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.


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At 3/18/2010 12:56 PM, Blogger Christopher Hiltz said...

Great article, Shoals. As much as I enjoy reading your hoop thoughts, it's the fact that we seem simpatico on all forms of music that brings me back, makes the experience more identifiable.

I was lucky enough to see Chilton a little over a year ago here in Chicago. My friend and I built a myth that he was touring in a sedan (possibly true) and playing with a different backing band in every city (again, a possibility. I didn't want to research it, debunk the myth) The performance was shaky and the set (predictably) lacked in Big Star tunes, but his voice, man, his voice...

Children by the Millions...

At 3/18/2010 1:30 PM, Blogger Jacques said...

I am also sad, he flaunted failure very sweetly.

At 3/18/2010 1:34 PM, Blogger Brendan K said...

I never travel far without a little Big Star.

Well done, Shoals.

At 3/18/2010 1:46 PM, Blogger Blake said...

Um...so all rock stars are white? Your self-consciousness over caring about a white musician is a really weird starting point for a memorial post. Perhaps if you had started "fucking with black music" before you were grown you would have discovered some of the many black musical deities that I spent my childhood obsessing over. There was a pretty good guitar player named Jimi who lends himself more easily to rock star apotheosis than perhaps any other figure in the genre's history. You could probably find some room for him.

At 3/18/2010 1:53 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

By "grown" I meant "13 or 14". Like a bar mitzvah.

Congrats for having heard of Jimi Hendrix. You know, he was never so comfortable with the role he'd been cast in, and wanted to reconnect with black music and the community in his "later" years. .

Seriously, I really don't feel like being lectured on music right now.

At 3/18/2010 9:43 PM, Blogger Josh Dhani said...

Good stuff here Shoals

At 3/19/2010 9:54 AM, Blogger David said...

Nice piece Shoals, properly marking a very sad event. But to be honest the Alex Chilton celebrated here checked out a long time ago. Maybe he felt so much bitterness and disappointment at the commercial failure of Big Star that the timless music he and the band made at that time was forever tainted in his mind. Because to a more recent listener (since the Teenage Fanclub's references in the early 90s in my case, and I've been playing them ever since) it's impossible to hear those songs and not be seduced and astonished by their sheer quality and sonic appeal. From out of the murk and bombast of the early 70s these carefully crafted jewels really shine. Between the songs, the performances and the glistening technical quality of the recordings, somehow what you hear captured is highly polished but red raw, yearning but angry, deeply emotional and (by the third album) highly disillusioned.
Thank you Alex.

At 3/20/2010 11:31 AM, Blogger photoguy said...

Bethlehem, I don’t know if it helps, but you know Chilton was totally fd. Independent, iconoclastic to a fault, fluid but more calculated than one might think, ultimately a free spirit trying to live in a totally co-opted environment, an aggressive presence equipped with the (counter-intuitive) ultimate in romanticism, a complexity that inspired because of intransigence and a swag that crossed over many lanes. And, yes, human in a big way. Sad to see him go, because as long as he was alive there was always the possibility that he would viscerally connect into your/my/our zeitgeist once again.

At 3/22/2010 6:21 AM, Blogger matt said...

Bach's bottom. "I'm free again, to do what I want..."
I've been into music far longer than I've been into the NBA, and this post is why I read this blog. Chilton is a talent that deserved a whole lot more than he received , and radio city/ sisterluvers would not have been as special if otherwise. The Jimi comparisons are out the window,it makes no sense. It's not a question of race or anything like that. He is a monolith. He was a punk before punk. He's more Memphis than 3-6.
He's in the Pantheon for POP transgression alone. The bitter desperation was enough for him to write some of the most gripping failure tracks I've ever auditioned. The fact that he has an incredible "kult" following is only right and natural. He was robbed. He's the best. Good on you for posting this."I'm free again, to sing my song again."
Nuggets coming out of the West. Kenyon Martin will be healthy, and J.R. ain't streaky. LONG LIVE CHILT!!!!

At 3/22/2010 4:22 PM, Blogger MC Welk said...

Thank you. Check out the This Mortal Coil covers of "Kangaroo" and "Holocaust" if you haven't already.

At 3/23/2010 6:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...



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