When Alex Chilton had a fatal heart attack while mowing his lawn last week, he was, statistically speaking, just a 59-year-old New Orleans resident, nothing more than an edit on some census forms. What Chilton represented, however, was a true American iconoclastic hero.
He was a pop star at age 16, fronting the Box Tops from their first number-one smash, “The Letter,” through a chain of top 40 hits. When producers stifled his writing impulses, Chilton quit the band and went to New York to play folk songs. Upon returning to Memphis, he joined up with old friends to form the rock band Big Star, who went on to create three of the greatest rock albums ever produced. (For what it’s worth, Rolling Stone put all three in their all-time top 500.)
After the band dissolved during sessions for the third record, Chilton played caustic guitar with Tav Falco’s Panther Burns, and began performing as a solo artist with a small backing band. He also produced some great rock tracks by the Cramps, the Replacements, the Gories, the Afghan Whigs, the Royal Pendletons, Chris Stamey, and others.
Despite that glittering résumé, perhaps Chilton’s greatest impact on pop culture was writing “In the Street,” the Big Star song that, tweaked and performed by Cheap Trick, became the theme song for That ’70s Show, a program that is in constant syndication.
While artists like R.E.M. and Teenage Fanclub have long championed Chilton, it seems now every musician who can find a journalist has put in their two cents about the importance that Chilton’s music has had on them. A Big Star show scheduled (before his passing) at last week’s SXSW festival turned into a celebratory wake full of guest stars singing his songs and praises.
Even while pushing health-care reform, Democratic US representative Steve Cohen of Tennessee took time out of the congressional docket to speak of what a great man and musician Chilton was. Semi-reclusive Paul Westerberg showed up on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times to do the same.
Fables of Chilton spread like the mythology of American folklore. Through the naïveté of youth, I wrote myself into this tale by successfully organizing Big Star’s 1993 reunion as a sophomore in college. When people ask me about that encounter, they expect that he rode in on a big blue ox, instead of taking a puddle jumper to mid Missouri.
The truth is, he stumbled into view, asked me to find someone with smokes, posed for a couple of backstage photos, then took the stage and launched into these long-dormant songs. The thing people don’t realize is that two college-radio kids did this purely because we wanted to see our favorite band — there was no payment exchanged. We gave Chilton money for a plane ticket and a hotel room, and he came to play us songs.
Alex Chilton did what he wanted to do, and the things that he created along the way will linger for a long time to come. By being honest to himself in whatever endeavors he took on, he produced a canon that is small enough to be personal and large enough to be universal.
Sometimes when you shoot for the heavens, you do become a Big Star after all.