This seems to have become the designated time of year for me to get sick. The weather starts to get nice, spring starts to show its face, and bam. Industrial-strength sinus infection. I’m always in the middle of working on something I’m excited about when it hits, too. At least this time I’m not waist-deep in the recording of another album. I’m only trying to figure out where to go next. So the timing is better than usual from a musical standpoint. I think I’ve hit on an idea that will get things moving along again. I just have to wait until I don’t sound like Leonard Cohen’s illegitimate son to tackle it.
I just experienced a first for me — a coughing fit and a serious nosebleed. At the same time. I’m not sure if the coughing caused the bleeding or if it was the other way around, but that sure was something. I felt a little like an abstract artist’s take on a sprinkler system gone wrong. Go away, stupid sickness. Go bother Bono or someone else who can buy you off.
In the meantime, I’ve been writing more lyrics than music. That’s not normal. Musical ideas are always coming, but words only show up when they feel like it. They must like me right now or something, because I’ve written words for at least three new songs (along with a few half-songs) in the past few days, only one and-a-half of which have any music to go with them.
I’m a little on the fence about what to call the next single-disc album. These days I kind of like to have the title in place ahead of time so I’m not scrambling for what to call something at the last minute. The next one will be my thirtieth “official” solo release in the CD format. That feels like a bit of a milestone. So it’s tempting to call it something simple, stupid, and true. Like, say…Thirty.
How brilliant is that?! An album title from me that’s the opposite of long-winded.
There’s another title I already have appropriate art for (I drew it myself, if you can believe that). And while I find it amusing, some serious religious types may find it a little offensive — though it isn’t meant to offend anyone and I have no interest in mocking any religion through music for any reason.
Now watch me settle on a completely different title in the ninth hour.
In other far less pleasant news, Alex Chilton has passed away. He was fifty-nine and died of an apparent heart attack. Alex was a fascinating, elusive character, tricky to pin down to the end. He was a “difficult” artist if ever there was one.
His discography is all over the map, and pretty inconsistent. There are some stinkers in there. But when Alex was good, he was scary good. There’s a huge tome waiting to be written about his work with the Box Tops, the odd saga of Big Star, his strange subsequent solo adventures, production work for the Cramps and others, co-founding Tav Falco’s Panther Burns project, and more. Now that he’s gone and suddenly more interesting to everyone, I imagine someone will come along and write that book.
As it stands, there’s a wealth of information available between the Big Star book written by Rob Jovanovic and Robert Gordon’s It Came from Memphis (still one of the best books I’ve read about anything), in addition to what you can glean from various blogs/websites/internet places. Word is a biopic is in the works based on the Jovanovic book, and while it’s nice to think of more people being introduced to the music of Big Star — who were so unknown while they existed, and then so celebrated and influential after they broke up, the joke was that while everyone who heard the first Velvet Underground album went out and formed a band, everyone who heard the Big Star records became a rock critic — I can’t see a happy ending there. Biopics rarely manage to get at any kind of deep truth about their subjects.
There’s a sort of similar career arc to Harry Nilsson’s, except Alex never had the kind of commercial success Harry did to begin with. The Box Tops had some hits, but Alex had no creative control over that music and was more or less a pawn in the hands of the record company, with all the money from his success lining the pockets of others. He was a bitter veteran of the music industry before he was even twenty years old.
Once people caught on to the greatness of what Big Star had done, he seemed to revel in not giving his audience what they wanted, releasing weird cover albums and straying as far from the glorious power pop of the first two Big Star albums as possible. The man had range, from the pre-Joe Cocker soul gravel of the Box Tops, to the Beatles-meets-Kinks-meets-something-else of the first two Big Star albums, to the barbiturate-drenched self-sabotage of the third Big Star album, to the mess of solo work that lurched from punk and psychobilly deconstructions to weirdly bland funk-and-soul-influenced soft rock.
In recent years Alex took to playing semi-regular shows with a reformed Big Star, with two of the Posies subbing for absent original members Chris Bell (band co-founder and another unsung talent, who died in a car accident in 1978 — his is yet another strange, sad tale) and Andy Hummel (who left the band in the mid-1970’s and never returned). You could sense his heart was never in it, even if the chops were still there.
It’s always sad and a little sobering when your heroes die. A lot of the artists who have had a profound impact on me are still alive and kicking, and many more died before I was born or before I dug deep enough into their music to feel like I’d lost something. Alex is one of the first to go where I’m in a position to feel that loss in real-time. His music has served as a pretty big part of the soundtrack of my life, often during some of the darker moments.
I was first intrigued by Big Star around 1998 when I read a bit about the band in Rock: the Rough Guide, the book that was instrumental in saving me from musical mediocrity early in my teenage years. I found the first two albums at the mall on one CD. Radio City is still a desert island album for me, overflowing with one perfect melody and hook after another. The same is true of Third/Sister Lovers for different reasons. That album is the sound of Alex realizing his dreams of stardom are toast and, already cynical and jaded beyond his years at the age of twenty-three, drinking and taking a lot of drugs to numb the pain of commercial failure, pissing all over the potential pop appeal of his songs while capturing exactly where his head is at, somehow making brilliant music almost in spite of himself.
