What's Going Ahn: Big Star & Alex Chilton

by Billy Bob Hargus

This article originally appeared in Perfect Sound Forever, which also has a Jody Stephens interview).

First it was at a school down South in the spring of '93 (released as a CD) then it was a series of concert dates that were supposed to be final but thanks to Rolling Stone, who were roundly booed, Big Star happened again. Andy Hummel was working at Ardent studios (where it all began) and Chris Bell was somewhere in heaven but there were the man, William Alexander Chilton (as he announced himself), along with drummer Jody Stephens and two of the Posies becoming that seminal, legendary band once ag ain in front of a hungry, crowded audience on a cold New York night.

This could have just been some Chilton gig where the drummer happened to be his old band buddy and they dragged along two admirers for good measure just so they could all do some of the band's classics. Not exactly something you'd want to pay $30 for, ev en if you are a fan (like me). But I did and so did a lot of other people, enough to see out the club. Of course, it didn't hurt that the opening act happened to be the Meat Puppets but I got the feeling that people really wanted and need to see Chilton and company come together.

I went because I was RABID about all of their albums and didn't care except just to see them play the old tunes and imagine how many times I'd listen to the songs dreamily and find consolation in Alex's confusion and love-lorn crises. I was suprised and delighted to find out that it was all worth it.

The second that Alex hit the stage, I knew something was right. He smoked about a pack of cigarettes for the whole show, waiting to start a song before the bassist lit him up and later stroking his guitar and singing as he switched the smokes between his hands and mouth like an expert juggler. He was in a droll mood, calling out Jody's mother (dedicating Todd Rundgren's "Slut" to her) and dodging the usual stupid requests. Of course, everyone yelled out for "The Letter" and he respo nded by saying he didn't know it first and then later by starting a hilarious Joe Cocker version of it. Later, some drunken idiot who had been yelling for "Freebird" before, yelled "Fuck you," Alex answered with a grin "Express y ourself- don't ever hold anything back." During the same bout, he gracefully saluted with a smile then turned around and stuck out his butt. When the same asshole proclaimed his love for Alex, he whimsically told us "I love you too."

Not bad for a guy who'll probably never make the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame, no matter how much Jann Werner may love him. Other than a song where he stood around waiting until he realized that he did the intro, Chilton was right on his game. In a way, the set was typical of him with some cute little covers of "My Baby Loves Only Me" and "Pennsylvannia 6-5000" (which ended the show) while he forgot about "Volare" (thankfully) and "O My Soul" (a shame- was it because of too man y chord changes?). Other covers included "Kansas City" and the Kinks' "Til The End of the Day" (he was always a big fan and it does appear on the reissue of Third).

The most moving cover they did was his old partner Chris Bell's "I Am the Cosmos", which he left to Posies bassist Ken Stringfellow (who incidentally bore a mean resemblance to John Cale)to sing . This was surprise but a really pleasant one cons idering that Bell had started the band with Chilton and made the first album as part of a school project. Sadly, Bell wanted to do studio work and stay off the road so he left after the debut and only had his solo album released a few years ago, long aft er his death. I think it's safe to say that he would have been really proud.

Of course, we also got to hear a slew of classics from the original albums. "Big Black Car" had an eerie calm to it (not exactly as prime fare for a live show but another nice surprise), "Thank You Friends" (kind of ironic after all o f the cat-calls and requests) sadly where the only ones from Third.

Like the Missouri live CD, most of the material came from the first album- maybe another tribute to Bell who co-wrote the songs there on with Chilton. Truth be known, the set was pretty similar to the Missouri CD with few exceptions. Still, to see Alex, Jody and friends do the old songs with such relish was pleasure for any fan. Alex and Posies guitarist John Auer weren't making any sparks but they knew how to dive into pop songs so sweet they'd give you a tooth-ache and Godiva a hard-on. Jody slammed his cymbals so much that they had to go outside, begging for aspirin after the show.

>From the first album (#1 Record), there was "Feel," "Don't Lie to Me," "When My Baby's Beside Me," and "The Ballad of El Goodo." Did Alex listen to the first side and thought that was good enough? In any case, he took for vocals except for "Feel", which Stringfellow did (covering well too). The material from "Radio City" (one of my favorite albums ever) was done by Stringfellow ("Back of a Car" and "Daisy Glaze") and Stephe ns ("Way Out West") except for "September Gurls" (Bangles covered it, remember?) and "She's A Mover". All from Third besides "Big Black Car" and "Thank You Friends" was Stephen's "For You ": admittedly, it's not a party record or concert-friendly but that's part of its charm.

Despite a bouquet of flowers at the end and a drummer that's mistaken for Evan Dando, Chilton may never be a big star himself, even with "alternative" getting more and more mainstream. The guy's just too odd and God love him for it. I'd seen h im at solo show a few years ago where he did two songs then asked for requests. The guy's just not video-friendly or ready for crystal-clear production. He's worked years sabatoging his own career, going after his own muse at a leisurely pace. Not the kind of superstar to fill stadiums but that's all the more reason to cherish him. He's untidy, weird, and goofy- in short, a cool guy and true rocker.