When Katrina hit in 2005, I heard that Alex Chilton had refused to evacuate his New Orleans home, staying put as the waves reached his front porch. The news came as a shock to me not because it seemed out of character for the man behind Third/Sister Lovers but because until that moment, it simply hadn’t occurred to me that somewhere in America, Alex Chilton was alive and kicking into the 21st century. When Big Star’s fourth album, “In Space” came out later that year, it was equally disconcerting. In my mind, “#1 Record”, “Radio City”, and “Third/Sister Lovers” were all there was, all there could be. The idea that Chilton was still out there, still making music, just didn’t make sense to me. Still, I was glad to know that he was out there. I imagined him out there on his front porch, growling invectives at the encroaching waves, daring Katrina to make her move, then in the same breath daring the rock press to call him irrelevant. It felt good to know that weird uncle Alex was out there somewhere, surely shaking his head and grumbling incoherently about the sad state of modern pop.
So, it came as a blow to hear the news that Alex Chilton died of an apparent heart attack last week. He was fifty-nine, not nearly as old as I’d guessed he was, but hell, I also hadn’t realized he had his first huge hit at sixteen, singing “The Letter” with the Box Tops.
When I read the news, there was only one thing I could do, play Big Star, loudly.
I started with “Thank You Friends”, which, if you can see past Chilton’s sneering delivery of the lyrics, may be the one ray of sunshine in the unmitigated emotional trainwreck that is “Third/Sister Lovers.”
From there, I’ve been listening to the first two albums nearly non-stop for a week and it’s amazing to me how even though I don’t think I’ve sat down to listen to either of them in years, they’re a part of me; I’ve completely internalized them.
Big Star’s albums changed the way I look at the music of the 1970s. They helped me contextualize my suburban adolescence. They got me through shitty relationships and deaths in the family and as long as I skipped “India Song” every time, they never got old.
On July 30, 2006, Kat and I danced to two of their songs at our wedding, and those are the ones I’ve been listening to most this week.
Thanks, Alex. You’ll be missed.