year in the trenches,” or so I thought as I landed in
Austin, Texas, for March’s annual four-day music-industry
lovefest, South by Southwest. I must admit to having diminished
expectations for this year’s festival. There were less
gold-star bands on the schedule, at least to my eyes,
and after walking the length of East 6th Street about
750 times last year I figured on being less of a seeker.
This time, for me, it was about playing my own shows,
seeing some old friends, and catching just a few bands
a night—have fun, and keep it manageable.
the weeks leading up to SXSW 2010, however, the addition
of one showcase caught my attention: a Saturday-night
performance by the great 1970s power-pop band Big Star.
Even this was the slightest bit ho-hum—I’d just seen the
band in Brooklyn last November—but it was still the gold-star
event of the week in my book. This was paired with a daytime
panel called “I Never Travel Far Without a Little Big
Star,” which would feature members of the band, journalists,
and peers, in a discussion of Big Star’s music and legacy
to coincide with the recent release of a comprehensive
Big Star box set, Keep An Eye on the Sky.
there was something to look forward to.
Chilton passed away on March 17 at the age of 59 in his
adopted hometown of New Orleans. He had been experiencing
chest pain and asked his wife Laura to drive him to the
hospital. He lost consciousness during the drive and never
found out that night, the music festival’s opening night
(an “interactive” fest ran the four days prior), during
my first acoustic set of the week. I was playing to a
room airy with indifference, at one of the many Austin
“venues” that only exist during SXSW (the rented PA system
and lack of a stage are obvious clues). I’d just begun
playing the opening chords of my final song when my phone,
on the floor at my feet, lit up. I bent at the waist to
read the text—not something I’d usually do mid-set, but
everyone else was looking at their phones, so why
not. The message was from a good friend back in New York,
passing on the bad news.
breaker. “Fuck” was the only thing that came to mind (a
sentiment later repeated by Evan Dando in his closing-night
performance). I stopped playing my song and instead broke
into “Thirteen,” the timeless ode to unrequited teenage
adoration, in tribute. It stayed in my set for the rest
of the week.
music, under the Big Star banner, has been a tremendous
influence on my own music over the years. I remember first
hearing about Big Star in the early 1990s, probably via
a Rolling Stone review of one of their reissues.
I picked up the CD containing their first two albums,
#1 Record and Radio City, and was hooked.
They were one of the great cult legends—a band whose records
sold few copies, but had taken on such high regard among
musicians that they were elevated above the commonplace.
Chilton had done plenty of other things with his career,
from his stint as a teen idol singing for the Box Tops
to a series of R&B-flavored solo records through the
1980s and ’90s. But for any fan of classic power-pop,
Big Star was one of the “three B’s,” along with the Beatles
and Badfinger. And because of this, Chilton’s loss was
going to be felt in a big way.
spread in a manner that seemed positively old-fashioned:
Amid all the bloggers and Twitterati, word of mouth was
the primary means for sharing the news. All that night,
on street corners throughout Austin, people were asking
“Did you hear about Alex Chilton?” And in a town full
of musicians and industry folks, reactions divided in
pretty much the same way they always have on this topic:
You either love him, or you’ve never heard of him. (When
addressing a non-fan it helps to point out, as I had to
with my mother, that they probably already know one of
Chilton’s songs: Cheap Trick’s cover of “In the Street”
has been widely heard in syndication, as the theme for
That 70’s Show.)
weekly The Austin Chronicle, which publishes daily
during SXSW, ran a tribute to Chilton on its Thursday
cover. The short obituary inside revealed that original
Big Star bassist Andy Hummel (who wrote the band’s great
song “Way Out West,” among others) had recently been back
in touch with Chilton, and drummer Jody Stephens (who
sang “Way Out West” in concert) had hoped to get them
writing and recording together again. Sadly, this would
not come to pass.
me, Chilton’s passing was a minor call to arms. You could
have your Surfer Blood or whatever band the blogs were
hot for that day—I made it a point to see some legends
whenever I could, while I could. Which led me to La Zona
Rosa on Thursday night, where Austin’s own Roky Erickson
played a ragged but righteous set backed by Okkervil River,
in celebration of his first album of new material in almost
15 years. And it led me to the smallish Dirty Dog Bar
on Friday night, where Courtney Love and the band she’s
now calling Hole played a borderline dreadful 1 AM set.
(I wasn’t quite sure, either, why I decided on attending—that
is, until I was standing shoulder to shoulder to Ms. Love
at the bar after the show. Sur-real.) And Saturday
night, it was another power-pop cult legend, Tommy Keene,
who’s flown comfortably under the radar for decades yet
seems no worse for wear. He’s even passed the torch: Keene’s
12-year-old son played drums behind his dad, and he was
Saturday was Big Star day. The daytime panel and the closing-night
showcase at Antone’s both turned into tributes to Chilton.
The panel was both touching and funny, with Big Star Mach
II members Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow talking about
working with their fallen comrade, but also beaming about
the music they had been fans of for so many years.
showcase, however, had the feel of an Irish wake. After
the band’s publicist read a heart-rending letter from
Chilton’s widow, Stephens, Auer and Stringfellow simply
crushed the Radio City gem “Back of a Car,” and
later paid tribute to late Big Star co-founder Chris Bell
with “I Am the Cosmos,” which doubled as an elegy for
Chilton in its “Really wanna see you again” refrain. A
series of guests joined the band, from M. Ward to Chris
Stamey (who played in Chilton’s first solo band, and nailed
the solo on “Cosmos”). Hummel played with the group for
the first time, reportedly, since 1974. Evan Dando gave
his one-F-word introduction before a touching version
of “Nighttime.” And Mike Mills of R.E.M., whose band is
the reason a lot of people heard about Big Star in the
first place, sang lead on “Jesus Christ,” fine and pure
of voice. Keep playing those songs and someday children
by the millions will indeed sing for Alex Chilton.