Farewell, Alex Chilton

I've written here before about art and creative endeavors and this post will follow in the same vein. I believe I'm older than most people here, so my cultural frames of reference are much different.

Alex Chilton, an American singer/songwriter guitarist and influential performer, died last Wednesday before his reunited band Big Star could perform tonite at this year's SXSW. He was a child star, having a hit single at the age of 16 with The Box Tops' "The Letter" in the late 60's. Forming Big Star in the early 70's, Chilton exhibited an incredible sense of melody and power pop sensibilities. He had a huge influence on bands like REM, Wilco, The Bangles, and my favorite artist, Paul Westerberg. The theme song to TV's "That 70's Show" was a Chilton and Big Star song. Even though Chilton recorded just three albums with Big Star back in the early 70's. Still, he managed to develop a cult following with poignant and power pop songs like "September Gurls" (covered by The Bangles).

I had never heard of him before until Paul Westerberg wrote a song about one of his rock heroes. Rock radio never played Chilton when I was growing up, so how could I ever know who he was?

Children by the million
sing of Alex Chilton when he comes 'round
they sing I'm in love
what's that song?
I'm in love, with that song

But when one your favorite artists starts name checking someone, it's probably a good bet to check that person out. See, it's about knowing history, about knowing influences and tracing it back to the source. There would be no Paul Westerberg in the way that I know his music today if it weren't for Alex Chilton and others. It's great to see more Asian American musicians posting their songs and performances on the internet but have roots, be rooted in something. Your work and endeavors will be richer if someone can trace your lineage to someone or some thing.

Furthermore, Alex Chilton is another great example of being true to one's self and a re-inforcing example of what I posted earlier about art. Do it because you love it and because there's something that you want to express to the world. Don't do it if you just want attention or to just to have a lot hits on being viewed on you tube. Success and recognition is nice but not if it turns you into a clown, being forced to perform by the record label in front of an audience you don't want to perform to, or TV appearances that embarrass you, or that they want to make you into a personality, some sort of red carpet celebrity. Just because something gets air time or radio play, doesn't mean it's necessarily all that good. There is so much good music, art, and talented people that go unnoticed and under appreciated. It's out there. If you want it, you can find it.

Chilton said in a 1987 interview with The Associated Press that he didn't mind flying under the radar with Big Star and later as a solo artist.

"What would be ideal would be to make a ton of money and have nobody know about you," he said. "Fame has a lot of baggage to carry around. I wouldn't want to be like Bruce Springsteen. I don't need that much money and wouldn't want to have 20 bodyguards following me."

Paul Westerberg wrote in the NY Times op-ed page, "How does one react to the death of one’s mentor? My mind instantly slammed down the inner trouble-door that guards against all thought, emotion, sadness. Survival mode. Rock guitar players are all dead men walking. It’s only a matter of time, I tell myself as I finger my calluses. Those who fail to click with the world and society at large find safe haven in music — to sing, write songs, create, perform. Each an active art in itself that offers no promise of success, let alone happiness."

Funny how an "obscure" cult figure like Alex had so much influence and was someone that mattered as opposed to the next boy band, flavor of the month, passing trend, pop diva that gives you nothing of lasting value outside of their 15 minutes of fleeting fame.

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