Live at the Rhythm Festival, Clapham, Bedfordshire, Aug. 2008
Alex Chilton is gone. And it hurts. After I read the news about Chilton's passing, I went onto Facebook to check in with friends I can't be with here at SXSW in Austin. Many of them are musicians and artists, and never had I seen an entire news feed filled with variations on the same despair.
Alex Chilton's band Big Star changed lives. They changed lives because when you heard them, it unlocked an entire — and utterly lovely — world. Big Star's music filled a void you didn't even know had been there. With Big Star, music felt limitless, freer, but also more whole. How did they do that? By turning ears and hearts into stadiums and packing them until you felt like you were going to explode.
I first heard of Alex Chilton in the Replacements song that bears his name. "Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes around... They say, 'I'm in love with that song.' " Later, Paul Westerberg sings, "I never travel far without a little Big Star." When I used to tour with my band, I would think of that Replacements tune as we traveled from one town to another. Touring is fragmentary and disjointed by nature, and you have to find home in what little there is of it — in your favorite song, in your favorite band — and then I'd think of Westerberg's own anchor, Alex Chilton. I knew then that I was part of a continuum; one of longing, of listening, of hoping and of always reaching, both forward to the unknown and back to what I hoped would always be there. And I felt like I'd found my home.
Musicians and fans have always passed around Big Star songs and albums like a secret handshake. When you found out someone hadn't heard #1 Record or Radio City, you were so excited to provide that missing link, to pass on all the glimmer, the jangly guitar, the big chords, the melodies, the American anthems that let you keep your teenage self — for some of us long since faded — close, etched upon your skin. And suddenly, you realized that every great band or musician you love also loved Alex Chilton and Big Star; it's certain. More importantly, it's crucial. I remember seeing Elliott Smith cover "Thirteen," and I wanted to climb inside every line of that song, to be both the lover and the beloved, the outlaw, to merely exist in the wondrous realm somewhere between Smith's version and Big Star's.
Really, we all just want to be part of the song — of the band, and of music itself. There were a lot of us who counted ourselves as belonging to Big Star, to Alex Chilton. And we felt lucky to be included. Every time I hear "Mod Lang," "Don't Lie to Me" or "Ballad of El Goodo," I don't just think, "This is an amazing song." I think, "This is what music should sound like." Always and forever.
See video and read an account of the Big Star/Alex Chilton reunion-turned-memorial show at SXSW 2010.