Alex's post-Big Star / pre-'80s and beyond solo career hasn't gotten much attention in the ongoing tributes (nice of EW to mention Sherbert in their coverage but hardly a word about Behind The Magnolia Curtain - a Panther Burns record in name but if you spent any time around Alex during 1979 or 1980 you realize that there was a huge overlap between Alex solo and Panther Burns as a group – Magnolia Curtain is an essential album in the Chilton discography). Here are some really good remembrances from Tav Falco and Ross Johnson...
Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Debbie Parker-Kuhns, bass player for the Philly Nuggets, sent me this last week. It's the page from the Memphis phone book that she ripped out on her way through town in 1979 as described in the book. Even though Deb had already met Alex in Austin (when our friend Pete LaBonne jumped up on stage and jammed with Alex), in my mind the story really began with this piece of paper. I still remember the May night when we worked up the nerve to call Alex on the phone, something we wouldn't have done if not for having this slip of paper. Somehow seeing that there was only one Chilton in Memphis made us think we could reach him easily. I remember his mom answering the phone and calling him, having a sweet sound in her voice like he was still a teenager...
Friday, March 26, 2010
Friday afternoon. Waiting here to do a radio interview regarding Alex and Big Star. Listening to my friend Parke Puterbaugh on the air right now talking and spinning a few discs. I just found the above article about Alex by Barbara Mitchell, former manager of the Posies. Definitely worth a read. Heartfelt observations and some good stories.
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
ALEX ON GUITARS...
Thought I'd just lighten things up a bit with this direct quote from Alex from the early 90s. while he was showing me his recently acquired vintage Gibson backstage at a club gig. Something for all of you musicians: "Gibsons are guitars...Fenders are toys."
When I was doing the interviews for the book we talked a bit about guitars. Sometimes he didn't travel with a guitar and was provided with one by the promoter. He said that he really liked any Gibson / Epiphone with P-90 pickups but that the Les Paul was too heavy for an entire show, despite how cool it sounded. But keep in mind...the ultimate epic guitar sound (rhythm) of September Gurls was a Strat and he did play them until the end.
Monday, March 22, 2010
A grey and rainy Monday morning. Appropriate for the times...
A lot has been written about Alex over the last few days and I won't bother to post links to everything. But you really should read his wife Laura's tribute that was read at SXSW (linked above). I spent quite a bit of time thinking about and analyzing Alex's approach to music (even experiencing it a bit) and talking to others about it – Laura put it all into words on a deeper and mre insightful level than any one else ever did. The co-existing sides of Alex...analytical and the spontaneous...a brilliant and accurate observation. What a fitting tribute at a unbelievably difficult time for her. One little thing bugged me about it though (just kidding a bit). I had no idea that Alex liked the band Free, one of my all-time favorites. He was generally so quick to dismiss anything connected to rock that was made after 1968 that it never would have occurred to me to wax poetic about the sparse musical structures of Kossoff, Fraser, and Kirke. But then it that way, Free was sort of like a baroque classical trio, parts interlocking perfectly. It makes perfect sense.
I've had a fair amount of feedback, mostly positive, about my reply to Bob Lefsetz's piece. It was done in the moment and if I had maybe cooled off a bit it would have been more measured and nuanced. But I knew that he would be compiling responses and given his platform within the industry, I had a visceral reaction to his perpetuating an inaccurate image of Alex as a person and his circumstances. It was a verbal equivalent of throwing him (and the rest of the rock critic / fan world that revels in this inaccurate garbage and outright slander) up against a wall and saying "cut it out, damn it!" You see that picture in the above link of Alex in the above link? Does that look like the type of guy Lefsetz was describing? You tell me...
One more tidbit on a lighter note (inspired by the picture linked above)...one little thing Alex and I had in common from the first day we met was our affinity for Brooks Brothers-style oxford cloth button-shirts. I was wearing one when we met (they've been a staple of my wardrobe since high school - at the time of the gig I was working as a stockbroker for Merrill Lynch and I would drive to Brooks Bros. in Pittsburgh to stock up – Buffalo was more of a double-knit town) and he complimented me on it. Keep in mind, this was 1979...the height of the punk era. When I did the interviews for the book one of our side topics was how you could never go wrong wearing a white Brooks Brothers shirt. Perfect for almost any occasion. Maybe mix it up a bit sometimes with a pinstripe, muted tattersall or a pastel color. If you look at pictures of Alex performing in recent years you'll see what I mean. He had his own version of being a sharp-dressed man.
Friday, March 19, 2010
A good friend of mine in Toronto just sent me this link to a story in the Toronto Star about how Alex's death has rocked SXSW. For those of us not there, it's worth the read...
