The unmistakable footprints of a legend do traipse indolently through 19 Years; what you get in the workaday worlds of Alex Chilton’s individual albums, however, is a lot more mortal. So much faith has been invested in this man who has never claimed to be anything more than what he is — an unhappy, standoffish Memphis singer and songwriter with the face of an altar boy and a knack for memorable, occasionally transcendent, pop tunes — that each time he releases one of his homey, smaller-than-life records, every time he sings “Volaré” rather than “Holocaust,” it’s as if he was willfully denying the legacy Big Star fans expect him to so proudly tote.
At his haunted best, Chilton sings like someone with a gun being held to his head; reluctance and release flow together in a prurient lifeforce sap being forced from the orchard’s sorriest tree. (At his worst, he sounds like someone’s holding a checkbook on him; few reputable performers can sound as distracted or uninterested in a studio performance.) Wisely, at least for Chilton, he got over the self-immolating allure of his endeavors early on, dropping out of the music grind for much of the ’80s — after barely contributing to it in the half of the ’70s left when Big Star collapsed.
A seemingly unlikely figure for a new wave progenitor (after all, his first national notice came as the gravel-voiced singer of the Box Tops’ 1967 hit, “The Letter”), Chilton nonetheless exerted tremendous influence on many groups. If not the best of Big Star’s three LPs, #1 Record is at least the most cohesive. Recorded in 1972, when its Beatlesque four-part harmonies, early Byrds/Kinks guitar sound and crisp, tight, live-sounding production were decidedly out of vogue, the album was an early rejection of then-dominant bloated “progressive” rock, which had already fallen victim to the giant ego-tripping of not-so-giant talents.
Where #1 Record is a collaborative effort in every sense of the word (Chilton co-wrote and shares lead vocals with the talented Chris Bell; all four members sing), Radio City is more a showcase for Chilton’s increasingly quirky talents. Bell had left the group (he died in a December 1978 car crash), and Chilton, whose gruff tenor epitomized the Box Tops’ Top 40 sound, sings at the very top of his range, straining at times to reach high notes in his own songs. The well-organized production values of #1 Record give way to a more emotional and spontaneous sound, a middle ground between Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band and early Sun records. If the material on Radio City is spotty, it’s never uninteresting, and the best songs — “September Gurls” and “Back of a Car” — are as good as any rock’n’roll produced in the first half of the ’70s. (While Big Beat’s joint CD of #1 Record/Radio City deletes two tracks from the first album, the German Line edition contains both complete LPs.)
Recorded in 1974 but unreleased until 1978 — by which time Big Star had broken up — 3rd, reissued much later under its original title of Sister Lovers, is almost a Chilton solo album. Alex, Big Star drummer Jody Stephens and a host of Memphis friends and sessioneers (Jim Dickinson and Steve Cropper among them) comprise the band. Capturing Chilton at a point when his creative powers were still strong enough to effectively chronicle the spiritual pain which would eventually sideline him for an extended stretch, it’s an eclectic mix, alternately depressing and uplifting, ugly and beautiful. Though the various released versions were assembled without input by Chilton or producer Dickinson, 3rd/Sister Lovers is — in its own fragile, ragged way — Chilton’s most compelling (not to mention influential) album. Unlike the halfbaked material he’d produce during the ensuing decade, 3rd/Sister Lovers does a brilliant job of balancing madness and genius, with classic tracks like “Holocaust,” “Dream Lover” and “Stroke It Noel” standing as some of the most chillingly beautiful music ever produced in the pop medium. (The Aura and PVC versions originally featured different track selections; the PVC and Line CDs each include the same seventeen songs, but in a different sequence and with different cover art.)
Between the release of Radio City and 3rd, Chilton had recorded an album’s worth of material in a series of stormy sessions in Memphis with rock critic/musician Jon Tiven producing. Chilton was reportedly so out of it during the recording that Tiven ended up playing all the guitar. Some of the results of those sessions were released in 1977 on an Ork Records EP: Singer Not the Song includes versions of the titular Stones song and a 59-second “Summertime Blues,” plus a couple of decent Chilton co-compositions that might have sounded better under other circumstances. In 1981, the EP’s contents plus more material from the same wild sessions (including five more minutes of “Summertime Blues”) were released in Germany as Bach’s Bottom. Only the really faithful need to know.
Despite leading bands in New York (with Chris Stamey) and Memphis between 1975 and 1979 — the years when he was rediscovered and lionized by critics and musicians — Chilton released only one single (1978’s “Bangkok” b/w the Seeds’ “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine”) during that period. Live shows did serve to increase his reputation as an erratic and eccentric performer, and the 1979 release of Like Flies on Sherbert painfully confirmed the degradation of a once-major talent. Produced in Memphis by Dickinson, the LP sounds (not surprisingly) like a bunch of drunken louts running amok in a studio. Some potentially good Chilton material is trampled to death in the process, as well as some covers. (The 1980 British edition on Aura apparently utilized the wrong master tapes; the original mix from the tiny Peabody release, most widely available on a German Line issue, is far superior.)
