Thursday, March 18, 2010

Remembering Alex Chilton

by Dick Mac

Alex Chilton died yesterday. He was 59.

I first met Alex in the mid-nineties. Although this phase of Chilton's career is not discussed very much, overshadowed by Big Star and The Box Tops, this band embraced a very sophisticated array of sounds from Michael Jackson's "Rock With You" and The Supremes' "No Matter What Sign You Are" to "April In Paris," "Volare" "Lipstick Traces," and scores of other songs that seemed to have no logical thread that I could follow.

In 1999, that band released the album "Loose Shoes and Tight Pussies," which Alex explained to me was a quote from the dreadful Governor Lester Maddox, of Georgia, and was best quote the man ever proffered. In the United States, of course, you can't release a record with that title, so it was released here with the bland and generic title "Set." If you have not heard it, I recommend it. Pay attention to the drums on the cut "Never Found A Girl," they are sublime.

This band was a trio: Alex on guitar and vocals, Richard Dworkin, an incredibly talented and unassuming New York City drummer with an impressive resume, and Ron Easley on bass, backing vocals, and the band's dancer, providing an entertaining moonwalk behind Alex while the others played Jackson's "Rock With You."

When my wife and I returned from the trip to Paris during which we became engaged, we attended an Alex Chilton show at Coney Island High. Afterwards we talked to Alex about our wedding plans and the conversation turned to him playing the event. He was happy to consider the gig, humbly questioned if he was the right choice for the entertainment, and warned that the only other wedding he played was a reception at The Rainbow Room, in 1968, for a wedding that ended in a messy divorce. We laughed, chatted about my marriage proposal at The Louvre, the band's current schedule, the release of the new CD, and events of the day.

March Madness was upon us, and Alex wouldn't be on the road until after the NCAA tournament concluded. We talked on the phone a number of times during the tournament, but never during a game. Alex was a huge fan, and would suffer no foolishness when it was time to tune-in. If I remember correctly, Kentucky the reigning champ, and was playing its opening games in New Orleans. We both thought they stood a chance to repeat. Neither Tulane, his local favorite, nor Memphis, the hometown team that had his heart, were in the tournament, and I don't remember him having a specific team he supported. He just loved the entire event and wouldn't miss a single game that was broadcast.

Ostensibly, I was calling him to discuss the wedding, but we seemed to spend very little time talking about it. We talked politics. He was a liberal and performed during Clinton's presidential campaign. We talked about drugs and the impact they had on the body as we aged. He didn't like doctors that much and played his hand close to his chest. We talked about girls and sex. I never thought he would get married! He was a very humble and funny guy. I really liked him.

We eventually talked about the wedding during one of the calls, and we determined that he wasn't really the right guy for the gig. Our budget would cover his fee, but would he really be the right guy to play dance music late into the night? No. If Alex came to play the wedding, we would still need to hire another band to play after him for the hours and hours of dancing that my family and friends expect at a wedding. Two bands were not in our budget, so that plan was scrapped.

When Katrina struck New Orleans, Alex was missing. Everyone feared the worst, of course. He had decided to sit out the storm on the second floor of his house with a gun for protection. He'd sent off his friends who had begged him to leave with them. The legend goes like this: someone called Bill Clinton, who called someone in the Navy, who called someone in New Orleans, who sent a boat to Alex's house to get him out of there. Alex survived Katrina.

Last night I read the news, told the wife, felt sad, made a phone call to his drummer, and wondered what I'd write about him. Nothing came to mind except his wry smile, charming demeanor, and gentle ways.

Godspeed, Alex!

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