I've been thinking about what to write and can't seem to settle on the right balance between nothing and everything. I'm struck by how many people have been truly affected by Alex's death. And all that is because of that intangible, indefinable something in his music and performances that reaches us ways that few other artists have or can. I'm not an outwardly emotional person. When one of my musical heroes has passed away – John, George, Miles – I might get a bit choked up. After I learned about Alex's death on Wednesday night I went into my son's bedroom to help him change his bed and broke down in tears. Completely lost it. I thought about that later that night as I lay in bed trying to sleep. Why the intensity of the reaction ? Alex and I were friendly over a long period but not really what you would call close friends. I didn't worship him or try to glom onto his notoriety. I did genuinely like him as a person, really enjoyed our times together, and learned more about music just being around him than I can articulate. But my work has brought me into contact with a lot of great musicians, many of whose work I revere. None have touched me like Alex. That relationship was cemented for life after hearing Radio City for the first time.
And then as a lay in bed I heard Blue Moon playing over and over in my head. That sound, that voice, that vibe. Now silenced. As Jody Stephens said, Alex's voice might have been imperfect, but few people could connect with listeners like Alex. I think we all know that feeling that he gave us, whether it was hearing September Gurls for the first time on vinyl or watching him perform April In Paris live in a club. It's futile to try to put your fingers on what that something he had really was. But we all knew it was there. And I'm thankful I got to experience it in a lot of different ways over many years. And if you're reading this, I'm sure you feel the same way.
More next week.
Thursday, March 18, 2010
Here's my piece for Salon. I didn't really know it was being framed as an obituary but given the emotions that were flowing within me and a total lack of sleep last night (a bad cold on top of bad news), I'm pleased with how it turned out. My one regret: I should have worked Jody and Andy into the article. With a limited word count and a super-tight deadline (plus a head full of cold medicine) things fly by you. But I don't think that matters to them or anyone else right now.
Alex was even the extended subject on the local sports talk show in Buffalo this afternoon (WGR 55). He meant a lot to a lot of people.
Salon piece done and I need a breather. Time to think. In the days ahead I'll be sharing some memories of Alex but right now I feel the need just to be silent. Except when I see or hear people saying things about Alex that don't mesh with reality. Then I'm going to try to balance the record – which was my intent with the book.
This morning I was greeted by an email from the noted music blogger Bob Lefsetz regarding Alex. This guy has a huge following and shoots from the hip. Has some interesting points about the direction of the music biz but has recently bought his own myth. Unfortunately he said some things about Alex that I felt were flat out wrong - implying that he was a broken down failed rock star who lacked the financial or mental assets to get proper medical help (also implying that if we'd had ObamaCare, his loss could have been avoided). I spoke with Alex enough to know that he had assets, he went to doctors, he cared about his health and looked after it. Except for the smoking. Here's my reply to Lefsetz:
I've known Alex since 1979. I wrote the book on Radio City for Continuum's 33 1/3 series that was published last year (which involved probably the last extensive interviews he ever gave). You have jumped to so many conclusions regarding Alex that you ought to have your laptop yanked for a year. I don't even know where to begin except to say that you couldn't be more wrong about Alex, his life, and why he lived it the way he did. And I also don't want to his reveal personal details just to counter some guy with a big megaphone who is loose on the keys. But I'll tell you this:
After dropping out of the music business in late '81 (I set up his last tour), moving to New Orleans, getting sober, and returning to the stage in late '83, Alex did exactly what he wanted to do. He wanted to play the music he wanted to play his way. If that meant playing obscure covers in small clubs, he was cool with that. He saw himself more as an itinerant jazz musician than a rock star (remember, he turned down a deal from Elektra in the '80s). He wanted control over his music and didn't want to deal with major-label types. He had no interest in the rock star life. Players like Zoot Sims or Sonny Stitt were role models, not any rock band.
He and I always talked about money and health. Alex lived a very frugal lifestyle. A small home in N.O. that his brother had owned was completely paid for. Ditto for a used Volvo. He had no debts. No alimony. The songwriting royalties from In The Streets being used on That 70's Show had given him a certain comfort level. He was anything but broke. Big Star dates and Europe were also good for him. John Fry at Ardent was ever-vigilant about getting Big Star its financial due. Alex didn't believe that living on a higher plane necessarily involved "bucks and babes".
Alex was also very health conscious – except for smoking, and I suspect that's what snuffed him out. One of the last days we spent together we had lunch at Whole Foods and virtually the entire conversation was about our various health routines. Alex was an extremely intelligent and informed person. He had no qualms about going to a doctor. Again, I know more than you ever will know on this subject but don't feel like sharing details that I consider private. But to imply that he was a poor, rundown man without the mental or financial wherewithal to go to a doctor is scurrilous. He smoked. He'd probably been told 1000 times that that wasn't a good thing. Sorry to disappoint you Bob, but Obamacare wouldn't have saved him. Alex made his decisions and did things his way.
