Remembering Alex Chilton: Icon and Iconoclast

I had the opportunity to meet Alex Chilton a few months ago, at the afterparty for a Big Star gig in Brooklyn. We stood no more than a few feet away from each other for an hour or so, but I never wound up interacting with him beyond saying hello and getting an autograph. First off, he was talking with a couple of attractive women, and it's rude to interrupt a guy in the middle of that. And beyond that, what was I going to say to him? That his music had touched me profoundly for decades? That I'd spent countless hours listening to it, reading about it, analyzing it and debating it with my friends? By all accounts, he didn't seem to give his own music much thought, so why would he have cared about what it did for a total stranger?

Alex Chilton died yesterday, but the guy that rock fans worshipped -- the musician who almost 40 years ago founded Big Star, and in the process helped give birth to power-pop and alternative rock -- died decades ago. The guy who could break your heart with a ballad like "Thirteen," who wrote the most beautiful punk-rock song in history with "The Ballad Of El Goodo," who made doing nothing seem irresistibly cool with "In The Street," who created the pluperfect pop song in "September Gurls" -- that guy was killed by his own cynicism and disgust back in the mid '70s, when Big Star collapsed under the weight of their own expectations, record company snafus and resounding commercial indifference.

You can hear that death in Big Star's never-quite-completed third album, recorded in 1974 and released years after the fact as Big Star's 3rd and, later on, as Sister Lovers. It's a beautiful, harrowing, and often impenetrable work, revealing depths of emotion that must have been too powerful for Chilton to ever put on tape again. As a solo artist, he reinvented himself as a punk rocker of sorts. Most of his songs sounded dashed off rather than composed, and he seemed to take more interest in deconstructing soul classics or pop ballads than writing originals, anyway. He was too talented to not turn out some gems in the two-plus decades of his off-again, on-again solo career, but they seemed almost accidental, like he didn't want to care too much.

A few years later, when the punk, indie and alternative rock revolutions redefined the meaning of fame and success, Chilton might have been able to wear the band's commercial failure as a badge of honor. Their small but fervent cult following could have been a point of pride and not frustration -- even for a guy who, as a teenager in the late '60s, had tasted fame and success with the Box Tops. But in retrospect, it seems like Big Star came along just a few years too soon.

At any rate, the fame that eluded Big Star the first time around grew in their absence. Fans belatedly discovered the band's three classic albums (#1 Record, Radio City and 3rd/Sister Lovers) through word of mouth, the critical raves that accompanied the records' periodic reissues; and praise from bands like R.E.M. and the Replacements, who piqued my own interest in 1987 with their classic tribute song "Alex Chilton."

Chilton finally agreed to reform Big Star for one show in 1993 with original drummer Jody Stephens, plus Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies replacing co-founders Chris Bell and Andy Hummel. It seemed to be a one-off at the time, but the foursome played together sporadically for the rest of Chilton's life -- they had a gig scheduled at Austin's SXSW festival this Saturday. Every show felt like an opportunity for us to thank Chilton in person, and show him the love he'd been denied at the time. But we were saying thank you to a ghost -- by then, Chilton was beyond caring. The shows seemed like nothing more than paydays to him. The set lists rarely changed. He'd get more animated playing a cover of Glenn Miller's "Pennsylvania 6-5000" than any of the Big Star catalog. He appeared oblivious to whatever magic the audience gleaned from those old songs.

Improbably, a new Big Star album, In Space, appeared in 2005. The songs that sounded the most like classic Big Star belonged to the other three members of the band. Chilton's own songs were largely improvised-sounding funk workouts. Fun at times, but not what the fans wanted -- which almost seemed to be the point by then. The record, which turned out to be his last, was almost universally ignored.

To the end, Alex Chilton was one of a very rare breed -- a veritable rock icon who also managed to be a first-rate iconoclast, especially when it came to himself. His ceaseless decades-long puncturing of his own myth practically became a myth in itself. I still have no idea what I'd say to him if I had a chance to relive that night in Brooklyn. But I wish I'd at least mumbled a quick "Thanks for everything," even if it might have fallen on deaf ears.