March 2010 Archives
I haven't quite known how to express the feeling that went with hearing that Alex Chilton died earlier this week. Very glad to see that Phil Nugent has put it into words:
UPDATE: See also SEK.
I know that, for a lot of people my age, Chilton's name had a special magic to it because of what was resolutely unmagical about him. He was a working stiff, someone who'd had his greatest popular success when he was still practically a child and who preferred to tend his own garden and do what struck his fancy than try to replicate it or cash in on it. When he met the Replacements after they'd helped introduce him to a new audience and solidify his standing as a college radio cult hero, it was on more or less equal terms: he wasn't a big swinging dick of the music industry whose ring they had to kiss, but he wasn't a broken-down dude out of rehab who had to be beholden to the big new stars, either. They were both pros, in it for the long haul, stubbornly working their limited market share, left of the dial. But Chilton was treasurable in that company because of his experience and the fact that he'd had a mass success and had kept making music without having one again.The phrase "stubbornly working [a] limited market share, left of the dial" created a kind of shock of recognition, and helps me to make sense of things.
It's an open question whether he could have had another one if he'd wanted it. But the fact that he seemed capable of living without it--that he let Big Star run its course rather than twist the band's sound this way or that, desperately trying to have a hit, and settled in Memphis and then New Orleans, where he tried new things and did what he pleased whenever he could book some studio time instead of carving out a niche in Vegas or L.A. and working the oldies circuit--made him seem like one of the guys to those of us who spent our college years, in the '80s and '90s, crowded into underheated music venues with walls plastered with mimeographed fliers and creaking wood floors that felt as if they might have given way if too many people had cheeseburgers on their way to the gig and squatting in cars with the radio tuned to the college station. His whole career had an improvisational, D.I.Y. feel to it that was inspiring, especially to those of us who weren't sure enough that we'd be dead by thirty that we sometimes wondered if it was possible to bypass business school and still have a future with some dignity. "Dignity" isn't the first word that comes to mind when thinking of Chilton, but he did earn himself plenty of respect, to go with all the love.
UPDATE: See also SEK.