Monday, January 24, 2011

I promised in a recent post to address why Alex didn't approve of the book and just to set the record straight will offer a brief summary of what went down.

Throughout the interview process there was an understanding (I believe) that if my tape recorder was on, comments were on the record unless otherwise specified. Alex made a few comments that he then requested not go in the book and those requests were respected.

After the book had been out a few months I heard about Alex's dissatisfaction and called him. He was unhappy that I had delved into his family history. What was somewhat puzzling about this was that he had brought it up when we first got together to discuss the project as a key to understanding the Big Star story from his perspective. When I returned to do the formal interviews, I started off with his references to the family history and he immediately, and with a great deal of enthusiasm, started right in. A lot of his narrative is in the book. At no time did I feel that the commentary was off the record.

We verbally jousted for a bit. When I didn't budge from my belief that I hadn't done anything wrong, he moved onto complaining that he didn't realize that I was going to talk about "a gig we did years ago." I explained how the description of the gig at McVan's was a way for me to explain and defend his post-Big Star work. It was a device to capture the reader's attention. After we went round and around for nearly an hour I told him "Alex, the next time you and I see each other, we're going to shake hands and still be friends." He replied in his inimitable soft drawl, "You really think so? Well okay then...I guess" That was the last time we spoke. I had tickets to see him with the Box Tops a few months later but it was the Saturday after Thanksgiving and I was tired from a few days of house guests. I gave my tickets away and stayed home. If not for comments by Alex that were reported in print, I wouldn't have ever have felt compelled to comment on the matter.

It bothered me that Alex didn't like parts of the book (the actual coverage of Radio City passed his test) but after I spoke with him I called a friend of mine, Parke Puterbaugh, who had written a big article for Rolling Stone back in 1993. Parke had had a similar experience as mine. We speculated as to why Alex felt compelled to focus on the negative – or imagine it – in situations where people genuinely had his best interests at heart. The reason might lie in this exchange from an interview in Bernie Kugel's Big Star fanzine back in 1977

Interviewer: What would you like written on your grave?
Alex Chilton: "A Self-Made Man" sounds best to me.

Translation: if you see yourself as a self-made man, you may have a more difficult time accepting the well-intentioned help and support of others. But who really knows? If I were writing a biography, I might delve into these matters more. But I'll leave that to someone else. As for me, whether or not Alex liked the book, I stand by it and wouldn't change a thing. Except all those annoying typos. And they're being fixed in the next print run.

As far as Alex's family history goes, it took me a while but I finally realized why it was important to the Big Star story from his perspective. His roots may have stretched back to England, but were firmly planted in New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta. His dad was a jazz musician who developed his sound in Mississippi and refined it in Memphis. Alex telling his family story was, perhaps, his way of letting us know that he wasn't a privileged Memphis teen who lucked into teen stardom. He was an outsider with a rich family musical and cultural background playing his way back home.

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