Big Star's Alex Chilton, the musician whom your favorite band is probably ripping off right now, died two weeks ago. What follows is an oral history of Alex's very brief and extraordinarily stoned time in an Alabama college town.
Alex Chilton was born in 1950 in Memphis, and he died two weeks ago, March 17th, in New Orleans. In between, Chilton, an undeniably gifted man, rather deliberately drifted through four-plus decades of a music career in which he served as both a pioneer of blue-eyed soul and a sort of conscripted, yet bemused uncle to indie rock. Of course, this counts the years when he preferred to be neither, when he purposely walked away from the music business, took his damaged spirit elsewhere, and washed dishes instead.
Chilton sang "The Letter" and "Soul Deep" as a member of the Box Tops. He produced the Cramps' debut album. With fellow Big Star bandmate Chris Bell he co-wrote "Thirteen," my favorite song in the whole wide world, and "In the Street," subsequently used as the intro theme for That '70s Show. But for a whole generation Alex Chilton is best-known as the titular subject of a Replacements song. Which is both kind of ironic and fitting, considering the Replacements were never exactly household names themselves.
I knew Alex when I lived in Tuscaloosa, Ala., but do not misread "knew Alex" as "was friends with Alex." As I've written elsewhere, he would come by my house without so much as a pretense of visiting me. He just wanted time with my cassette deck so he could make new mix tapes for his continuing travels.
While in grad school I made extra money booking bands at a number of off-campus bars. And sometime in 1987, I arranged for Alex to play his first fraternity party, but I was more than tentative in approaching him with the idea. There is something doubly damaging about being rejected by someone whose records you've not only played but sung along to hundreds of times. So I'm certain that I began the pitch with the amount of money (about three times what the bar would normally guarantee) the fraternity was offering him.
Surprisingly, Alex accepted the gig and, based on his usual modus operandi, I didn't expect to see or hear from him until maybe 30 minutes before his scheduled start time (the man did not believe in sound checks). But just a few nights before the frat party, my phone rang at an hour when a ringing phone makes you think, "Who died?"
It was Alex. He had never ever called me before. In fact, I didn't even know that he had my number.
And the reason Alex was calling so late just three days before the most lucrative night of his Tuscaloosa career was to ask, What do you think those frat guys want to hear?
Well, Alex, I said. They know who you are and they asked for you specifically, so they realize what they're getting into. I think anything you play will be fine, though it might not hurt to break it into two sets to make the night last longer.
What about cover songs? he asked. Don't frats like cover songs? What about that "Pablo Picasso's not an asshole" song? Do you think they'd like that?
Obviously I am not the only one from that college town with stories to tell. If there are a million Alex Chilton stories around the world, there are likely hundreds in Alabama alone. Because in the late '80s, after the Box Tops and Big Star but before the Box Tops and Big Star reunions would put enough money in his pocket to make fraternity parties a thing of his past, Alex would pass through town three, four, maybe five times in a year. In Tuscaloosa at least, Alex Chilton was revered, despite, or maybe due to, a mercurial nature that seemed to tip-toe between mischievous and merciless; people felt honored just to buy him weed. Here's how some Tuscaloosans remember him.
George Hadjidakis: I was thinking about that very first show he played at the Varsity and just how everybody was just so hyped up for it. There was definitely a sizable group of people in Tuscaloosa who were really fanatical about him about that time. I just remember that for at least a month before that show it was like there were Chilton parties every night.
Will Kimbrough: Alex was in the Deep South a lot, probably making the most money there. He didn't get the romanticized cred of the Replacements or Husker Du or Black Flag, but he got in his car and drove all over the place. He was in the car and Doug (drummer Garrison) and Ron (bassist Easley) were in the van. That was his choice, you know. It seemed like Alex was the lonely guy who didn't want any company.
Sam Baylor: Yeah, the first time I met him he asked me what my sign was, and that seemed to be very important to him.
Another thing that was odd about Alex was he made Doug and Rockin' Ron drive themselves around. He drove himself, but he would make them drive themselves around. He didn't want any company, didn't need any company. He was a cynic from years of being involved in the music business. It seemed like he didn't really want or need friends, you know.
