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Remembering Alex Chilton

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Alex stuck his finger down his throat and gagged, showing me that's how much he hated Memphis. We laughed about it. He didn't like me much either (something I wrote perhaps, but also his interpretation of my horoscope charts), but that didn't mean we couldn't laugh together. He'd boarded a flight for a European tour, and just his luck, the movie showing was The Firm — shot in Memphis &mdash he couldn't escape the city &mdash and he gagged again.

Alex Chilton became a public figure at the age of 16 when, not long after he'd first seen the inside of a recording studio, a song from that session became a #1 worldwide hit, "The Letter" by the Box Tops. At that impressionable age, he became a product packaged and sold, considerable talent yielding considerable profits — for the manager and not the artist. Soon, the monkey walked away from the organ grinder to do his own thing.

His thing: He channeled the future by capturing the underground zeitgeist, three times in the 1970s alone — an audience for the clean pop of the first two Big Star records caught up to the music a decade after it was made; the third Big Star album was nihilistic and beautiful (hello, Elliott Smith and the '90s); the shambolic Like Flies on Sherbert deemed hip the wealth and diversity of Americana roots while becoming a punk rock classic. The art of these efforts has become canonized, but the financial return was — again — basically nil. Big pop hit or great art, same result: no money.

Instead of profit, his fans assigned him prophecy. But the Replacements only got it half-right in their tribute song. Children by the million might have screamed for Alex Chilton, but he'd never have come running. Waves of admiration and love were an assault, and he was scornful of those who needed to make more of his songs than he did. His lifelong interest in astrology makes sense: What is colder, more beautiful, more distant than the stars? Astrology is the province of the seeker, not the sought.

Alex Chilton’s career in song is a testament to his seeking, to his eye for precise detail, his adventuresome ear, his empathetic heart. In a few lines he could chillingly evoke the angst and maelstrom of young adulthood, touching strangers in a personal way (their responses leading to his notorious friction with some fans). His mind remained curious all his life, exploring politics, the humanities, and sciences with the same avidity he mined R&B, country, classical music and everything in between. He refused to be predictable, and preferred his audience be kept on its guard. In the same late-night radio appearance when he sang Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" — years, of course, before Whitney Houston made a career out of it — he also broke into a filthy racist ballad. His songs were not unlike William Eggleston's photographs: crisp, saturated, and composed, with an underlying menace, with a throat-aching wistfulness.

Alex was as complicated as Memphis itself. LX Chitterlings, my favorite of his stage names, stole Wilhelm Reich books from the Memphis public library, because he said no one checked them out, and he gave them to people he thought would appreciate them. When a friend heard him explain his worldview, he chided, "You're right, Alex. The world is wrong." Telling me about this later, Alex added, "And, hell, I believe that. The world is wrong. I am right."

To the end, he did it his way. Apparently, he'd been feeling bad for several days but not so bad he couldn't refuse advice to visit the doctor. Dead at 59, the loss magnified by its abruptness, the musician is stilled, but his great recordings live on. The eulogies will too, much to his likely irritation.

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