Thursday, March 18, 2010

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 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.


oldhall said...

I'm glad you wrote that to him

Gareth Bowles said...

Very well put.

Mark said...

Nice job with the Salon piece, Bruce.

Larry said...

I finally read the Lefsetz piece about Alex. Yeah, it's more about Lefsetz (as his most of his work) but it strikes me as genuine. In his own way, he really appreciated the music. And you (or at least I) can't really blame him for not knowing about Alex's health regimen - it's not something that was widely publicized. He probably shouldn't have jumped to that conclusion, but to me it's a minor problem with an overall pretty good piece.

Bill said...

It's been interesting to read the outpouring of genuine emotion which has followed Chilton's death. People relate to Chilton on a very personal level, and it seems like just about everyone who ever met him has at least one funny story about him. People like Lefsetz, who didn't know him personally, nevertheless seem to have a proprietary feeling about Chilton, because his music was so personally affecting.

It's interesting to contrast this story with the way the news of Michael Jackson's death played out. Jackson's commercial success meant that there was inevitably going to be massive media attention, but his deep weirdness also meant that may of us experienced a sort of profound cognitive dissonance. What did it mean that the performer who'd grown up in public as we were growing up was suddenly and unexpectedly dead? With Chilton-- who most of us heard for the first time at around the same time we first heard "I Want You Back" the experience of loss seems much more personal. You can't listen to contemporary rock and not hear Chilton's influence, but he is less a world historical figure and more of a private favorite. Some people get it, and others don't seem to. Lefsetz mostly seems to, but he was certainly projecting a bit, and because Chilton was someone who was big as life but no bigger Lefsetz's projection comes off as ill-fitting and inappropriate.

Phil said...

Thanks ...I liked your book ..I spent an evening with Alex about 10 years ago through a friend we had in common and he was a real hoot to spend time with. I think your perception was spot on. you are one the good guys.

Anonymous said...

I knew Alex for the last 12 years of his life and found him smart, funny and well versed. He was always cordial to me and made a point to always spend time with me whenever we were on the road. He would probably be upset about all this hoo ha about him as he tried to stay out of the spotlight, just wanted to be a person. He once said that's why he liked me because I treated him like a friend not a star or a celebrity. I'm still shaken by his death. It'll be a long time before I get over it all.

Cynnkitty said...

What you've said couldn't ring truer.
Enigmatically misunderstood and at the same time transcendently insightful- it was his profound, description defying talent that enigmatically meant and means so much to so many very differnt people.

James L. said...

I don't mean to make this political at all, but this is just something to consider: the NOLA Times-Picayune is reporting that Alex didn't have health insurance:

At least twice in the week before his fatal heart attack, Chilton experienced shortness of breath and chills while cutting grass. But he did not seek medical attention, Kersting said, in part because he had no health insurance.

That's pretty heartbreaking.