Big Star are sacred to me – a summer devotional, everything that John Cusack and Emilio Estevez could never be for me, a holy confessor and mentor. I would be surprised if that other late auteur of American adolescence, John Hughes, didn’t draw inspiration from their sugar-coated, angst-filled gems in creating his teenage operas. For me, Big Star crystallized a kind of suburban puberty that is at once personal and catholic. And was I ever a sucker for this stuff. When I was in high school, I fell in love with my fair share of “September Gurls” (like song’s speaker, I was always a December boy) and found solace in listening to their beautiful, fractured _Third/Sister Lovers_ after a recommendation by a friend. I quickly bought the rest of their catalog (only two other [hard to find] albums). So when I heard that Alex Chilton had passed away, needless to say I felt a little heartbroken, as if a part of my awkward childhood had somehow slipped away.
Alex Chilton wrote a soundtrack for every teenager. He sang about wooing girls and telling their dads to get off my back, driving fast in big black cars and hanging around aimlessly, wishing we had a joint so bad. And whether you know it or not, you’ve been touched by Chilton, too (bet you didn’t [or maybe you did] know the theme to “That 70’s Show” was Cheap Trick’s [bastardized] version of a Big Star song, “In the Street”). With jangly guitars, big chords, and a voice that sounded perpetually warbling on the side of tears, Chilton and his music, with straightforward pop group the Box Tops and especially with power pop giants Big Star and his ramshackle solo career, has influenced the likes of R.E.M., the Replacements (who have a song named after him that is really quite good), and Pavement (whose ubiquitous “Summer Babe” can be seen as a kind of reworking of Big Star’s “September Gurls”).
Chilton started his career in pure pops. As lead singer of the Box Tops, a chintzy 60s blue-eyed soul band with a knack for surprisingly complex harmonies and conveying a certain kind of earnestness, he found success with the #1 hit “The Letter” and several minor hits including “Soul Deep” (a real gem) and “Neon Rainbow.” After declining a spot helming Blood, Sweat and Tears, a project that Chilton deemed “too commercial,” he met up with childhood friend Chris Bell and started Big Star, whose three albums are all perfect and all classics, creating a style that was familiar and referential, yet completely fresh. They touched on the Who, the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Thin Lizzy, and the Velvet Underground. They still haven’t gone stale to this day. After three short years together, they split up. Both Chilton and Bell went on to influential solo careers, Chilton producing the much sought after lo-fi album, _Like Flies on Sherbert_. After dabbling in rockabilly and blues, Chilton reformed Big Star in 1993 with two members of the Posies (since Bell had tragically passed away in 1978). They released their final album in this incarnation in 2005 and had plans to play the South by Southwest music festival this year. He passed away on March 17th of heart troubles in a hospital in New Orleans.
When I found out that he died, without thinking about it, I went to my music catalog and put my Big Star collection on repeat. And I was seventeen again, just like that. I came upon “September Gurls” and entertained nostalgic thoughts about my former flames, I mourned silently during the hormonally tragic “Holocaust,” I let “Thirteen” play and felt the giddy optimism of a kid just discovering rock and roll. Alex Chilton allowed me to detangle and come to understand all the most embarrassing and triumphant moments from my fraught adolescence. Thank you, friend.