this seems to have become the designated time of year for me to get sick, judging by the past few years. the weather starts to get nice, spring starts to show its face, and bam. icky spoo comes my way. i always seem to be in the middle of something music-related when it hits, too. fortunately, this time i’m not waist-deep in the recording of another album, but rather trying to figure out where to go next, so at least the timing is better from a musical standpoint, if in no other way.
i think i’ve hit on an idea that will get things moving along…i just have to wait until i don’t sound like leonard cohen’s illegitimate son to tackle it. i also 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 vice versa, but that sure was something. i felt a bit like an abstract art piece of a sprinkler system gone wrong. go away, stupid sickness. go bother paris hilton or someone else who can buy you off.
in the meantime, i have actually been writing more lyrics than music. this is very unusual for me. in general, musical ideas are always coming, but words only pop out 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 actually 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 a bit ahead of time, so i’m not scrambling for what to call something at the last minute). the next one will be my 30th official solo release in the cd format, which feels like a bit of a milestone. so it’s tempting to call it something simple, stupid and true…like…say…30.
how brilliant is that?! an album title from me that is the opposite of long-winded.
but then there’s another title that i even have cover art to go with already (i drew it myself), and while i find it amusing, some serious religious types may find it a little offensive — though it isn’t intended to be at all, and i have no interest in mocking any religion at any point through music, because that sort of behaviour doesn’t appeal to me.
now watch me end up choosing a title that has nothing to do with either of those.
in other, far less pleasant news, alex chilton has passed away. he was 59, 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. i could easily write something gargantuan about him like i did with harry nilsson a few days back, but i don’t think i have the mental energy to do that sort of thing again so soon.
alex’s discography is similarly all-over-the-map and unpredictable, and also pretty inconsistent…but when alex was good, he was frighteningly 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, and more. now that he’s passed away, it probably will be written by someone.
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. it’s said that a biopic is in the works based on the jovanovic book, and while it’s nice to think that more people will be introduced to the music of big star (who were so unknown while they were together, and then so celebrated and influential posthumously, the joke was that while everyone who heard the first velvet underground albums 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 in general rarely turn out well.
there’s a sort of similar career arc to harry’s, except for the fact that alex never had the kind of commercial success harry did to begin with. the box tops did have some hits, but alex had no creative control over that music and was basically a pawn in the hands of the record company, with the money from his success going to other people, leaving him a bitter veteran of the industry before he was even out of his teenage years.
once people caught on belatedly to the greatness of what big star had done, he seemed to almost delight 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 humanly possible. the man had range…from the pre-joe cocker pseudo-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 jumped from punk/psychobilly deconstruction, to funk-and-soul-influenced laid-back rock that was oddly polished, and back again.
eventually alex took to playing live semi-regularly with a reformed big star, with two of the posies subbing for absent original members (chris bell, initial co-frontman and another undersung talent, died in a car accident in 1978 — his is yet another strange, sad tale — while andy hummel just left the band in the mid 70’s of his own accord and never returned). you could sense his heart was never really in it, even if the chops were still there.
it’s always sad (and a little sobering) when your heroes die. so far, a good deal of the artists who have seriously affected me musically are alive and kicking, and many more of them died before i was born, or before i had delved into their music enough to feel like i had lost anything. alex is one of the first to go where i’m in a position to actually experience that feeling of loss. his music has served as a pretty big part of the soundtrack of my life, particularly during some of the darker moments.
i was first intrigued by the mystery of big star around 1998 or ’99, when i read a bit about the band in rock: the rough guide, the book that was instrumental in saving me from musical mediocrity. i found the first two albums at the mall, conveniently on one cd. radio city is still a desert island album for me. the same is true of third/sister lovers, which is basically the sound of alex realizing his dreams of stardom are toast through no fault of his own (already cynical and jaded beyond his years at the age of 23), taking a lot of drugs to numb the pain of commercial failure, and pissing all over the potential pop appeal of his songs while inadvertently capturing exactly where his head is at.
it doesn’t sound like anything else that came out of the 1970’s, and while alex would later dismiss it as “half-baked”, i think it stands as the best thing he ever did. it’s been hugely influential on too many other bands and artists to list. i still think alex did it better the first time, though. beautiful moments and messy, ugly moments co-exist, sometimes sitting next to one another in the same song. alex suddenly 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 even on the initial release, threatening to fall apart for its entire duration) has always been one of those absurd musical moments that i love, because it’s spontaneous and silly (and maybe a bit weary as well), but it works better than it has any right to.
the solo stuff is a bit spotty, but like flies on sherbert is some sort of masterpiece of sloppy lo-fi punky rock, sounding (again) quite some distance ahead of its time. some of it is hilarious; the take on “girl after girl” sounds like it belongs in a david lynch movie, a 1950’s throwback that is at once reverent and contemptuous, with a grotesquely effective vocal performance from alex. as much as i love alan vega and suicide, i think this is what the “elvis in hell” description should have been coined to describe. and “no more the moon shines on lorena” has to be one of the weirdest cover versions ever recorded by anyone.
some of it is downright scary — like the demented cover of “waltz across texas”, and the title track, which sounds like one of phil spector’s most horrifying acid-fried nightmares, complete with the sound of a synthesizer being tortured, the tape speed slowing down slightly near the end, and some screaming in german. on the other hand, “hook or cook” contains the great line “i’ll try anything twice or ten times”, and i’ve always thought “hey! little child” is ridiculously catchy. if there was any justice in the world it would be recognized for the great, simple rock & roll song it is (i still think that’s one of the best electric guitar riffs i’ve ever heard) and some of alex’s best work, instead of being tucked away on an album few people have heard or taken the time to figure out, because none of it is even within waving distance of big star.
this music is very much its own thing, 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 keeping it together at the very same time.
there’s supposed to be some video footage that was shot during the recording sessions for flies, and it would be nice if it became available someday in some form, because i’d really like to see it. an article from mojo magazine some years back referred to a scene captured on video that featured (and i’m paraphrasing from memory) a “wrecked, spotty chilton playing guitar like he had forgotten how, smiling like a kid destroying a sand castle”. someone who was there at the time was quoted as saying that the recording of the album “nearly killed us” and “was a terrible experience from beginning to end”. you can’t just taunt me with juicy tidbits like that and then not even have a crappy version of the footage leak on youtube, damnit!
for me, pretty much everything alex did during this “lost” period is kind of essential in one way or another, as rough as some of it is. what can i say? i’m a sucker for the raw, not-giving-a-shit, emotionally honest stuff. i think his cover of the seeds’ “can’t seem to make you mine” surpasses the original, and its insane longing was a good companion for me 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, and is another album that 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, the electric guitars imitating the machine gun effects from the studio take. when alex’s vocal mic feeds back, you can almost see him making a face that says he doesn’t really care. the live take on “kangaroo” is pretty great too.
here’s a bit of alex for you. i think “nightime” (misspelling not mine, but from the album itself) is one of the most beautiful things he wrote, and i listened to it quite a bit during a pretty unpleasant vacation in a tiny italian tourist town almost a decade ago, feeling every word when he sang. “get me out of here / get me out of here / i hate it here / get me out of here.” dig the spooky slide guitar, care of lee baker, and the string arrangement.
and then there’s that seeds cover, which is…slightly different.
in light of alex’s passing, i pulled out third/sister lovers for a long overdue listen. when it got to “take care” (which was originally intended 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 works 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