Friday, March 19, 2010
A Glass of Water From Alex Chilton
Recently, I picked up my 12-year-old son Jack from his drum lesson. As usual, he and his teacher Eric showed me what they'd been working on. Eric had taught him the Bo Diddley-esque beat to "Hey Pocky A-Way" - a standard by New Orleans funk pioneers and national treasures the Meters. Eric is one of the few who still listens to vinyl and when I asked him to put "The Very Best of the Meters" on the turntable while Jack got his coat, he gladly obliged.
The richly burnished, slightly fuzzy warmth and deep-dish African delight transported me, washed over me like a cool drink on a hot day, like an overwhelming, bittersweet kiss from a loved-one on a train platform. I stood there completely in the moment, eyes closed, pulse suddenly racing, realizing that for the first time, my son was being introduced to soul-saving music in much the same way I had been - via a much-played LP with slight water damage to the sleeve (from sweat? a flood? beer?) and not through the internet, CDs and MP3s. (It's all good, I'm just sayin...)
With the passing of Alex Chilton - another one of my soul-savers - I am reminded that I was introduced to him in a similar fashion. Although unlike most of my other extended musical family-of-choice, eventually I met Alex face-to-face several times, usually on the low side of the road. As the days of post-Alex spool out like a roll of analog tape, I fondly remember those times.
As with my son and the Meters, I first met Alex Chilton via LPs. I vividly recall these records - stuffed into milk crates in my then-girlfriend (now wife of 20 years) Holly's apartment on St. Mark's Place in NYC. I had heard of Alex and of course knew the 2-minute gem that is "The Letter", but prior to Holly, hadn't experienced his post-Box Tops music. Forever embedded in my memory is the sensual experience of sliding Big Star's # 1 Record from the sleeve, like undressing someone, then gingerly touching the black vinyl only in the proper places, inserting the record on the nub, sending it spinning, then finally placing the needle on the edge and... BOOM - aural and astral transportation.
Holly had the Box Tops LPs and singles and the much-ballyhooed Big Star stuff, but she also possessed all of Alex's underrated solo work. (Some of which I did not care for - Like Flies on Sherbet, no thanks... but High Priest... yes please.) Not only was she a fan, she was friends with Alex. My wife is an intrepid traveler in both space and experience, and she was particularly voracious in the late 70s/ early 80s. She and Alex met as he was emerging from self-imposed dishwasher exile, not long after he'd produced and played with the Cramps. Their friendship - a difficult one, but she has stamina for musicians (I should know) - resulted in him producing her all-girl punk band Clambake, a collaboration that is evidenced only by memory and a poorly-stored low bias cassette in the attic.
Due to these connections, a meeting between Alex and me was imminent. It would be the first time I would break bread with someone whose music and lifestyle choices ("what would Alex do...?") had influenced me pretty profoundly; from his painstaking attention to sonic and/or spiritual detail - or, if it was called for, a lack of attention to detail - to the refreshing "show me the money" attitude toward Box Tops and Big Star reunions, he loomed large. I do not recall being nervous, though, even though I had been one of the many fledgling musicians who studied, aped and desperately wanted to be inside the elegantly ragged and sometimes gloriously weird Big Star canon. Just as importantly, I wanted to give the impression to the world that, like Alex, rock star riches and fame meant nothing to me, inevitable disappointment would not deter me.
And so it came to pass that Alex and I would meet in person a few times in the 90s and, most potently for me, we would have a long, convivial and bizarre telephone conversation.
As to the former, when attending an early 90s New Orleans Jazz Fest, Holly called Alex to check in. He invited us and our mutual friend Melinda over to his dimly lit, ramshackle house in a residential neighborhood. After showing up at the agreed-upon mid-afternoon time and knocking for a few minutes to no avail, we were about to leave when a sleepy-eyed Alex opened the door and let us in. He and his girlfriend - who never would join us - had been napping. Although annoyed and grouchy, he insisted we stay and brought us water. I mostly listened, not wanting to fall into a Chris Farley-esque "'Member when you recorded 'Radio City'... and you played that out-of-phase Strat...'member that...? ... That was awesome." As with every time I would see him, Alex smoked an endless stream of cigarettes, from which he seemed to derive deep pleasure. Indulging us when we cited the madness of the tourists (as if we were not tourists) he mostly extolled the virtues of some of the festival bands playing on the smaller stages. He did not talk about his music or himself. Due to the frequent rain and the fact that the festival is held on a muddy racetrack, Melinda had black mud on her flip-flop-wearing feet and toes. Alex laughed at that.