He was an unusual character, very cynical and sarcastic. Some might have thought him rude, but I read it differently. I thought he was real. And honest. And sometimes people can't take real and honest.
Kimberley Mathews: I was able to hear Alex Chilton play in a variety of different clubs over, I guess, a five- or six-year period in the late '80s and early '90s. A couple years after I had seen Alex play the first time, he played the same club, and it was right after the show, and I was walking back from the bathroom, and the Varsity had this little room — it was like their green room for musicians — and the door was open, and he was in there all by himself. And I walked by and I thought, Oh, I should say something to him.
I had just walked by the room, and then I just took two steps back. And I felt really dumb. I'm one of those people that usually thinks of the perfect thing to say after the moment has passed. And I said, "Hey, I really liked your show." And he smiled. I expected some smartass remark because of kind of how he is onstage, but he said, "Thanks. Thanks a lot."
I said, "I really, really like your music," like a total groupie, you know. And I thought, Well, that's really dumb. But he said, "Thanks. Thanks a lot." And he smiled, and he paused, and I couldn't think of anything else to say and he didn't say anything else, but he was nice, you know. He was polite. He didn't make fun of me, and he wasn't sarcastic. So that was really surprising to me.
Cass Scripps: We were lucky enough — I guess it would've been spring of 1988 — to book Alex to come and perform at our fraternity house. It was the Friday night of one of our biggest parties of the semester, and me and Howard, my roommate and running buddy at the time, were just beyond excited. Everybody in the fraternity house was all excited, but I think that they were excited because we were so excited. I don't necessarily know that they fully understood exactly how huge it was to have Alex Chilton come and play at the fraternity house, but we certainly did.
So Alex gets there, he loads in, he sets up, and he's pretty much ready to go hang out wherever they're staying until it's showtime that night. And one of the things I certainly remember about Alex is that he wasn't a huge man in stature, and his vocal presence certainly reflected his size. He spoke in a very low, sort of monotone vocal style, but it was awesome. He said: "Hey man, do you know where I can get some pot?" And my eyes light up and I was just like, "You know, I think I know a guy. I can probably help you out with that." And so he told me where he was going to be staying, and me and Howard go and find the guy. We were like kids on Christmas morning. We had scored one of our musical heroes some weed, and we thought this was going to be great.
So we go over there, we knock on the door, we go inside, we're talking to him, and there's that kind of anxious moment. You've brought somebody what you think is the prize, and then there's that moment of silence and that tension in the room of like, Well, here it is, and wondering what's going to happen next.
Then after a thick silence for about 90 seconds or maybe even two minutes, he hands back the bag and shakes his head and just says, "Nah, I can't smoke this."
Me and Howard were both just absolutely dejected.
SB: It was the first time Alex had ever played a frat party in his life. It was at the Phi house, and he showed up and the crowd was already enormous there, and so he was sort of intimidated by it and I remember winding up saying, "Okay. I'll take care of you, Alex." And I hoisted his Deluxe Reverb over my head, told him to stay right behind me, and bullied my way through the crowd to the stage. And I got him on the stage, and I got his amp on the stage. And within like two minutes he was playing the gig.
So after the gig the crowd had cleared, and we went back to the Dill's Motor Court and we hung out in his hotel room and he was frantically searching the channels on the TV looking for cartoons, and cussing out the TV because there were no cartoons on it. And I was like, "Come on, Alex. It's like 3 in the morning. There's not going to be any cartoons."
I'm not going to throw in what we might've been smoking at that time.
WK: He loved old Epiphone guitars, and I had an old '60s Epiphone acoustic guitar with a pick-up stuck in it. And the next day he came by our room. We were all staying at the Dill's Motor Court. and I was rooming with Sam Baylor, and Alex drops by.
Now he dropped by to see Sam because he wanted to smoke pot. But he also wanted to see my Epiphone. And so he said, "Can I see that Epiphone of yours?" And I said, "Sure." And he pulled it out and starts playing it, and so we're in a hotel room with Alex, and he's playing my guitar, and it's pretty cool.
