Monday, April 26, 2010

What The Dead Men Say

An interesting article on the late Alex Chilton has been posted on, well worth reading for anyone interested in the enigmatic rocker’s life in New Orleans after leaving Memphis in the early 80s. However, the article encourages at least one illusion about the musician, that he was actually a “professional” musician rather than an amateur one. I don’t use the designation “amateur” in any pejorative sense here, but only to suggest that a professional has a career, and Chilton did not. Practicing amateurs are the rule rather than the exception in rock. What is meant by career other than a narrative that charts an artist’s development through time? Since Chilton had a largely elusive life (and career, if one must use that word) after leaving Big Star, and is now dead and therefore no longer able to speak for himself, others will speak on his behalf, writing such narratives as can be found by clicking on the link above. For the act of speaking on a dead person’s behalf is always done retroactively. As Michelet observed about the writing of history, the living have every right to speak for the dead, articulating their wishes and desires, even if they themselves were not fully aware of them. As evidence of this, consider the declaration in bold at the beginning of the article: “Alex Chilton’s life in New Orleans was a mystery, and that’s how the Big Star singer wanted it.” Oh yeah? Says who? Why, we the living do. The article also reveals how his “career” is now open to (re)negotiation, and his greatness, however that is to be weighed and measured, shall be posthumously conferred. Certainly Big Star has undergone institutional ratification, that is, has earned institutional distinction (canonization), indicated by its albums being listed on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums Of All Time”. I admit I do not know Rolling Stone magazine’s critical assessment of the band’s albums at the time of their initial release in the early 70s, but what their appearance (years later) on the “500 Greatest” list means is that the band’s music has been designated, retroactively, as “genuinely” innovative by one of rock’s sanctioning institutions. That is, the institution has brought the band into the realm of discourse, validating its musical endeavors. In any case, Big Star’s greatness was bestowed posthumously, and hence so, too, has Alex Chilton’s.

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