I was in Memphis when Alex Chilton died.
Most of what I knew of Alex Chilton started with Paul Westerberg and the Replacements. Before Westerberg was called upon to eulogize Chilton, he testified about him in song, supposing interstellar lineage as the proper explanation for his unique brand of coolness. This song arrived one album after an ill-fated attempt to have Chilton produce the Replacements’ major label debut, giving Westerberg the opportunity–and, in the opinion of the music journalists who were paying attention to this underappreciated corner of the sonic landscape, the obligation–to speak at length about the thwarted opportunity to work with one of his idols. So I got to know Chilton through the song and the tales of Tim in equal measure. I was spouting the song’s credo “I never travel far without a little Big Star” before I had ever knowingly heard a Big Star song.
I eventually bought a CD that collected the band’s first two albums, #1 Record and Radio City, note unheard, carrying it to the counter with an affected confidence intended to mask my ignorance. I’d like to report that listening to it was transformational, but it wasn’t. They were good rock records, exciting and crunchy and raw and good, but also easy enough to put back on the shelf after the last song played. I heard my own idols hidden in those powerful chords, generating their own inspiration as they listened. That’s what the music imparted to me.
And now Chilton is gone, died in New Orleans instead of Memphis. He worked in relatively obscurity through most of his career and remained in that nebulous place at the end. Less than a week after Chilton’s death, one of the contestants on the top-rated television show started the broadcast by performing his version of “The Letter,” the number one hit by the Box Tops that featured the sixteen-year-old Chilton’s incredible vocals. The original singer’s name wasn’t mentioned once, a snub that was perhaps predictable given the short memories of the personnel positioned as experts on the show, people whose appreciation of the music industry is more about love of industry than music. It may be a show that proudly envisions pop singers as a manufactured product, like the output of a fender factor, needing just a little hammering before being tossed onto the loading dock, but the omission still smarts.
Chilton’s legacy resides in other places, perhaps most notably with the man who wrote the song about him. Over twenty years after “Alex Chilton” was first pressed onto vinyl, Westerberg is edging through a career that a sort of photocopy of Chilton’s, excluding the early phenomenal success. Like Big Star, the Replacements is a band that is revered in the right quarters but doesn’t exactly sell a lot of records, even now that a couple of decades of musical progress and regression has made their music sound safer than it did back in the day. And after some confused attempts by a major label to make Westerberg into a star, efforts that he was no more likely to play along with than he ever was, the man now slugs his way through a solo career devoted to increasingly oblique releases any time he damn well feels like it. Like Chilton, Westerberg does what he wants for his own reasons, and he owes justification or explanation to no one. He’s not some Salinger figure in retreat. He just doesn’t really give a damn what you think. Westerberg can write songs about Alex Chilton, or even tap out words for the New York Times to print, but the real way he proves his worthiness as a disciple to his mentor is by playing the game exactly the way Chilton did.
(Disclaimer: Though I mostly write above about Westerberg’s post-label solo work, that’s the sort of stuff you should go find for purchase since the money goes directly to the man who made it. His old work for Warner Brothers, such as the music from Eventually which is out of print but available digitally, probably only fills the label’s coffers, so I’m less reticent to share it here. However, if someone with due authority to do so asks me to remove this material from the Interweb, I will gladly comply.)