I Might Need Some Help
Note: Put together quickly because I felt I had to.
I've never really been one to deify rock stars. Maybe that's because I've spent much of my grown listening years fucking with black music. James Brown's image was almost laughably self-conscious, Coltrane or Dolphy were more the monastic type, and with hip-hop, ego was refined into a DIY isotope. There's just not much room for Byron there, especially when the starting point involves Ringo Starr.
That said, when A. and myself went to Memphis, we stopped to gawk at Chilton's childhood home, the building that was Ardent, and the former site of the Big Star grocery star. Oh, and a confession: as tacky as I found it when some coverage of Katrina concerned itself with the search for Chilton—unlike any number of other missing musicians, he was a transplant identified more with Memphis—I did feel something resembling concern. Can you be worried about indestructible pop royalty? Isn't that somehow beneath you, and them, if they're being given that special genius treatment?
When I heard that Alex Chilton had died, I grew sadder than usual. Not because the musical landscape has shifted, or an important voice has been silenced. Someone whose music has affected me considerably is gone. The least I can do is show a little grief.
If it weren't for those nagging Box Tops (the first rule of obits: critical acuity need not apply), today we'd be treated to nothing but paeans to #1 Record, Radio City, and Sister Lovers. Thank god for "The Letter"—it provides an easy hook for Chilton's historical importance, without having to delve into the shadow-genre of power pop, which Big Star pioneered as its own kind of atavism. That's where #1 Record hits the mark, and sparkles to this day. Pristine, deadly just beneath, and altogether formulaic—if more than capable of pushing at these strictures. That's the Chilton (and notably, the Bell) of the easy historical record. It's the first hour of the movie that will never get made, and for those in love with the pure power of pop music, well, that other iteration of "power pop" tells you all you need to know. There is something unmistakably chaste, even down to Chilton's teen-ish rawk and Bell's repression, that makes #1 Record an unmistakable document of a mastery of a form and therefore, godhead material. And, at the same time, one whose humility is well-meaning, if not altogether convincing.
That's the inviolate Chilton, the one who makes perfect sense, the tear-jerker and rabble-rouser who lends himself to pop greatness. Then, things start to go bad. Bell leaves. Radio City, a rougher, less focused follow-up, jumbles up Chilton's riff-and-hook mojo. "O My Soul" and "Life is White" are jagged, rousing, neatly miserable, and at times incapable of reigning in their shards of melody. At the same time, "I'm in Love with A Girl" and "Morpha Too" are Chilton's two most plaintive, and plain-spoken, bits of songcraft from the entire Big Star period. Formally, the would-be pop god was in shambles, wandering in and out of his own countryside. And yet when Chilton sat down and essayed "I'm in Love," it was as if his ear for innocence was more vivid than ever. Lacking an outlet in songs, it was squirreled away into these fragments that were almost unbearable in their intensity. And, in retrospect, their fragility. Even if I'm fairly sure one was about dope.
Radio City, then, is the exact point at which Chilton's god-like powers begin to fail him, or at least come into conflict with the "damaged genius" modality that he carried until the end. With this record, though, you're struck by just how personal those highly-refined bits of pop remain. Things are starting to crumble, and yet Chilton wants to hang on to this pop essence. The meat is gone, but its bird-like bones keep fluttering. Chilton isn't in control of it, even though he's written it—he's chasing after it, hoping the swaggering, disjointed mess of "Daisy Glaze" isn't all he's left with.
Alex Chilton seems as stunned at Radio City as we are, especially its closing tracks. There's nothing noble in his crisis, nor in the original sound falling to pieces. Make no mistake, it's an undeniably awesome record, but one that ends with its author wondering how to hold onto himself, as well as what to make of the lurching, violent songs he's ended up with. It's not perfect, or beautifully tragic. Radio City is, in its inability to side with either pop perfect or art damage, is about as ordinarily human as it gets. Neither you nor I could have made it, but its displacement is undeniably accessible.
All of which brings us, predictably, to the bummer majesty of Sister Lovers. Actually, for a record so identified with drugs shot into the neck and utter professional collapse, there's plenty of brightness here. Yet it's atmospheric, awash in risk-taking, and impossible to place in time—a sense of loneliness and languor that sounds like Chilton dissolved and deconstructed. "Kangaroo" attempts to tell a boy/girl story. But notice how the line "I saw you staring out in space" lingers in the air, gets cross-cut by feedback and a crumbling guitar shop, may or not be about outer space, and renders "I" and "you" meaningless terms. This isn't a retreat into the avant-garde. For all its strangeness, Sister Lovers is mostly about Chilton trying to resolve the binary lurking at the close of Radio City.
All the brutality, and confusion, of the deceptively soft "Sister/Lovers" is Chilton trying to negotiate that inner conflict, albeit under the influence of huge quantities of morphine. There are fleeting bits here that, for all their visionary grandeur, are also fraught with something undeniably human. "Kangaroo" or "Holocaust" aren't archetypes, they're one man's struggle between pop simplicity and something far darker. Were it a perfect fusion, Chilton would be just another smarty-pants. But instead, we get some of the most high-stakes, and undeniably wrenching, music ever made by white people. At this point, Chilton has been a recording artist his whole adult life. Here, he struggles to hold it all together, totalize his experience, and just maybe, save himself. That's not faultless, or cartoon-ish, work of gods. Sister Lovers is an impossibly wrenching, revealing look at the dilemma of being Alex Chilton; the wall of pretense is, in Chilton's case, a lack of one. It could be any of us, just with different grist.
I don't think Alex Chilton is better, or greater, or more important than me. In fact, because of Sister Lovers, I think of him as more like me (or you) than other musicians. He just said it better, and cut deeper, than I ever could. And for that, I'll take some time to mourn. Not out of obligation or fear, but for his willingness to turn himself inside-out to such an extent that many were convinced he was hiding.