing to weep over.

I wrote about this album as a younger man and used certain adjectives that I now shrink from: "harrowing" first among them. No adjective can capture “you’re a wasted face, you’re a sad-eyed lie, you’re a holocaust.” There’s just no word to do that song justice. It needs no words, no criticism, it’s analysis is inborn, and it creeps into your own bones, and the words are like lead in your veins as you realize that he’s speaking to you.

I only saw Alex Chilton perform once. It was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in, perhaps 2001. He was small and very thin with black trousers and a brown coat. He played, what seemed to me—and I know a little about guitars but very little—a Gibson ES-150, the same as Charlie Christian. I don’t think it had that dramatic cut-away, but I can’t really recall. It had “jazz” written all over it. It was big, hollow-bodied and beautiful. I wanted it. I was shocked because I only imagined him playing fenders for some reason, but time had passed. He drank cola from a pint glass with a black straw, I couldn’t tell if there was something stronger in it, but to me he seemed sobered.

He played two Big Star songs: “Don’t Lie To Me,” and “In the Street,” neither of which I really cared for. He was touring for, I believe, a record called—in the U.K. at any rate—Loose Shoes and Tight Pussy—a very strange but alluring title, but alas, kind of silly. He was great, but of course he was, he was Alex Chilton, the one man besides my father who I told myself I would mourn in death.

I once recorded a version of “Blue Moon” from the third album. I always loved that song. Now I barely record music. I do here and there, but I don’t like I used to, not when I was obsessed. I tried my hand at Holocaust, but I couldn’t do the walk from C to Am or something like that, but “Blue Moon” was easy and I absolutely loved trying my hand at meeting Alex Chilton in his misery, but of course I was a miserable failure at it.

I, and I may be alone in this, always loved “O, Dana,” why, I only sort of know. It opened in a kind of chaos of guitar strings, trembling highs bleating from a place of normality—in fact the song is quite normal. But it always captured a kind of truth about men and their relationships with each other, even if in throwaway.

Like every song on that album, it sounds as if it was recorded surreptitiously by drunk fellows on stolen equipment with no lights, but in an intense, terrible moonlight. There is a lot of hard to follow mush-mouth lyrics, but he definitely begins with the bizarre, “I’d rather shoot a woman than a man.” And the second verse begins with the “I’m forevermore fighting with Steven, we do our (something like) goo, goo, koos.” But as I fought tooth and nail with every masculine friend I’ve had, I always thought in terms of this song—always wondering how Alex dealt with Chris Bell’s absence. Wondering if he cared, and particularly, if I should care.

But now I so selfishly, and so unsympathetically weep for myself, not for Alex. I hear “Feel” and I can only weep for that boy laying in a small bed with a disc forever playing—it wasn’t a record that night—and as it revolved, “Feel” came back on, awoke me like an alarm that said “here you are in a moment that you will never get back, a moment that like an origin you will remember, but you will never feel again.” I lay there crushed against someone else, never even thinking about the future, but the future is our burden, always sneaking up on us, fooling us, killing us.

I am guilty because I don’t mourn Alex Chilton, I only mourn my tiny self awaiting records that used to come in the mail, always brown and choked with smoke. Now, I await no records, and I listen and only think about those painful places in the past when I intensely cared for something so small as records coming in the mail, playing on the small stereo throughout the night, when I had something like currency greener than money—to talk of records with authority.

Now I can only remember what it felt like, and that remembrance brings tears, but they’re not for Alex, they’re for myself. But I wish he didn’t die and I didn’t have to weep over “Give me Another Chance.”

Still, and I mean this, Rest in Peace Alex Chilton. I wouldn’t have known myself without you.

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