One last Best of the Beat thought before we put this year’s event to bed:
Last spring at SXSW, the scheduled Big Star showcase became a tribute to Alex Chilton and Big Star, who passed away on the first night of the festival. The pleasure of the show was a little meta though. The versions were largely so faithful to Big Star that there was little life in them. That was natural because the band was Big Star’s Jody Stephens on drums and the two members of the Posies who constituted the rest of Big Star in recent years, but that meant the excitement was more in saying, “I saw Evan Dando sing Big Star” than hearing Dando sing the song.
I’d like to think the tribute to Chilton we presented at the Best of the Beat Friday night was more in keeping with his spirit. When Rene Coman, Doug Garrison, Alex McMurray and I first talked about the setlist, we agreed that we wanted to cover as much of his career as we could manage, and we wanted songs that he still had affection for. Singing songs that Chilton felt distant from seemed like a dubious way to honor him. But more than that, the performances had real life including a few mistakes – errors, Rene said later, that Alex would likely have approved of.
For me, the night righted a wrong, but I recognize that might be a personal thing. It was unimaginable to me that no occasion had come up to collectively celebrate someone who’s music meant so much to us, but maybe that’s just because it meant so much to me. I don’t think I can overstate how his music and career influenced the way I think about music. It’s easy, for instance, to dismiss mainstream pop music, and in my more punk days, it was even easier. But an underground figure like Chilton had hits with the Box Tops, so the hitmaker and the underground hero could co-exist, and that made me think far more carefully about mainstream music.
Similarly, his post-Big Star recordings – most notably Like Flies on Sherbert – were noisier and woolier than any pop, R&B or country that I knew at the time, and it gave me a reason to reconsider my notions of the component parts of a song. How important is it that a band is tight, and what does “tight” really mean? Are there times when an ugly sound is the most beautiful one? In time, I’d also realize how noisy and messy many soul, country and rockabilly classics were, and that he’d found a way to get closer to the spirit of the originals than I first realized.
As he wrote less and covered more, his song choices made me rethink notions of cool. His cover of the Italian pop song “Il Ribelle” forced me to consider the possibility that there was something hip in what I thought was generic foreign imitations of American pop, and his cover of “What’s Your Sign, Girl” sent me hunting for its source (Danny Pearson, and the album Barry White Presents Danny Pearson). If he found something notable in Gary Stewart, “Volare,” Jimmy C. Newman, Jan and Dean and more, then maybe my own ideas of what’s cool and what isn’t were too narrow.
I could go on. The arc of his career was the antithesis of the common view of the musician’s story, and his voice went from that of a classic R&B singer to a more fragile, personal thing as he aged. His voice was the one thing that I missed and the one thing that couldn’t be reproduced Friday night. When I was looking for YouTube videos to promo the Best of the Beat, I ran across footage of him with Yo La Tengo, and those clips were all about his voice, partially as a trademark, but also as a deceptively complicated instrument. He seemed to specialize in creating ambiguity – again, is that something to value in pop or not? – so when he sang “Volare,” it wasn’t clear if he was mocking it, celebrating it, or doing something else entirely. Was he being ironic? Tongue in cheek? His voice never gave it away, which left you with just the song, which he treated as equal to or better than anything he wrote. And as the cover of “Femme Fatale” shows, that same voice could be remarkably tender while equally ambiguous. Is he inside the lyric and reflecting its emotions, or is he singing as a fan and treating a beautiful song with loving care?
I know at least one person who walked away from Friday night wanting to know more about Alex Chilton’s music, which might be the best thing that could come of the night. I suspect each generation discovers him, occasionally en masse as they did when the Replacements sang “Alex Chilton,” but more will likely find him as one friend turns another friend on to him, and he/she will pass him along, and so on. And that points to a final thought that Chilton’s career made me conscious of – the social dimension associated with rock ‘n’ roll. No one I know listens to music in a vacuum, and the people we share music with are as important as the music itself.
I encountered this in vinyl days when Big Star albums were rarities and Chilton solo albums were almost as scarce. Five or six of us were always on the hunt in import and secondhand stores, and we’d listen to each others’ campus radio shows to hear a Big Star song. Without the community of Chilton fans around me, I don’t listen to him as much as I once did – I’ve also, to be fair, digested this stuff pretty thoroughly by now – but years of listening to Chilton taught me to be less sure of my judgments, and to remember that consuming rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t only mean thinking about the music but about your relationship to it.