The late Alex Chilton was memorialized by colleagues, friends and admirers on Saturday at South By Southewest — with words and, most importantly, with music.
Following a warmly reverent and nostalgic afternoon panel at the Austin Convention Center — with Big Star co-founders Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel, latter-day members Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, original producer John Frye and others — Big Star’s scheduled showcase that night at Antone’s was turned into a kind of musical wake for Chilton, with numerous guests taking turns during the 80-minute show. But the performance was also preceded by more words.
Stephens told the packed house he was still “stunned and shocked” by Chilton’s sudden death on March 17 in New Orleans but thanked the fans for their support and noted that, in Austin, “it feels like the whole, broad music community has wrapped its arms around us.” Publicist Heather West then read the letter sent from Chilton’s wife Laura back in New Orleans, describing him as “an individual who did what he pleased…(but) was also the most considerate and sincere person I’ve ever known.” The letter noted Chilton’s always broad musical interests and pride in his production work and said that “he valued spontaneity. This would seem to contradict his insistence on analysis and accuracy but somehow he managed to be both at the same time…(which) is probably why he has been described as a genius and a musician’s musician.”
With Auer adding that “this is a horrible circumstance, but (playing) felt like the best option,” the surviving Big Star trio kicked off the show with “Back of a Car” before welcoming the first guest, the Meat Puppets‘ Curt Kirkwood, to play guitar on “Don’t Lie to Me” and to also sing on “In the Street.” Chris Stamey played on the late Big Star co-founder Chris Bell’s “I Am the Cosmos” and sang “When My Baby’s Beside Me.” M. Ward offered a hushed take of “Big Black Car,” and Hummel, who now resides in Lithuania, joined the group for the Stephens-sung “Way Out West.” R.E.M.‘s Mike Mills sang “Jesus Christ,” while John Doe and Sondre Lerche performed particularly moving versions of “I’m in Love with a Girl” and “Ballad of El Goodo,” respectively.
Chuck Prophet fronted Big Star for a powerful “Thank You Friends,” while Evan Dando performed a solo acoustic “Night Time” and joined Amy Speace, Doe, Auer and Stringfellow on “Try Again.” The night ended, appropriately, with a spirited “September Gurls” featuring Susan Cowsill, the Watson Twins, Hummel, Doe and Mills.
Though the remaining trio has made no determination of Big Star’s future, Auer certainly hinted at an impending end by telling the crowd that “it’s been the pleasure of a liffetime playing with this man.” Stephens, meanwhile, returned to the stage to once again thank the crowd “for helping us celebrate the life and music of Alex. I owe him a lot. I learned a lot from him. You’ve wrapped your arms around him, and we appreciate it.”
Chilton was on the mind of other bands on Saturday’s bill at Antone’s, too. Ben Thornewill, singer and pianist for Philadelphia’s Jukebox the Ghost noted that “it’s such a strange tone for the evening. I’m not sure what tone to strike,” while New Yorkers the Postelles spoke about being “honored” to be part of the bill.
But rock veteran Dwight Twilley did find the tone. Telling the crowd shortly into his set that “normally at this time I say, ‘Are y’all feeling good?’ but this time there are probably some mixed feelings. So why don’t we all just rock like hell!”
That’s a sentiment Chilton probably would have appreciated.
Laura Chilton’s complete statement:
“Even though Alex left this world way too soon, I feel so fortunate to have been his friend and wife. I would like to say a fewthings about his relationship with music and also speak of what he was about as a person. He was an individual who did what he pleased. However, he was also the most considerate and sincere person I’ve ever known. He loved life and people and usually befriended the underdogs. He saw beauty in what other people would just dismiss- old ricketyhouses about to fall down- he would say- “now that’s a great house worth buying.” He would spend 10 minutes chatting with ahomeless person on the street and always helped them out with some money. He was a good listener and was very compassionate. He was extremely generous- always giving time, energy and money to his friends with a no strings attached attitude.
There is one aspect to his personality that seemed to define how he approached and interpreted life and that is a consistenttendency to be absolutely clear in expression and communication. His mind worked analytically; he had a low tolerance level forvagueness and carelessness. His relationship with music was all about analysis. When listening and appreciating a piece of music,whether it be a Beach Boys tune or a Bach partita, he was able to pay attention to individual elements simultanously: harmony,rhythm, melody, meter, etc.
I believe this is why he loved working in the studio- producing records. He spoke a lot about John Frye teaching him how to do work in the studio and how he enjoyed playing around with the different elements. The one thing he was absolutely proud of was producing the Cramps records. He would play them at home and and just talk and talk about the experience. He was also quite proud of the Detroit garage band The Gories — both his work with them and the band itself. He was very excited for them now that they are playing shows again.
At home in New Orleans Alex lived a simple and relaxed life. He watched a lot of TV while fooling around on the keyboard and guitar. We played music together- both classical and pop. He rode around town on his bike and loved to strike up conversation with whoever he came across. For the past few years, when I lived with him, he listened and played classical Baroque music, Scott Joplin rag tunes and 60’s pop music. Names that often came up include the following: Carole King, Petula Clark, Brian Wilson, the Byrds, Frederic Knight, the band Free, George Frederic Handel, Georges Muffat, Haydn and the baroque performance group Musica Antiqua Koln. There are dozens more but these names come to mind as I’m writing this.
The final point I would like to draw attention to was he valued spontaneity. This would seem to contradict his insistence on analysis and accuracy but somehow he managed to be both at the same time. Honestly, this remains a mystery to me and is probably why he has been described as a genius and a musician’s musician. I am only speculating on this but I am thinking it is probable. I will miss him forever and will honor him by maintaining and developing what I’ve learned from him: compassion, spontaneity, honesty, directness, generousity, an excellent listener and enthusiasm about what life has to offer. He had a blase attitude towards death- it didn’t interest him. The same goes for sleep;,he just said the other day that he wished he could be awake 24/7- life was too interesting and he didn’t want to waste it sleeping. I laughed at that but I knew he was serious.
On that note, I need to end this little essay and go take a nap- here’s what Alex would say: “Night, sug.”