It doesn’t sound like anything else that came out of the 1970’s. While Alex would later dismiss it as “half-baked”, I think it stands as maybe the best thing he ever did. It’s influenced too many other bands and artists to list them all. Alex did it better than most the first time through, though. Beautiful moments and messy, ugly moments co-exist, sometimes in the same song. Alex drawling “play it for me, guitarist” in the middle of “Dream Lover” (a song that kind of sums up the ethos of the whole album, though it wasn’t included on the initial release) has always been one of those absurd musical moments I love, because it’s spontaneous and silly and weary-sounding, and it works better than it has any right to. He could still rock out, as “You Can’t Have Me” and a blistering cover of “Til the End of the Day” prove, and “Blue Moon” sounds like Elliott Smith twenty years before we even had Elliott’s music, but the album’s most vivid moments are harrowing musical fever dreams like “Holocaust”, “Kangaroo”, and “Big Black Car”.
Alex’s solo work is spotty, to put it kindly. After Big Star he seemed determined never to give so much of himself again. But Like Flies on Sherbert is some sort of demented masterpiece of sloppy lo-fi punky rock, sounding (again) some distance ahead of its time.
Some of it’s hilarious. The take on “Girl After Girl” is a 1950’s throwback that’s at once reverent and contemptuous, with a sneering, grotesque vocal performance to put it over the top. It sounds like it belongs in a David Lynch movie. As much as I love Alan Vega and Suicide, I think this is what the “Elvis in hell” description should have been levelled at. And “No More the Moon Shines on Lorena” has to be one of the most bizarre cover versions ever recorded by anyone.
Some of it’s scary. The cover of “Waltz Across Texas” sounds like a drunken psychotic break set to music. The title track resembles one of Phil Spector’s horrifying acid-fried nightmares, complete with the sound of a synthesizer being tortured, the tape speed slowing down near the end, and Alex screaming in German with almost enough force to destroy his vocal microphone.
Some of it’s really catchy. “Hook or Cook” is infectious, out of tune bass and all, and it’s home to the great line, “I’ll try anything twice or ten times.” “Alligator Man” doesn’t even have a bass part, and it still sounds like a party. And “Hey! Little Child” is one of the tightest performances on the whole album, a rock stomp driven by one of the all-time great electric guitar riffs, though even that gets turned on its head with some pretty skeevy lyrics.
This music is very much its own thing. It’s deeply Southern, and I think it’s been unjustly maligned by critics unwilling or unable to take it for what it is — the sound of a man falling apart and holding himself together at the same time.
There’s supposed to be some video footage that was shot during the recording sessions for Flies. It would be nice if it was made available someday, in some form. An article in Mojo magazine some years back described a scene captured on video that had (and I’m paraphrasing from memory here) a “wrecked, spotty Chilton playing guitar like he’s forgotten how, smiling like a kid destroying a sand castle”. Someone who was there at the time was quoted as saying the recording of the album “nearly killed us” and “was a terrible experience from beginning to end”.
You can’t taunt me with juicy tidbits like that and then not even have a crappy version of the footage find its way onto YouTube!
I think pretty much everything Alex did during this “lost” period is kind of essential in one way or another, rough as some of it is. What can I say? I’m a sucker for the raw, not-giving-a-shit, emotionally honest stuff. His cover of the Seeds classic “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine” might even beat the original. It felt like my theme song during one of the more romantically frustrating times of my life, when the late-period Guys with Dicks albums were being recorded in late 2001 and early 2002.
Live in London also comes from Alex’s time in the wilderness. It’s an album few people have anything good to say about. While the band was under-rehearsed and it isn’t all brilliant, I think the live version of “Bangkok” wipes the floor with the admittedly great original studio recording. It sounds almost electrically charged with menace, with the guitars imitating the machine gun sound effects from the studio take. When Alex’s vocal mic feeds back mid-song you can almost see him smirking. The live take on “Kangaroo” is pretty great too. The lower key it’s delivered in makes it sound a little sadder and deeper.
I pulled out Third for another listen in the wake of Alex’s passing. It was good to meet up with that old friend again. I still think “Nightime” is one of the most beautiful things he ever did, complete with a gorgeous string arrangement and some spooky slide guitar from Lee Baker. It always brings back memories of a pretty unpleasant vacation in a tiny Italian tourist town almost a decade ago. I listened to the album a lot during that miserable week-and-a bit. When Alex sang, “I hate it here — get me out of here,” I felt that in my guts.
When I got to “Take Care” (which was originally meant to be the closing track), I couldn’t help thinking how appropriate and timely the closing lines were. What was once a tender-sounding false goodbye now serves as a true farewell.
This sounds a bit like goodbye.
In a way, it is, I guess.
As I leave your side,
I’ve taken the air.
Please, take care.