Friday, March 19, 2010
"everybody goes, leaving those who fall behind..."
ALEX CHILTON RIP
it's hard nowadays to see irony in anything since alanis morisette famously &, w/the immutable belief only found in teabaggers & young hipsters, wrongly mauled the meaning of the word in her song "ironic". still, the idea that alex chilton was scheduled to play this weekend at the sXsw fest w/a faux big star is hard NOT to label that way. the sXsw fest wouldn't exist w/o the idea of big star. that idea, that there's a band playing somewhere, anywhere that no-one is noticing but will soon influence the future of pop music only after an acrimonious breakup is pretty much the Ur-myth of pop music. the festival is where in-the-know hipsters can "make" that discovery before all the messy stuff happens, like an acrimonious break-up that would require forming a faux version of the band 20years hence. that chilton hasn't done anything near the quality of big star since the break-up(& yes, i know this point is up to rabid debate) just adds some poignancy to the "ironic" mix here. well, that & the fact that he died this week prior to his sXsw appearance, once more shoving his finger up the ass of the industry & fan expectation.
personally, i loved the big hits from chilton's first pop music success, the boxtops. i still play a version of "the letter" on guitar myself & "soul deep" & "cry like a baby" bring teenaged dance parties, w/their mix of excitement, anxiety & disapointment, back to my mind like tea-cakes brought back the past to proust. chilton had less than an ecstatic experience in his first(&, really, only)experience w/pop stardom & its necessary corollary, the pop music business. that sour experience influenced him, good & bad, for the rest of his life. he eventually embodied the american outsider as pop music icon w/o any of the success usually reserved for icons. he earned this status by anamnesis, the recognition by others of his role in THEIR history.
initially, big star flew under our p'cola radar. #1 record came out in 1972, when i was a junior at washington high school. the two subsequent albums didn't register w/our gang either. in invisible republic, greil marcus writes about how something in the present can't be heard or understood for a myriad of reasons but, as history stretches out & shakes loose the oddball or irrelevant or mundane, something that may have appeared oddball or irrelevant or mundane asserts itself in a new way. from a place in the future that past speaks to the present as it's contemporary.
"In my opinion, Alex was the most talented triple threat musician out of Memphis - and that's saying a ton," said Paul Westerberg, the former Replacements frontman. "His versatility at soulful singing, pop rock songwriting, master of the folk idiom, and his delving into the avant-garde goes without equal. He was also a hell of a guitar player and a great guy."
in the interim between big star's break-up in 1975 & my discovery of them twenty years later, we had the replacements & rem & uncle tupelo & the various manifestations of those bands & their styles. as the impact of rock & roll splintered out over the country & world like the debris from a meteor hit, chilton's many musical personae insinuated themselves, discretely, into the disparate lines that erupted out of that impact. if you can't hear big star's "kangaroo" in wilco, you're deaf. if you don't hear "when my baby's beside me" in all of the power pop acts still going strong, i can't help you. what about rem? listen to "the ballad of el goodo". i think jay farrar makes my point most eloquently w/his cover version on another one of my favorite big star songs.
chilton gave direction to westerberg & stinson, stipe & buck, & tweedy & farrar about how to embody the project of pop music & he did it by example. it really only matters that those truly engaged in that project learned his lesson. as a consequence, the american outsider was invited to sit at the table where he's always belonged & the present insures the past w/its future.