Monday, March 29, 2010

Alex Chilton - Part Three - With A Selection of 14 Recommended Post-Big Star Tracks

From the weekly playlist of Bob's Scratchy Records, one of America's greatest radio programs, and the brainchild of photographer / rock'n'roll wild man / man-about-St. Louis Bob Reuter, in re: the death of Alex Chilton:

"I saw your very soul naked, stark naked….I suffered the pangs of disillusionment; I saw a man in torment struggling towards inward harmony... Forgive me, I cannot feel in halves." - Schoenberg wrote to Mahler after hearing the latter's Third


I suppose it's possible for someone to like, or at least appreciate, all the wildly different phases of Alex Chilton's career - The Box Tops, Big Star, the dark, weird post-Big Star solo work of the '70s, the eclectic r'n'b/soul/rock of the '80s EPs, the reunited Big Star, the reunited Box Tops, etc. - but it's not possible to like them all equally.  Everyone has a favorite and a different opinion on when he reached his peak.  For me, it's probably Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers, a kind of perfect midpoint between the power pop that preceded it and the damaged, primitive, mutant rock'n'roll that followed.

As Chilton's music evolved or veered from one phase to another, his persona changed too.  He was a teen idol/garage rocker, an Anglophilic semi-dandy, a CBGB art rocker/punk, a folkie, a collector, a Southern gentleman and an asshole, a hipster connoisseur of black music, and finally, an elder statesman able to embrace (if sometimes warily) several of the earlier selves, which he probably would've said were all one anyway.


Something I've been thinking about in revisiting some of Chilton's music over the last week is how much his later work has in common with his sometime producer Jim Dickinson.  They were both great at digging up worthy and often rare or forgotten r'n'b, country, soul, and jazz tunes to record, a proclivity that was inseparable from their seeming unconcern with commercial success.  They recorded the songs that interested them, and their musical interests were very broad.  As a recording artist, Dickinson had the advantages of having one of those gritty, imperfect voices that gets cooler with age and of having raised his own world-class backing band - his sons Luther (guitar) and Cody (drums).  I would guess that the opportunity to make music with his sons was a big reason for Dickinson's recording as much as he did in his final decade.


With those, probably my final thoughts on Alex Chilton for a while, out of the way, I'll give you my list of recommended listening from the post-Big Star years, a confusing, sometimes frustrating period on which there is little agreement, but which, like it or not, amounts to the bulk of Chilton's career:

[Ass-covering note:
This list is necessarily non-definitive, since I haven't heard everything Chilton released after Big Star.  I think it does give a sense of the range of material he released in the past 30+ years, though, and hits most of the high points.]

Baron of Love, Pt. 2 - this is really Chilton associate Ross Johnson's show, a messed-up mashup of a trashy Elvis biography and The Doors' "The End" being narrated by an apocalyptic weirdo at 4 AM in a Memphis t*tty bar. The version of Like Flies On Sherbert I have leads off with this track, which is not the case on other versions.  Hard to imagine it any other way now, though. (I also have a version of this labeled Part 1, which seems to just be an alternate take - nearly as good but quite similar to the more familiar Part 2.)

My Rival - the tape sounds at the beginning, the shaky-but-real sense of rock'n'roll danger and menace, the coming-unhinged lyric and vocal - if you wanted to grasp the Like Flies On Sherbert "concept" by listening to just one track, this would be an excellent choice.

Hey! Little Child - in a discography with many funny and perverse moments, the roll call of Catholic girls' schools near the end of this stands out as one of the funniest and most perverse.  "Hey! Little Child" is to Like Flies on Sherbert as "Cyprus Avenue" is to Astral Weeks, or something like that.

Like Flies on Sherbert - "IT' fiiii-i-ine" - I notice that AC Newman has cited this as his favorite Chilton song - "beautiful and messed up" indeed - only the Chilton-Dickinson pairing could have yielded something with this track's very specific, yet impossible-to-define quality of strangeness.

Bangkok - Chilton takes his listeners on an ultra-sleazy Southeast Asian sex tour with this bizarro punk rocker from 1978 - tough choice between the eccentric production of the single (including machine gun fire) and the Live In London version, where it fits in well with sloppy/edgy renditions of several Like Flies tracks.

Walking Dead - one of the weirder entries in the Chilton catalogue (and that's saying something), this is arguably the best thing to come out of the semi-disastrous Jon Tiven sessions (the results of which were released on The Singer Not The Song EP and the LP Bach's Bottom - and the CD version of Bach's Bottom, which is apparently very different - Chilton's '70s/'80s discography is a minefield) - this finds Chilton getting into Roky Erickson territory with the subject matter while reaching new heights of hazy weirdness with the sound.

Tramp - dangerous-sounding live version (from the Sherbert-era Live in London, with the Soft Boys rhythm section) of the Lowell Fulsom blues/soul standard made most famous by Otis Redding and Carla Thomas' duet.  When Chilton says that he "won't even smack ya in the face" on this track, you're not sure whether to believe him.

Train Kept A Rollin' - hiccuping rockabilly energy - a fine loose version (from Live In London) of fellow Memphian Johnny Burnette's horny, hopped-up all-time classic.

No Sex - Chilton's musical response to the AIDS crisis, from 1986, including one of the greatest lines of his career, "c'mon baby, f*ck me and die".  "Streets of Philadephia" (or "Philadelphia") it ain't.

Dalai Lama - from 1987's High Priest, a wacky ode to the Lama and his swingin' pad ("he had a far-out decorator") in the Himalayas.  This is just good, ridiculous fun, and I love it.

I Remember Mama - a highlight from what is perhaps Chilton's best-titled album, Loose Shoes and Tight P*ssy (originally on a small French label with a great cover, it was lamely retitled Set when first released in the US), this was a Shirley Caesar gospel/soul heart-tugger played by Chilton as a gritty Southern rock anthem.

Single Again - Alex goes honky-tonk on this Gary Stewart cover, also from Loose Shoes.

Il Ribelle - the source version of this Chilton live set staple is a nice piece of honkin' sax Elvis/Chuck Berry-style rock'n'roll, Italian-style.  On paper, this seemed like one of his more left-field cover choices, but it gave AC a chance to show off his rockabilly chops (and foreign language singing).  First appearing on the very solid, well-produced if not-quite-transcendent studio album A Man Called Destruction, this also shows up on the 2004 Live In Anvers.

What's Your Sign Girl - another staple of Chilton's later-period live shows (and also on A Man Called Destruction), this tune is a nearly forgotten, smooth late-70s Philly-style r'n'b gem from Barry White protege Danny Pearson.

Bonus Links

An incredible piece on Chilton's bizarre, harrowing, and sporadically brilliant '75-'81 period, rivaling It Came From Memphis as a depiction of pure, undistilled Mid-South weirdness.

I love this footage, from a New Orleans cemetery, which has been linked to and embedded in a lot of places in the last week.

Steve Scariano has some amazing true-life tales of interviewing Chilton for Bomp! Magazine and getting more than he bargained for.


Unknown said...

We went to the Full Moon for Chopper's Bachelor Party where I sang "The Letter" as a tribute

Steve said...

I have a hazy recollection of doing "The Letter" at the Full Moon. Not 100% sure it really happened.