Alex Chilton, R.I.P: Paul Westerberg of the Replacements, Craig Finn of the Hold Steady, and Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers share their thoughts

Alex Chilton’s death yesterday immediately made many people think of the Replacements, who gloriously paid tribute to the Big Star/Box Tops singer in “Alex Chilton”: “Children by the millions / sing for Alex Chilton… I’m in love / What’s that song / I’m in love / With that song.” Replacements frontman Paul Westerberg released the following statement today: “In my opinion, Alex was the most talented triple threat musician out of Memphis — and that’s saying a ton. His versatility at soulful singing, pop rock songwriting, master of the folk idiom, and his delving into the avant garde, goes without equal. He was also a hell of a guitar player and a great guy.”

At SXSW in Austin, artists spoke about the influence of Chilton’s work on their music and careers. Two of his most passionate fans — Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers and Craig Finn of the Hold Steady — share their memories with after the jump.

CRAIG FINN, the Hold Steady

“As many people will and won’t admit, the Replacements turned me on to Alex Chilton. It wasn’t the song, though. ‘Nowhere is My Home’ is a song he produced for the Replacements on the Tim sessions, and I saw that as a kid and went and bought one of his solo records, and then worked backwards and found Big Star. I’m a huge fan. He’s one of my favorite guys.

“He had a confusing career. It’s hard for someone like me to watch the guy who wrote ‘September Gurls’ and all this great music sort of — not disown it, but not be impressed by it. A friend of mine at the Guardian was saying they have an interview with him from about 20 years ago where he said he preferred washing dishes as a career over music. So his career was sort of stunted. But there are so many songs that just give me so much joy. ‘Thank You Friends’ is one of my favorites. As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about positivity in rock n’ roll, I think that’s about as positive a rock song as has ever been written.

“The box set that just came out is amazing, and beautiful, too, the packaging. Big Star, I would start at record one and go to three, but definitely, definitely do yourself a favor and get Chilton’s solo record Like Flies on Sherbert, because I think that might be Alex in all his glory. There’s all these songs on there where the tape machine starts—like, they forgot to turn it on, so a lot of songs kind of begin with [makes a revving up noise]. I think the songs “Hey Little Child” and “My Rival”… The Replacements are my favorite band. They’ve obviously gone on record with their song as being fans of Alex Chilton. I think Like Flies on Sherbert is exactly where it makes sense. Big Star was fairly polished compared to the Replacements, if you will. But Like Flies on Sherbert has their same aesthetic.

“I’ve seen Big Star, and Alex solo. The Big Star stuff was fun, and he was surrounded by people who loved his music. That was cool. The solo thing — I saw him with an acoustic guitar at the Uptown Bar in Minneapolis. He wasn’t super engaging. But he had these worshipful fans that were hanging on every word. The guy next to me was annoyingly singing really loud along with him. That’s the thing I really remember about that show. But Alex sorta thought it was silly, it seemed like. Robert Gordon’s book — I think it’s called It Came from Memphis – has a lot of great stuff about Alex going off to New York and having a number one single with [Box Tops song] “The Letter,” and coming back and feeling like he was in the twilight of his career at 21. That had to be a real weird thing.”

PATTERSON HOOD, Drive-By Truckers

“I’m an obsessive Big Star fan. A fanatic. I got turned on to ‘em a pretty long time ago, after their life as a band, but before people started really knowing who they were. I had a buddy that ran a record store that had all those old Big Star records, and he played ‘em for me when I was a teenager, and I just flipped over ‘em. And of course, they were out of print and hard to find back in those days. So it took me a long time to track down copies of stuff. And of course when they put it all back out in the ‘90s, I pretty much bought it all. Listened to it obsessively pretty much ever since. Big Star was a big influence on the solo record I put out last summer, Murdering Oscar. I don’t know if it’s obvious listening to it, but it certainly was in my head in the writing of it. And on my solo tour last summer, we covered ‘Kangaroo.’

