Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Mickey Mouse and The Tarot Cards

Goodbye El Goodo

By Robert Gordon

Alex stuck his finger down his throat and gagged, showing me that’s how much he hated Memphis. We laughed about it. He didn’t like me much either (something I wrote perhaps, or his interpretation of my horoscope charts), but that didn’t mean we couldn’t laugh together, and it didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy Memphis. He’d recently boarded a flight for a European tour, and the movie showing was The Firm, shot in Memphis—he gagged again. Memphis was a cloak that was hard to shake.

Alex Chilton became a public figure at the age of 16 when, not long after he’d first seen the inside of a recording studio, a song from that session became a 1967 #1 worldwide hit, “The Letter” by the Box Tops. At that impressionable age he became a product packaged and sold, considerable talent yielding considerable profits—for the manager and not the artist. Soon, the monkey walked away from the organ grinder to do his own thing.

His thing: He channeled the future by capturing the underground zeitgeist, three times in the 1970s alone—an audience for the clean pop of the first two Big Star Records caught up to the music a decade after it was made; the third Big Star album was nihilistic and beautiful (hello Elliot Smith and the ‘90s); the shambolic Like Flies on Sherbert deemed hip the wealth and diversity of Americana roots while becoming a punk rock classic. The art of these efforts has become canonized, but the financial return was—again—basically nil. So the monkey bit the hand that fed the banana and cut its own path.

Instead of profit, he was assigned prophecy. But the Replacements only got it half right in their tribute song. Children by the million might have screamed for Alex Chilton, but he’d never have come running. Waves of admiration and love were an assault, and he was scornful of those who needed to make more of his songs than he did. His lifelong interest in astrology makes sense: What is colder, more beautiful, more distant than the stars? Astrology is the province of the seeker, not the sought.

Alex Chilton’s career in song is a testament to his seeking, to his eye for precise detail, his adventuresome ear, his empathetic heart. In a few lines he could chillingly evoke the angst and maelstrom of young adulthood, touching strangers in a personal way (their responses leading to his notorious friction with admirers). He could be a sweetheart as often, and less notoriously, than the contrarian. His mind remained curious all his life, making its own way through politics, the humanities, and sciences with the same zeal he mined R&B, country, classical and all music. He was never predictable, and kept his audience on its guard. In the same late-night late-1970s radio appearance when he sang Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”—years, of course, before Whitney Houston made a career out of it, he also broke into a filthy racist ballad. His songs were not unlike William Eggleston’s photographs—crisp, saturated, and composed, with an underlying menace, with a throat-aching wistfulness.

Alex was as complicated as Memphis itself. XL Chitterlings, my favorite of his stage names, stole Wilhelm Reich books from the Memphis Public Library because he said no one checked them out, and he gave them to people whom he thought would appreciate them. When a friend heard him explain his world view, he chided him, “You're right Alex, the world is wrong.” Telling me about this later, Alex added “And, hell. I believe that. The world is wrong, I am right.”

To the end, he did it his way. Apparently he’d been feeling bad for several days, but not so bad he couldn’t refuse advice to visit the doctor. Dead at 59, the loss magnified by its abruptness, this meteoric musician is stilled but his great recordings live on. The eulogies will too, much to his likely irritation.


"I Will Always Love You" mp3
by Alex Chilton, 1975.
from WLYX, Memphis, Radio Broadcast.


Mickey Mouse and The Tarot Cards

by Ted Barron

A couple of Wednesdays ago, I got off the train on the lower west side and started walking towards Gary's Chop Shop, a recording studio where my friend, Nicholas Hill, hosts and records a show called the Radio Free Song Club. I chose my path carefully, avoiding crowds outside bars. It wasn't any ordinary Wednesday. It was March 17th, Saint Patrick's Day, and the streets of New York were overflowing with inebriated revelers, mostly of non-Irish descent, celebrating their alcoholism.

But that's not the point.

As I approached Hudson Street, my phone rang. It was my old friend, Jared, who calls infrequently, and told me he had some bad news. "Alex Chilton died," he said. I didn't believe him. "Are you sure?" I asked. In this age where information flies around so quickly and sometimes incorrectly, it just didn't seem right. He said it was confirmed by the local Memphis paper. I thanked him for calling to let me know, and still didn't quite believe it. It's funny, because neither of us could say we were friends with Alex, but still, it was the kind of thing that people who were affected by his music would be compelled to share with one another.

When I got upstairs to the studio, I don't think I even said hello, only "Alex Chilton died." It was still breaking news and I had to consult Google to be sure. Everyone assembled there were also in disbelief. I checked, and indeed, it was true. The Radio Free Song Club is a loose conglomeration of songwriters, all of whom have been affected by his music, either directly or indirectly. For that evening's taping, the scheduled phone interview was with Peter Holsapple, who was a friend of Alex's, and also recorded with him. Peter had accompanied some fellow North Carolinians on a pilgrimage to meet Alex and Chris Bell in Memphis in 1978 that was chronicled at this blog a few years ago. Nick wanted to be sure that Peter already knew before the call, so we we checked a certain social networking site where the deaths of many are first publicized by the ubiquitous R.I.P. status updates.

