Children By the Millions Sing for Alex Chilton (1950-2010)

When I first arrived in New York City back in 1995, I moved in with a friend of my downstairs neighbor in Providence, a guy who worked in film and video who had been flopping on friends’ couches in Hoboken for awhile and needed to solidify his situation with, like, a mailing address. A guy named John, who had just come off working on Ken Burns’ Baseball epic, where — I learned the better part of a decade later — he crossed paths with pal Alex Belth.

John and I were only paired in our tiny East Village apartment for about eight months, and while we weren’t exactly the fastest of friends, we had some common ground when it came to basketball (remind me to tell you the Reggie Miller story sometime) and more importantly, music. The largest portion of John’s collection was devoted to Alex Chilton, the former lead singer of the Memphis teen soul group the Box Tops and the quintessential power pop band Big Star. The latter was the vehicle by which I knew Chilton best, having purchased the band’s all-too-small catalog sometime shortly after college graduation.

John was a connoisseur of the ups and downs of Chilton’s post-Big Star ride, a solo career that had redefined the term erratic. He let me comb through that fascinating collection, and long after he bailed on the apartment to take a cross-country road trip, we’d cross paths at Chilton shows at small, dingy dives like Under Acme and Coney Island High and catch up. I haven’t seen John in years, but I think of him when I spin outre classics such as Bach’s Bottom and Like Flies on Sherbert whose warped, gritty charms were to the John Spencer Blues Explosion what the pristine melodies of #1 Record were to R.E.M. and the Replacements a decade earlier.

Chilton died Wednesday of an apparent heart attack at the age of 59, and while I was instantly saddened upon reading the news, what amazed me was how many friends on Facebook and Twitter had something to share about it — from college pals to current colleagues, as well as the more tenuous social network acquaintances (not that there’s anything wrong with them) — the vast majority of whom I’d never, ever discussed Big Star, the Box Tops or anything Chilton.

Literally, the lines in the Replacements’ tribute to a man who spent most of his career confined to cult status — despite having sung on a #1 hit song as a teenage sensation for the Box Tops, penned and recorded the original version of “In the Streets,” which as covered by disciples Cheap Trick became the theme song to the long-running That ’70s Show, and in between made three of the most beautiful, unsettling, influential and ultimately important albums of the post-Beatles canon — had come to life:

“Children by the millions sing for Alex Chilton when he comes round / They say, “I’m in love, what’s that song? / I’m in love with that song.”

Having not paid much mind to the mid-Nineties reunion in which Chilton and Big Star drummer Jody Stephens were joined by two members of the band the Posies, I guess the band wound up reaching further than I’d ever imagined, as the fans of so many bands who had cited Chilton as an influence actually gave a damn and listened to the records, bothering to track down whoever it was that sang that song they loved. Imagine that. Though he retained a standoffish attitude towards his own career, and often seemed hell-bent on self-sabotaging any shot at success, at least Chilton got to feel some of the adulation that had long eluded him.

A handful of links, both for the initiated and the not:

• An Entertainment Tonight segment on “The Letter,” the song which set a commercial high bar he never topped… or even tried to. Chilton notoriously avoided interviews later in life, so to see him actually playing ball is rather fascinating.

• A mid-Eighties segment of Chilton on 120 Minutes, playing fragments of his famous songs on acoustic guitar, again surprisingly willing to talk about his career relative to his later reluctance.

• Big Star’s “September Gurls,” my favorite track among many:

• Or maybe I meant their “Nightime,” another Big Star favorite:

• Pitchfork’s brief obit and a selection of videos.

A lengthy Crawdaddy piece covering Chilton’s career, with a special focus on the odd twists and turns his post-Big Star days took

• A nice little tribute from Caryn Rose of Metsgrrl and

• Chilton eulogized on the floor of the House of Representatives (!) by Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee):

• And finally, the Replacements’ “Alex Chilton,” the song that both cemented his legend and ultimately provide a fitting epitaph:

Children by the millions will miss you, Alex Chilton.

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