Years later, Holly and I would visit Alex with our newborn son. We were on a road-trip from NYC to Austin, stopping off in New Orleans to visit friends. Alex had a new pad - a shotgun-style house in the historic Treme neighborhood that was tilted and sinking into the ground. He was alone and had been working on the place. If memory serves, he had no electricity. But as with every other time I hung out with him, he did not seem to care about such things. I knew he had a reputation for being prickly about Big Star so again, I never brought up his band that was every bit as influential to me as the Beatles. But we did talk music. He could wax on for long stretches - his knowledge was encyclopedic and his passion palpable. I gleaned that he was a student of architecture, so I told him about my great Uncle destroying the integrity of the ancestral home in San Antonio Texas by hacking off the top floor so he wouldn't have to heat it. Alex looked at me with heavy-lidded eyes and jokingly drawled, "There outta be a law." Because of the humidity, we retreated to the crumbling stoop, where Holly and baby Jack and I sat with Alex and shot the breeze with his neighbors - working class New Orleans folk of varying colors and ages. Their fondness for Alex - and his for them - was obvious. I got the impression they were not Big Star fans.
Finally, the phone conversation. Sometime in the early 90s, Alex called the apartment looking for Holly. She'd written a couple of profiles of him for various magazines and I think this was a follow-up call, or maybe just a friendly howdy. In any event, she wasn't home, so Alex and I had a talk.
At this time Alex had been enjoying some success as an eclectic recording and touring artist and had been introduced to a new generation via the Paul Westerberg/Replacements song "Alex Chilton," But he had no phone. Restoring a house in a remote part of Tennessee, he was calling from the parking lot of the grocery store. His disembodied Memphis drawl was particularly soft and languid and, perhaps because he wasn't sitting before me in a haze of cigarette smoke, I finally told him how much I loved Big Star, especially the twisted, scary Third/Sister Lovers. He was fine about it, thanking me as if I had complimented him on the chicory coffee he'd just brewed in a percolator. "Thanks, man... glad you enjoyed it." I asked him to share any new bands he was into and he suddenly exploded into enthusiasm. In fact, it was the most enthusiastic I'd heard him be about anything, and that includes having seen him play live several times.
"The Country Rockers! The Country Rockers!" he said.
"What are they like?" I asked, deeply pleased to be sharing this unexpected exuberant moment with one of the most laconic people I'd ever met.
"I can't describe them," he said simply. "They are just one of the best bands I've ever seen. In my life. Ever."
"Where are they from?"
"Memphis, but they're on tour and they're playin' CB's soon. Check 'em out. They are better than anything you've ever heard from me."
Our conversation ended soon after that. Aside from yelling out a request for him to play the song "Let's Get Lost" from Guys and Dolls at a solo acoustic show at the Kitchen in NYC, I would have no further real-time contact with Alex. (He obliged my request.)
Sure enough, the Country Rockers came to CB's and Holly and I hustled over to the Bowery to see what all the fuss was about. We had no idea what to expect. To our surprise, the trio consisted of two old men - the septugenarian black-toupee'd singer-guitarist Sam Baird, the octogenarian drummer Gaius "Ringo" Farnham and Alex's longtime bassist Ron Easley, who had apparently met Baird in a roadhouse and who, at forty-something, was the baby of the band. They hammered through some ragged-but-right covers and a few originals and their between-song banter was boozy and awkward. But they were loud and raw, and perhaps due to the fact that they looked like grandpas who'd stumbled on their grandkids' instruments, drunk corn liquor and let fly, we couldn't take our eyes of them. Ringo looked like a homunculus behind the drums, and it seemed he might fall off the riser at any second. The indisputable high point of the set was his one turn as lead vocalist - a creepy, screaming, riveting version of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On." In the beer-soaked shadows of that historic dive, Holly and I laughed our asses off. And we rocked. Because this was rock and roll. Alex had pulled the wool over my eyes, true, but he did not steer me wrong. (Melinda would later go on tour with the Country Rockers and she complained that Ringo could not keep his sweaty little hands off her.)
I found out about Alex's death by heart attack via a teary cell-phone call from Holly, who is in Austin at South-By-Southwest as I write this and was planning on attending a panel devoted to Big Star and later seeing Alex play with the re-constituted band on the final night of the conference. She is bereaved and I'm worried for her, wishing I was there, but comforted somewhat in the knowledge that she's among friends, activity and music - all very good for bringing one into the moment. But the grief that pours forth as folks meet and reminisce and play Alex's music - the concert and panel now will be tributes - will be painful and sloppy and necessary. Like some of the best music.
From our home in the Catskills, I am quite far away from that swirl of activity, but I am grieving in my own way and it's fine. Listening to tributes on the radio, looking up sound files on the internet, seeking out videos on YouTube, I am struck by how much the connectivity of the media is touching a very deep place inside me, where memories of my youth and of sublime music spin like an LP on a turntable. The deepest cut comes when the music begins, though, delivered as originally intended, with no image, no voice-over interrupting to proclaim the loss of the "iconoclastic outsider," no inter-cutting of Alex being interviewed. The music alone illuminates places that Alex the musician showed me, and those places still feel real and true and beyond the mechanics of the day and the passage of time; I get as much pleasure from that journey as I always did, at least as much pleasure as Alex always seemed to get from those damn cigarettes.
Thanks Alex. For showing me those places where time is out-witted for approximately 3 minutes, for bringing me a glass of water, and for making sure I was one of the people who packed the place when the Country Rockers played CB's back in the day.