Okay, I admit it. My Big Star post may have been ill-timed. Then again, with Big Star slated to play the South by Southwest Festival this month, so was Alex Chilton’s death.
Alex Chilton was not the greatest rock and roll artist of all time. In fact, he's been compared to Rod Stewart in his capacity to turn his back on what he was great at. But for a brief period of time, Alex Chilton could do no wrong. And for a brief time after that, his selfdestructive habits created great art anyway.
In both cases, the public ignored it.
Maybe it was a good thing that the Beatles broke up when they did, because hard rock was the in thing at the time. In 1969, a friend told me that Led Zeppelin was better than the Beatles. So, even with the great guitar playing on “Abbey Road”, it's hard to see the Beatles taken as seriously in that environment. And in the mid-seventies, John Lennon himself ventured a guess that had they not broken up, they would probably have been doing music similar to ELO. (Sorry, but, ewwww.) So how could Big Star - the natural heirs to the Beatles – prosper in such an environment?
But to listen to their music now is to forget all that and wonder how they didn't make it, well, big. But enough of that.
Alex Chilton, above all else, valued his freedom. Why else break up the successful Box Tops? Why else record "Free Again" right after it, and then later "You Can't Have Me." There's a story about how a record company guy hanging out in the studio said that a new song Chilton was recording had hit potential. Chilton, taking this opinion for what he thought it was worth, completely changed the arrangement. To the song's detriment, probably. But that was Alex for you.
Why else release a greatest hits record called “19 Years” instead of waiting one more year?
Why else put “Thank You Friends” - a natural album closer – second?
His behavior sent Chris Bell packing from Big Star, and yet they may have gone on to make even better music without him.
He had a great way of playing rhythm guitar, where the chords never seemed to come when you’d expect them – “You Can’t Have Me” and “What’s Going Ahn”, being great examples.
Artists from the Replacements, the Bangles, Elliot Smith and others know they owe a debt to Alex Chilton. Alex himself could probably have cared less as he pretty much disavowed the Big Star records. He was too busy making what he called "untamed" music.
He did eventually cave and do reunions with both the Box Tops and Big Star, but after decades of working in obscurity who could blame him?
So, no, he wasn't the greatest rock and roll artist of all time. But he was great in the Bob Dylan and Neil Young tradition of going his own way and to hell with the consequences.
Well, he’s gone his own way again. I hope we cross paths some time.