When Box Tops and Big Star leader Alex Chilton died on Wednesday, there came, amidst the expected tributes from admiring musicians and writers, a most unexpected shout-out from, of all places, the floor of the House of Representatives. Congressman Steve Cohen, from Tennessee’s 9th district, which encompasses Chilton’s hometown of Memphis, took to the floor on Thursday and delivered a two-minute eulogy that was exceedingly knowledgeable and very obviously heartfelt. Despite his dentist-like appearance, the 60-year-old Cohen has a reputation as one of Washington’s more liberal, dare-we-say hip congressmen - in an appearance on the Colbert Report’s Better Know a District segment, he copped to seeking admission to the Black Congressional Caucus. But there’s cool for a congressman, and then there’s I-bro’d-down-with-Alex-Chilton-AND-Warren Zevon cool. Suck it, Orrin Hatch! We caught up with Cohen in Washington, D.C.
Billboard: Fans were so surprised and touched by your eulogy for Alex on the House floor yesterday. Why’d you decide to do that?
Cohen: Well, thank you for saying that. Alex was a dear friend and a great musician. We’ve occasionally recognized the passing of significant musicians in the House. I’ve done that with Isaac Hayes and Willie Mitchell, two great Memphians who have passed recently. Alex was representative of the Memphis music scene of my generation.
How did you meet Alex?
I met Alex the first time at his father’s funeral. Sidney Chilton was an early supporter of mine. He was a jazz musician himself, but his business was the lighting business. His crew of people helped shepherd me into the political scene years back. The last time I saw Alex, ironically enough, was at Thomas Boggs’ funeral. Thomas was the drummer for the Box Tops and one of my dear friends. He was beloved in Memphis.
You seem to have some real musical chops.
Well, I’m from Memphis. We know music. You know, Warren Zevon and I were best friends.
Yes. In fact, I gave one of the eulogies at Warren’s funeral in L.A. I bring this up because one time Warren and I were driving up to Memphis from New Orleans, doing the Highway 61 trip, and we listened to Alex ‘cause he was one of my favorites. It was interesting because they were so much alike: Iconoclastic, rebellious, more loved among the aficionados and musicians. I didn’t put together until recently how R.E.M. really loved both Warren and Alex.
Do you have a favorite Alex song?
I guess my favorite is “Free Again.” Because, unfortunately, it relates to my social life. I've been single all my life. I can just relate to “Free Again.”