If you read my book (feel free to take it out of a library...at a time like this I don't care about selling copies but they probably have it at Book Soup - it made their bestseller list) you'll get a much different picture of who Alex was and why he did things the way he did in his own words. Contrary to the common public perception, he was a real gentleman. And for all the talk about indies and artists taking control – they're all still all trying to "make it." Alex had transcended that. Hard to understand if you're someone wondering why he didn't try to build on Big Star and ride it to the top but he knew that they were a comet that had passed on to another universe and he had other musical worlds to explore.
Have to get going so I'll put up my thoughts about him on my Big Star blog later on. Needless to say, a sad day.
Saturday, March 13, 2010
Over the past month I've been exploring the world of music blogs that offer rare / out-of-print / bootleg albums for download, usually in mp3 form. Among most blogs there's an honor code not to offer recordings that are readily available but there are some that offer so much recently released material that their boldness is somewhat shocking (and not cool). In my travels I've found about ten or so records I've always wanted to hear again but haven't been able to find (such household names like the Fabulous Rhinestones, Mylon with Alvin Lee, Illinois Speed Press, Augie Meyers Head Band, Cat Mother etc.) Some of these are records I might have heard once or twice some 35 or 40 years ago. If they were really great, I'd still own them. But sometimes you want to hear something again just to hear it one more time...
Along the way I uncovered WATCHPOCKET, a nugget of early 70s blue-eyed soul from Memphis, complete with Steve Cropper on guitar and none other than DANNY JONES (the mystery participant on Radio City) on bass. Watchpocket was a vehicle for Sid Herring, lead singer of The Gants ("Keep On Dancing"). Joining Cropper and Herring behind the board is Ron Capone, a member of the Stax Ardent orbit.
Below is an excellent overview of the project from Amazon, although I take exception to the comparison to Delaney and Bonnie (it's an interesting album but it doesn't compare to anything in D&B's run from Home up to (but not including) D&B Together. That said it's worth checking out if you're interested in Memphis music, early 70s style...
If you want to hear the music, do a search for "rare MP3 music blogspot watchpocket" (leave out the quotations) and you'll be there.
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
Time flies when you're....? Well, here are some random items:
The Art Institute of Chicago has a major exhibition of the work of William Eggleston through May 23rd. Big Star fans of course know that he took the photos for the cover of Radio City and was a long time friend of the Chilton family. But far beyond that, he's one of the great art photographers ever. I absolutely love his work and was thrilled to learn about the exhibition. My wife and I will be paying a visit soon to the Windy City celebrate our 25th anniversary. In some weird way my love of Big Star actually paved the way to our marriage. It's a long story but two long-time girlfriends ended our relationship because I let it be known that I would rather focus on playing with Alex (the first gig in '79) or go see him at Danceteria on his "comeback" tour ('84) than do whatever they had in mind. To quote one about-to-be-ex-girlfriend "I've had enough of you and this Big Star thing."
All you Big Star fans are aware by now the Big Star is not only playing SXSW (Bob Mehr will be hosting a discussion panel that will include Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens) and a benefit in May in Memphis for the refurbished Overton Park bandshell (the site of the band's last gig in 1974). Some readers have asked me if I plan on going to the Memphis gig (probably not but there's a possibility). That triggered some thoughts about seeing the current Big Star live...something I've never done. For a band whose work I love dearly I've been fairly ambivalent about seeing the band since the reunion. I'd certainly go to a gig within reasonable driving distance of Buffalo (which would include Toronto) but I'm not about to hop on a plane to see them (something I might do for Prefab Sprout). I thought about why seeing Big Star isn't on my "must do" list and it comes down to this: despite In Space, I don't get the feeling that Big Star is a band that exists in the present. They're more of a museum piece, playing more or less the same set (without much rehearsal that involves the entire band). That doesn't mean that I expect them to be putting out albums on a regular basis. But there are ways for bands who are missing key members and / or whose most-beloved records were made decades ago. For an example, take the Allman Brothers. Missing several key members but have retained enough of their original sound to get past that hurdle. They haven't made a classic album since 1974. What they do is constantly mix it up from night to night. Different set lists. Digging out rarely performed songs from their catalog. Throwing in new covers to the mix, some of which are related to their past (would be cool to hear Big Star pull out a Badfinger song or Hot Burrito #2 or ...something besides Baby Strange or Slut). Even tweaking the line-up over the years. As a result, the ABB seem very much a current, vibrant band in the present (I could name a lot of bands in this same category). I know that Jody works overtime to bring his A game to every performance and the Posie fellows would probably love to do something less static. But...
On the other hand, I know there are shows were the current line-up hits the sweet spot and I'm sure that if I was in the audience, I'd wonder what took me so long.