Peter knew.

Still processing the loss of his friend, he had this to say: "It's hard to say how much Alex influenced me and a generation of people to pick up guitars ... you hear him in so many songs, and especially recently ... and I'm just grateful that the mythology of Big Star, that he kind of fought against for years, finally kind of seems to have won out, and people realize what a superb band they were and are ... he will be missed."

The special guests for the March 17th taping were Beth Orton and Sam Amidon. They walked in and we shared the news. Sam said he knew Alex's early Big Star song "Thirteen," and I went to work looking up the lyrics on the internet. Beth and Sam worked out a version, accompanied by the more than able house band of Dave Schramm and David Mansfield, and recorded it in one take. None of the assembled musicians had ever played this song together. It's exceptionally beautiful and was recorded only hours after Alex's death. You can hear it HERE.


To a lot of people, Alex Chilton was "that guy from Big Star" or "the singer in the Box Tops." He was, of course, a lot more than that. Some, first learned of him from Paul Westerberg's song, "Alex Chilton" on the Replacements' 1987 record, Pleased To Meet Me, recorded in Memphis with producer Jim Dickinson - who also died prematurely this past year. Dickinson collaborated with Chilton on his two most important records: Sister Lovers and Like Flies on Sherbert. They are records that are both dark and full of light at the same time - the sound of things falling apart and settling into a beautiful mess.

Producer Jon Tiven also tried to record Alex in 1975 in another attempt at capturing the mayhem that was midtown Memphis. He was duly treated as a carpetbagger, and arrived to find Chilton unable to play guitar - his arm was broken. The sessions went on, regardless, and produced a few minor masterpieces, and several other things that probably should have never seen the light of day.

I probably saw Alex Chilton play about twenty times. He was, at times, brilliant, and other times just half-assed. Alex was as good as anyone when he felt like it. Talking to a musician friend of mine who also knew him, I suggested that Alex was a guy who just didn't give it a shit. He corrected me, "No, Chilton was a contrarian." The more I think about it the more I think it's a pretty accurate picture of a guy who did whatever he felt like, especially if it was contrary to what others expected him to do. God bless him, he made a career out of it, and re-invented himself continually while always staying true to his ideals. He would have made a fine aging New Orleans bluesman.

The first time I actually saw him play, was also on a Wednesday night, at Folk City's Music for Dozens - shows for three bucks booked by a pre-Yo La Tengo, Ira Kaplan. I was awestruck. Alex was embarking on a new phase of his career, and had (I think) yet to release Fuedalist Tarts, where he covered Slim Harpo, Willie Tee, and Carla Thomas. For me, and a generation of younger post-punks, we learned about a lot of music from Chilton. His records from the 80s have some songwriting by him, but are mostly flavored by his excellent skill as a song-finder. So were his shows. An incredibly talented songwriter (he could rhyme "Flakier" with "Tammy Baker") and a musician who could effortlessly play nearly anything, including Bach and Jazz standards. He approached songs from an astoundingly democratic position, and was at ease in covering "Volare" (in Italian), as well as K.C. and the Sunshine Band, Jimmy C. Newman, Brenton Wood, Porter Wagoner, Troy Shondell, The Velvet Underground, Frank Sinatra, The Seeds, Guitar Slim, Ronnie and The Daytonas, The Carter Family, The Troggs, Sir Mack Rice, Loudon Wainwright III, Carole King, Ernest Tubb, The Beach Boys, or "Disco Lady" by Johnnie Taylor.

The last time I saw him play, he was also booked by Ira Kaplan, at one of Yo La Tengo's 2007 Hanukkah shows at Maxwell's. I felt lucky, because when buying tickets for these shows, no one knows who the special guest is gonna be on any given night during the eight-night stand. I met Alex a few times over the years, photographed him, made small talk, smoked a joint with him (as most people that spent any time around him did) and after the show with Yo La Tengo, talked to him about sending some photographs that I had made of him. I asked him for his email address. He said he didn't have one, and that he'd never used a computer in his life. He may have been pulling my leg, but I kind of believed him. I took my notebook out of my bag and handed him a pen, and he wrote down his home address in New Orleans. We talked a little bit about New Orleans, and how he had gone "missing" during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Friends tried to persuade him to flee with them to Memphis, but he stayed behind giving them his car. For about a week, no one knew if he was dead or alive. He survived, and was eventually air lifted from his house in Treme. In the Replacements' song, "Alex Chilton," Westerberg sang a line that probably never sat well with Alex, "If he died in Memphis, then that'd be cool, babe."