And then he goes, I've got this kind of halfway written song, and he played a song that came out on High Priest a year later or something. It wasn't "I'm in Love with a Girl" or "Back of a Car," but it was cool to have Alex kind of running through this song. I mean, he didn't ask our opinion or anything. He just played it for us.
And then he got stoned and got a joint to go, and he got up and got in the Ford Explorer he was driving around in. And I went out there to say bye, and he rolled his window down, and he played me a song off this cassette he had. I think it was by Jesse Belvin. But he told me how this was on the radio when he was a kid. To me it sounded like some old record. I'm not an aficionado of that kind of stuff so I said, "All right. Cool." And then he did what he did with most people who he had more than a passing conversation with — he asked me my birthday. And as he was pulling out he said, "Wow, Will. We're almost astrological twins."
So that was the longest visit I ever had, when he paid us a visit, smoked our pot, and then gave us some astrological pointers. By that point we were — I don't know — as familiar as we were going to get. I don't think he thought too much of what we were doing or anything like that. Who knows? It doesn't matter.
Wade Gilmer: Of course he was my hero, but I was living in Atlanta — this would've been 1990 or so — and it was on a weekend so I showed up at George's house for a Chilton show, and I had no idea that Alex Chilton was staying there with George. So I walked in, and here's Alex Chilton sitting on the couch, and George said, "You know Alex, don't you?" And I said, "Well, yeah. How's it going?" And we shook hands and sat down on the couch and he looked at me, and he said, "Hey, you remind me of the guy who turned me on to the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band." So that's how we started our conversation.
So I produced some marijuana and said, "Hey Alex, you want to smoke a joint?" And he was like, "Sure." So we sat, smoked a joint. And George came in and he said, "Hey Alex, have you ever seen this Cramps video of them playing at the State Hospital in California [The Cramps: Live at Napa State Mental Hospital]?" And Alex said no, so we put the tape in, and George kind of leaves the room, and so it's just Alex Chilton and me sitting on the couch, passing this joint around. And I got so tickled because neither of us said a word. We just sat and watched this video, which is just absolutely brilliant.
I saw him a couple of times after that, and he like nodded his head, and it was a real cute kind of thing. He didn't ever really say anything. He just kind of nodded his head. There was definitely recognition.
GH: The last time he played in Tuscaloosa he was playing on a Friday night, and the Cynics were playing on Saturday night, but they came in early so they could see the Chilton show. And he would stop over by the house, you know, when he was playing, and the Cynics were all over there. And Alex came in, and I think Gregg [Kostelich, Cynics guitarist] was the only one who knew who he was because I just introduced him as Alex. And we were talking about music and stuff and after a while Michael [Kastelic], the singer, goes, "So, are you in a band too?"
WK: Once, when I opened for him, he stood in front of me while I played "Thirteen," and he stood in front of me while I played a version of "The Dark End of the Street." I was probably playing from the Gram Parsons version, and he's from Memphis so he knew the James Carr original version, and he also knew ["Dark End of the Street" songwriters] Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham well.
So there's three factors involved. Number one, he walked out and stood right in front of me, and those were the days when I played almost all the time with my eyes shut. You know, terrified, early 20s, playing in front of people. He stood there and watched, and I opened my eyes at one point in the middle of his song "Thirteen," and there he was. And I was like, Fuck me, man. He's going to hate me forever. Because by that time I knew Alex was like, you know, not going to play more than one or two Big Star songs and was just scoffing at the whole notion that it was some kind of great band. That was his whole stance on it: Would you just lay off the Big Star shit, please, and let me play these Slim Harpo songs?
So anyway, I play that song and then I play "The Dark End of the Street," and afterwards he came up to me and told me that if I played a certain extra minor chord in "Dark End of the Street" that it made it especially scary and darker.
And so I took that as like, Oh cool, you know. He heard me play his song, and he's talking to me about this, and he's my idol of the decade.
You want your idol to pat you on the back and tell you you're cool. Maybe coming and telling me the scarier way to play "The Dark End of the Street" was it. In fact, I think it was.