“I think it’s kind of one of the weird, f—ed up ironies of rock history, the Big Star story. Because when they named that first record Number One Record, they weren’t being ironic. It wasn’t designed to be a cult thing. They were supposed to be big stars. And I think in their head, when they created that music, they thought they were making a record that was going to be a huge phenomenal success. And to have it be basically ignored at the time, and then they made in my opinion a better follow-up and call it Radio City and then radio didn’t play it… You listen to it now, there’s eight songs on that record that could have been hits. It’s not like it has a cult following because it’s so out there it takes a long time for people to get it.

“It should have been next to the Beatles and the Stones in popularity as well as influence. A lot of it sounded like it came from Britain or something, although you couldn’t deny the southern soulfulness of it, too. That’s what made it so great. It combined that pop sensibility that came over with the British invasion with that southern soul and grittiness. That’s the key. It’s like the Beatles with booty. The Beatles with a big butt to it, which is pretty all right. Then the Third record is one of the great dark disjointed masterpiece records. It wasn’t supposed to be a hit—I think by then he’d gotten the memo that it wasn’t meant to be, so he made the most disjointed, f—ed up record possible.

“I think the second [Big Star] album is the one to get [to start exploring Chilton’s work]. Really, any of ‘em in order would be the entry level. You know, the first record was the poppiest because it had Chris Bell on it. Bell was kind of the McCartney if Chilton was the Lennon, I guess. On the second record, Bell was gone, and so Chilton was kind of being the McCartney and the Lennon. It’s just amazing. If you’re looking for one song, then ‘September Gurls.’ I hear that song and for the life of me to this day I can’t understand why it’s not a number one single. It’s like the ultimate perfect power-pop song. Three minutes of confection. Perfection confection. If you’re looking for the darker, weirder side, then ‘Kangaroo,’ which is the opposite end of the spectrum.

“I’m pretty upset about it all. I was excited for him, because the box set is so successful, and they were doing that high profile gig here at SXSW on Saturday that I heard he was packing for when he died. It’s just f—ed up.”

Comments (12 total) Add your comment
  • donnywahls

    so craig finn, did you not like the guy personally, but liked his music? or were you just personally offended by the fact that he would rather wash dishes than entertain folks? i get that frustration, because if you’ve got a gift and you’re bitching about it, then you should hush and go away, but your “tribute” was so oddly worded and confusing, it seems like you’d have been better off just ignoring the offer to speak about the man.

    • JB

      Reading comprehension fail on your part. There was nothing “oddly” worded about that whatsoever.

      Try reading it again, you’ll understand the context of what he was trying to say. He wasn’t criticizing him, he was talking of the man’s laid back approach to his success.

  • Edd Hurt

    Whoever wrote this must not have spent any time in the South. The Chilton album is “Like Flies on Sherbert,” not “Like Flies on Sherbet.” You gotta spell it like you say it man.

    • Whitney Pastorek

      Edd: Noted and corrected. That’s my bad. Also, as soon as I get out of SXSW, I’m totally buying that album.

      • stocktonprof

        Wait, you wrote this article and hadn’t heard Like Flies on Sherbert!?!?

  • Des Traynor

    I am utterly devestated. My suspicions were aroused at the Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra gig I was at tonight in The Button Factory, Dublin, Ireland, when they dedicated their encore to him. Then the DJ played ‘Holocaust’. What can I say? Big Star were perhaps the most perfect pop group ever. His solo career was always a gas. Who cares how many records he sold? His work was loved beyond measure. As he said himself: “My songs sound like hits to me.” Me too, Alex, me too! RIP

  • christy

    bummed by the passing of another indie rock icon. so few “rock stars” have any real talent,but this guy did.

  • Bianca

    I remember Alex and Big Star back in the late 60’s when they put out their first album. They were innovative and Alex and Big Star took the Memphis rock sound a step further with this album. He had a terrific rock voice and he knew how to use it.

    • Rob

      Big star came out with their first album in 1972. He was a member of the Box Tops in the 60’s.

      The Big star albums were still innovative for their time.

  • Monorail

    Sorry to see you go Alex. I had the pleasure of seeing Big Star in Memphis during the mid seveties. You did make a difference in my life musically.

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  • Alex Cross

    of course like your web-site but you need to check the spelling on quite a few of your posts. A number of them are rife with spelling issues and I to find it very bothersome to inform the reality nevertheless I’ll definitely come back again.

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