Live in London captures a 1981 performance at Dingwalls on what is, for Chilton, a fairly good night. Backed by the Soft Boys rhythm section (Matthew Seligman and Morris Windsor) and Vibrator Knox on guitar, Chilton runs through material from all three Big Star LPs and Like Flies on Sherbert. Although characteristically sloppy and erratic, the album has moments that indicate there may be life in the old boy yet.
After spending several years drying out and laying low in New Orleans and Memphis, Chilton returned to active duty in late 1984, touring with a new pair of sidemen and recording his first new studio release in many years. Feudalist Tarts is a delight, six sides marked by control, easy confidence and entertaining variety. Chilton even sounds like he’s enjoying the work for a change. Among the originals are a humorously raunchy blues, “Lost My Job,” and the absurdist jivey “Stuff” (with horns); covers include a slow, lazy take on Carla Thomas’ “B-A-B-Y” and a funky slide number from the Slim Harpo songbook. The EP is a bit insubstantial, but most encouraging.
Big Star’s Biggest is a good eighteen-track sampler drawn from all three of the band’s albums; Document is a thirteen-cut 1985 compilation covering both Big Star and solo tracks. Lost Decade is an interestingly conceived collection of ’70s work: one disc of rare and semi-rare Chilton solo recordings (some predating Big Star) plus an album’s worth of material Chilton produced for singer Scott Adams and three other obscure artists. Stuff is an amazing French CD-only collection that contains all of Feudalist Tarts, the three songs on the 1986 “No Sex” 12-inch and seven more solo items, including “Bangkok” and its original B-side. With the benefit of clear annotation and the inclusion of a Troggs cover recorded for a New Rose compilation, 19 Years, Chilton’s first proper American retrospective, is basically culled from 3rd, High Priest, Feudalist Tarts and Like Flies on Sherbert, with some of the same esoterica collected on Stuff. The cassette contains fourteen tracks; the CD goes five better.
Having influenced scores of garage rockers from the Replacements (only one of several bands to write a song about him) on down, Chilton can be forgiven for calling his next album High Priest. The record — which contains only four Chilton compositions — finds him tackling virtually every type of song you can imagine him playing (and some you wouldn’t, like “Volaré”), from the Memphis soul of his Box Tops days to Brill Building pop to Jimmy Reed-style blues to gospel to Big Star to a twisted version of the Bill Justis instrumental “Raunchy,” all lovingly delivered in a casual live-or-near-live garage style. What it lacks in polish, it more than makes up in charm, verve and just plain ol’ soul. This could be what rock’n’roll is all about. (Big Time’s American CD adds all of Feudalist Tarts, “No Sex” and one of its two B-sides. In France, where those EPs had already been collected on the Stuff CD, New Rose affixed four previously unreleased bonus tracks, including a knowingly creepy remake of Porter Wagoner’s “Rubber Room.”)
The six-song Black List continues in High Priest‘s archivist/craftsman/lounge-lizard mode, with a slinky blues cover (“I Will Turn Your Money Green”), a cheerfully nonsensical take on Ronnie and the Daytonas’ “Little GTO” and the laconic social commentary of Chilton’s own “Guantanamerika.”
Perhaps spurred on by Big Star’s intervening reunion, Chilton hit the mid-’90s in an unprecedented surge of recording (if not songwriting) productivity: two new studio albums in as many years. The first, Clichés, sails past his beloved “Volaré” into a full-blown concept and contains nothing but pre-rock pop standards sung and played alone on acoustic guitar (plus, briefly, an unsettling background rumble that sounds suspiciously like bleed from a heavy timekeeping foot). If that sounds ordinary or dull, think again — Chilton’s spent his adulthood becoming an offhandedly brilliant vocalist, and his sensitive, naturalistic renderings of such oldies as “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” “Let’s Get Lost,” “There Will Never Be Another You,” “All of You” and Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song” (plus a Bach gavotte and a Slide Hampton blues that underscore his matching instrumental sophistication) are unique and extraordinary, scruffily heartfelt.
Altogether different but nearly as wonderful, A Man Called Destruction sets a half-dozen Chilton originals and a typically offbeat array of covers (among them “Il Ribelle,” “What’s Your Sign Girl,” Chris Kenner’s “Sick and Tired” and Jan and Dean’s “New Girl in School,” complete with soaring falsetto) into a brassy electric soul/blues setting with swinging Memphis drumming, a stirring Leslied organ presence and Chilton’s stabbing guitar leads for punctuation. The company’s idiosyncratic version of spirited ’60s southern soul makes the grooves glow with a comfortable warmth that Chilton rides and rolls with easy confidence and what might even be the sound of him enjoying the work. In this state of sonic bliss, Chilton’s unexcited delivery helps sell even the silliest bits in the modest new songs, most of which find him at home in or around the blues: “Boplexity” is a blaring jam, “Devil Girl” puts his drink on R&B Coasters and “You’re Lookin’ Good” does its leering to a sturdy 12-bar workout. Chilton may not be reaching for eternity here, but the music raises him right off the ground.