Thursday, March 18, 2010

The time Alex Chilton played "13" on Skoob's guitar

A few years ago I wrote most of a memoir about my life playing post-punk music and collecting amateur folklore. One chapter (happens to be 25) describes my experience opening for Alex Chilton during his first revival tour. I've been thinking about this since I heard Alex had died.


In the Afterglow of a Big Star

Alex Chilton's band Big Star predated punk, not to mention post-punk. Their third and final record, Sister Lovers, virtually a Chilton solo project recorded in the mid-70s as his band disintegrated around him, more or less gives the lie to the concept of post-punk that is so dear to me.

You can shake every important post-punk band straight out of Sister Lovers, with a dash of Marquee Moon by Television (garnished with Captain Beefheart, to taste). It was as if the fury of punk was needed to shatter the complacency of the 70s (best exemplified by disco), but once all its two-minute songs came to their abrupt ends, rock music could step right through its ruins and proceed unscathed.

Big Star had been grandfathered into our tradition because the bands we cared about (most notably the Replacements) were the ones who covered and rediscovered them, eventually getting Chilton out of New Orleans, where he had been washing dishes, and onto the road again. Alex Chilton was very recently resurrected from the rock and roll dead when he came to Cicero's. Seeing his name advertised in a club listing was a harrowing sight, as if the whereabouts of ghosts were common knowledge now and receiving advance publicity.

Seeing "Enormous Richard" in small print in the same vertical Cicero's ad, and printed alongside "Alex Chilton" on a computer-generated ticket, left a bunch of extremely wordy graduate students speechless. Every rookie up for his first cup of coffee in the big leagues who hears his name announced in the same line-up as a Hall of Famer must know the feeling.

We have it on good authority that Alex Chilton made a sour pucker as we started to play. He quietly retreated into Cicero's store room, the space just off the bar where I had interviewed Chicken Truck what seemed like a lifetime ago. We never really saw him until he took the stage (which was never a stage). There, he withstood relentless cries from Skoob and me to play the Big Star songs "September Gurls" and "Thirteen".

Chilton wasn't resurrected as a rock and roll ghost of his former self, though. He came back as a completely different cat, more lounge act than tortured savant. The root of the rock music that had changed our lives was going back to his own roots, Southern soul, which he performed like a journeyman, not a genius. Chilton was even playing "Volare", a song we associated with a television commercial starring Ricardo Montalban of Fantasy Island fame.

If we had been looking at the Cicero's listing for weeks, trying to believe our eyes, we spent Chilton's entire set staring at the stage, trying to believe our ears.

Just as bug-eyed greenhorns drop their jockstraps onto the same locker room floor as the legends, at gig's end Enormous Richard and Alex Chilton had to load our gear out of the same dank basement. We had worked up the gumption to touch the hem of his garment. This took the form of resuming our plea for him to sing "Thirteen", just for us.

"Can't," Chilton said. "Lays an egg for me."

"We'll play it," I insisted, "and you just sing."

Sensing he would see his hotel sooner if he gave in, Chilton snapped, "Come here." He led us into Cicero's pantry.

Out of earshot of stragglers, Skoob began to pick "Thirteen" and Alex Chilton sang along with us. Or rather, he tried to, but he had to keep interrupting himself to call out the correct chords.

Skoob, like many a porch musician, was in the habit of learning dumbed-down, cheater's versions of songs that call, in the original, for a little more manual dexterity than he was likely to possess in the beer-addled moods that made him want to play them.

"For Christ's sake," Chilton finally said, "give it here!" He grabbed Skoob's guitar and played the song correctly, leading us in the vocal.

Rock and roll is here to stay
Come inside where it's OK
And I’ll shake you …

We sang along inside Cicero's pantry, in the basement where rock music was reborn in St. Louis, as Alex Chilton fingered chords on the cheap guitar where my notebook songs were coming to life.


Photo from somebody's Flickr.

1 comment:

A.A. said...

What a great memory of Alex, thanks for sharing it!