There are a lot of us for whom Alex Chilton was about as heroic a figure as any Memphis cab driver could be. Well, I guess he wasn’t just ANY Memphis cab driver; he was Alex Chilton; once upon a time half of Big Star (the band named for a Memphis grocery chain), one of the seminal groups for those who believed that rock’s best side was on the downlow, on the cheap, slightly cracked and half crazed. Chilton seemed to be all that. His brief time as a teen pop singer, with the BoxTops (yeah, I bet his baby done wrote him a letter and I’m guessing it was more like a restraining order) was always irrelevant to his career as a songwriter and producer of his own work, his work with Big Star, his production work for the Cramps and such.
I guess it was a career; it was more like a careening. Big Star lurched into view and slipped over the precipice almost before we noticed. Or perhaps, like Chilton’s songwriting ex-partner, Chris Bell, it went straight into a lamppost and that was the end of that.
I was lucky enough to see Chilton when he resurrected his band in the early 90’s. He told a few great stories and one of them was this: “It was the early 60’s, kids,” he told a not nearly packed enough Grand Emporium in Kansas City, “and the Byrds were on Ed Sullivan. They were just starting to play when Roger McGuinn said something and they all stopped playing and started turning their guitars. This was live TV, kids, and they tuned their guitars for forty-five seconds. Forty-five seconds of dead air. And then Roger McGuinn turned to the camera and he said, ‘We tune, because we care.'”
We all broke up, laughing. And then Chilton said, “We don’t tune, because we don’t care” and cranked it up.