He didn't.

On March 17th, 2010, while cutting his lawn, he suffered a heart attack and died en route to the hospital in New Orleans, the city that he called home for nearly half of his life. Thanks for the music, Alex.

Flags in Fluville are still flying at half mast.

"Alex Chilton" (alternate version) mp3
by The Replacements, 1987.
available on Pleased to Meet Me



Alex Chilton and Yo La Tengo
Live at Maxwells, December 8, 2007.

"Banter" mp3
"I've Had It" mp3
"The Oogum Boogum Song" mp3
"Let Me Get Close To You" mp3
"Femme Fatale" mp3
"Baby Strange" mp3
"Hey! Little Child" mp3
"Government Center" mp3



"Mod Lang (alternate mix)" mp3
by Big Star, 1974.
available on Keep An Eye On The Sky

"Guantanamerika" mp3
by Alex Chilton, 1989.
available on Black List

"Windows Hotel" mp3
by Alex Chilton, 1978
from Dusted In Memphis
out of print

"Shakin' The World" mp3
by Alex Chilton, 1977
from Dusted In Memphis
out of print

"Train Kept A-Rollin/Mona" mp3
by Alex Chilton, 1978.
with Peter Holsapple
available on Beale Street Green

"All Of The Time" mp3
by Alex Chilton, 1975.
from Bach's Bottom
out of print

"Singer Not The Song" mp3
by Alex Chilton, 1975.
from Bach's Bottom
out of print

"Hook or Crook" mp3
by Alex Chilton, 1979.
available on Like Flies on Sherbert

"Alligator Man" mp3
by Alex Chilton, 1979.
available on Like Flies on Sherbert

"Stuff" mp3
by Alex Chilton, 1985.
available on Feudalist Tarts

"Take It Off" mp3
by Alex Chilton, 1987.
available on High Priest

"Lipstick Traces" mp3
by Alex Chilton, 1999.
available on Loose Shoes and Tight Pussy

"My Baby Just Cares For Me" mp3
by Alex Chilton, 1994
available on Cliches

"Motel Blues (demo)" mp3
by Big Star, 1973.
available on Keep An Eye On The Sky

"Free Again" mp3
by Alex Chilton, 1970.
available on Lost Decade

"Nobody's Fool" mp3
by Alex Chilton, 1987.
available on High Priest

"Take Care (demo)" mp3
by Big Star, 1974.
available on Keep An Eye On The Sky


video: outtake from Stranded In Canton, 1974.
by William Eggleston and Robert Gordon.
© Eggleston Artistic Trust

top to bottom

Alex Chilton at Trader Dick's, Memphis, 1977.
© Pat Rainer

Beth Orton and Sam Amidon, March 17, 2010.
© Ted Barron

Alex Chilton, 1977.
© Stephanie Chernikowski

Paul Westerberg and Alex Chilton, Maxwell's, 1987.
© Ted Barron

Monday, March 1, 2010

West Texas Sound

A few years back, I was talking to a friend of mine about Neil Young's guitar playing, and he said: "You've gotta be really good to play that badly." I knew exactly what he meant. The same can be said for singers who scream-- the best ones are great singers to begin with. Look no further than James Brown. In my opinion, there's no greater screamer in American music of recent years than Greg Cartwright, who happens to be a great singer as well.

By the photograph and title of this post, you may have thought you were gonna get some of Marty Robbins' Gunfighter Ballads & Trail Songs. Sorry, that's not the case. Cartwright, a veteran of several seminal Memphis punk bands, was fronting the Reigning Sound (with whom he has since relocated to Asheville NC), when the Toronto band The Deadly Snakes came through town and asked him to produce their second record, I'm Not Your Soldier Anymore. Cartwright, not only produced it, but played and sang with the band, most notably on a track called "West Texas Sound." I'm not exactly sure what this song is about, but I get, and it's riveting, forceful, and driving punk rock. Below, is the said track, as well as some other excellent examples of Cartwright's vocal prowess, including two versions of "If You Can't Give Me Everything," screamed and then sung.

photos: by Ted Barron © 2010.
top: Near El Paso, 1987.
below: Reigning Sound, Brooklyn, NY, 2006.


"West Texas Sound" mp3
by The Deadly Snakes, 2001.
available on I'm Not Your Soldier Anymore

"Talk To Me" mp3
by the Oblivians, 1995.
available on The Best of the Worst: 93-97

"Stop & Think It Over" mp3
by the Compulsive Gamblers, 2000.
available on Crystal Gazing Luck Amazing

"Straight Shooter" mp3
by the Reigning Sound, 2002.
available on Time Bomb High School

"If You Can't Give Me Everything" mp3
by the Reigning Sound, 2004.
available on Too Much Guitar

"If You Can't Give Me Everything" mp3
by the Reigning Sound, 2005.
available on Home for Orphans