KM: A few years later, after I got engaged, I saw him at the Ivory Tusk. And we used to show up early so we could get right in front of the stage. So we staked our claim in front, and we were standing there having a beer and smoking a cigarette, and he was hooking up his microphone and stuff, and he saw that I was smoking, and he asked for a light. And so I pulled out a lighter, and he noticed my engagement ring,and he looked at me kind of quizzically. You know, he kind of cocks his head and cracks that kind of funny grin, and he says, "How old are you?"
And I said, "25." And he goes, "Man, you're too young to get married." And I said, "Well, I don't think so. You know, we've been dating five years." And then we had a little conversation and he said, "Well, okay. All right." And, you know, he didn't make fun of me and he didn't make a smart remark.
And I said, "Boy, I'm really looking forward to the show," and I think I gave him a few songs that I wanted to hear, and he played one of them. So the two times that I met with him were different from what other people have told me when they tried to speak with him. And I don't know why that is. I don't know if it was because I was a woman. Maybe because there wasn't anybody else around. I'm not really sure.
It seemed to me that when he was talking with other people — because I would see him, you know, onstage — he kind of had a different rapport about him, a different way that he would talk to people. You know, when guys sit around and talk it's always like they're trying to one-up each other with a wisecrack. And maybe he didn't feel like he had to do that with women.
I have to say this, though: Although he was polite and nice, he didn't, you know, make a conversation go longer than it needed to. He wasn't out to make any kind of connection to a fan or anything like that. It just happened to be, probably, that I had a lighter, and he needed a light.
CS: A year or two years later I was a talent buyer for a venue there in Tuscaloosa, and after they had loaded in and set up I was back in the back talking to Alex, and he's smoking his cigarette, just hanging out in the back. And I ask if everything was all right, and he's just like, "Hey man, do you know where I can get some pot?" And needless to say I was a little bit gunshy at that point since it didn't go well the last time. I was wondering if I should even try again. But I said, I think I know a guy, and this time I called the guy and sure enough it was like crazy, kooky, over-the-top sort of pot, and I brought it over to where Alex was staying, and his eyes lit up when he saw it, and he was just like, "Oh yeah. This is great. This is great."
So it was one of those yin and yang stories. I failed the first time but the second time he seemed quite pleased. It was quite the redeeming moment.
SB: The last time I saw him he was happy and smiling.
GH: I certainly will miss him. I'll just plain ol' miss him
George Hadjidakis owned the late, lamented Vinyl Solutions record store in Tuscaloosa. He is now a private rock 'n' roll citizen living on a small pension.
In the late '80s Will Kimbrough was best known as the "Will" of Will & the Bushmen. Along with Sam Baylor he wrote "Dear Alex" (see below) Kimbrough is currently a Nashville-based solo artist and guitar slinger for hire, and some of his most recent compositions may be found on each of Jimmy Buffett's last three albums.
Sam Baylor played many years with the road-tested Will & the Bushmen and is a co-writer of "Dear Alex," a musical tribute recorded two years before the Replacements' "Alex Chilton." His most recent album is Life On Trouble Street.
Kimberley Mathews was on the debate team while at the University of Alabama. She is still nuptially entwined with the man Alex Chilton told her she was too young to marry and they now have two children. They all live happily in northern Virginia, where she teaches English as a Second Language.
Cass Scripps served as his fraternity's social chairman while a student at the University of Alabama. He is the owner of the Metro Talent Group booking agency in Atlanta.
Wade Gilmer is the former guitarist for Ghost Ranch, a band that opened for Alex Chilton at a number of his Tuscaloosa shows. He is currently following his hero's career path by washing dishes in Mobile, Alabama.
Rob Trucks is the author of six books, including Cup of Coffee: The Very Short Careers of Eighteen Major League Pitchers and a forthcoming entry on Fleetwood Mac's Tusk for Continuum's 33 1/3 series He is hard at work on two concurrent oral histories: one with 49-year-old men and women, and one with Americans who have lost a job since the start of the recession. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.