Showing posts with label The Box Tops. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Box Tops. Show all posts

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Invisible Man: Alex Chilton, 1950-2010

When I heard the wholly unexpected news yesterday of Alex Chilton’s death at age 59, I immediately thought of a line from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald (or rather the book’s narrator, Nick Carraway) says about the character Tom Buchanan, who’d been a star football player at Yale, that he is “one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterwards savours of anticlimax.” Such was Chilton’s peculiar fate, to have achieved his greatest success very early on in his life, making everything after that brief time smack of anticlimax. As has been reiterated in the many obituaries available on the web, “The Letter” was a #1 hit by the Box Tops when he was just sixteen years old. But fame behaves rather like the moon—it’s either waxing or waning, so by the time he was nineteen, the Box Tops, or rather a later incarnation of it, had disbanded. At age twenty, in 1971, he formed Big Star (pictured; Chilton is standing), and at age twenty-one he recorded with the band #1 Record, perhaps the group’s best album, released in 1972. The band’s subsequent record, Radio City, was also neglected, and a later one went unreleased for many years. Thus, rather like the Velvet Underground, Big Star’s reputation emerged long after the band itself no longer existed, when its records started showing up in the used record bins, and after the first two albums were reissued. Big Star’s commercial failure was crucial in laying the groundwork for its later influence, as it is based on a fundamental myth of rock culture—first established by The Velvet Underground and Nico album—that initial neglect is a sign of greatness. Chilton himself seemed aware of this myth, saying in later years that he thought the band’s music was overestimated. The L. A. Times obituary quotes him as saying:

“There are only three or four of the tunes, like ‘In the Street’ and ‘When My Baby’s Beside Me,’ that still work for me,” Chilton said in 1995. “I think in general Big Star is overrated.”

Of course, one never asks the artist what he or she thinks of a particular work, as the artist is normally always wrong. I think Adam Duritz of Counting Crows said it best, observing of Big Star, “They sing about all those dreams that you had when you were young that got broken....It was very confused and vulnerable music, and it was great.” Duritz’ point is an important one: the things that make the music valuable to later listeners need not be understood by the artist at the time the music was made. Consider the history of Punk Rock. The term Punk used to describe the culture around a type of rock music had no currency until 1975. But immediately after the word “punk” gained currency, people identified themselves and their culture with the term and they started piecing together a history, memorializing certain figures who came before them and ascribing to those figures their own desires, which these chosen predecessors could not have fully known. Thus, some punks memorialized the MC5, others The Stooges, and still others the Velvet Underground. The new narratives that grew up around punk music invented predecessors who sacrificed for a future they could not have fully understood. Hence Rolling Stone’s proclamation, quoted in the L. A. Times obituary, stating “It’s safe to say there would have been no modern pop movement without Big Star,” is true insofar as Big Star is being memorialized as an influence in the construction of a particular explanatory narrative, but misleading insofar as the members of Big Star could have in any way predicted, or even imagined, their influence on later generations. Chilton’s claim that Big Star is “overrated” should not, therefore, be understood as false modesty: he’s saying, in so many words, he just doesn’t understand what the fuss is all about. I take his remark to be an honest admission. For after all, he might have said, Big Star was hardly the Beatles, whose annus mirabilis was 1964, the year Chilton was a mere thirteen years old. (Where is Elvis in all this, the most famous white singer associated with Memphis then as now?) Many young men in America that year were inspired to form a band and play rock music, and it would seem that Alex Chilton was one of them, although a chance encounter with the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn around 1970 also seems to have been a critical moment in his musical career. In retrospect one wonders whether the music played by Big Star was the kind of music he wanted to play all along, making the years with the Box Tops a career anomaly. Although Americans love to champion individuality and the individual artist, Alex Chilton’s biggest success, such as it was, came out of the creative interaction possible only within a band, not his work as a solo artist. For in Big Star, as The Replacements song, “Alex Chilton,” puts it, Chilton became an “invisible man who can sing in a visible voice.”