Hanging With the Alligator Man
The news of Alex Chilton’s death this past Wednesday came as a huge surprise to many, arriving as swiftly as a sweltering summer thunderstorm and leaving in its wake a collective shock throughout the semi-geeky, underground music world. As many have stated over the past several days, the man that melded pathos with gorgeous harmonies will no doubt be missed. If not just for his legacy but for the tenuous hope that you can carve out a successful creative career and still be fiercely dedicated to carving out your own path. In fact, the most eloquent and touching eulogy of them all was written by his close friend Paul Westerberg in the NY Times Op-Ed section the Sunday following his passing.
Chilton was a faceless entity to me until 1984. At that time I was fervently involved in the sixties garage punk scene in NYC and hightailing it to many performances all over lower Manhattan. So, when one of the city’s seminal garage bands, The Vipers, were slated to play at Irving Plaza, there was no doubt in my mind I was to find myself there. It was a big show for the band. Having honed their act at a tiny club by FIT called The Dive, they now found themselves headlining this immense venue.
Upon entering the main hall, I came upon the opening band just starting their set. The songs were unfamiliar and when I asked someone who it was, they mentioned that it was the guy who sang “The Letter”. Having that as a reference point I figured he was an oldies act, sort of apropo for a night consisting of 60s themed music. Camera in hand, I took a few shaky photos of the lead singer and watched. The more I heard, the less I understood how he fit into the whole picture. It was definitely a confusing yet interesting experience. He did close with “The Letter” though.
Fast forward about three years and I’m seriously in the midst of my Paul Westerberg/Replacements worshipping period, having been baptized by a show at CBGBs in 1984, The Mats (as us überfans called ’em) summed up everything my young self had experienced up to that point in my life. Anger, sadness, despair, hope….all in a compact 3 minute song. So, by the time 1987’s “Pleased To Meet Me” came out, us die hards were all chomping at the bit for some more sonic autobiography.
It was around this time my fellow Mats buddy Lisa convinced me to go see an Alex Chilton show. Since the Mats sang about him on “Pleased To Meet Me”…then he MUST be good, the logic went.
So we headed to The Knitting Factory (on Houston St at that time) and bought tickets for the early set of Alex’s show. High Priest had just come out and Chilton was doing a 4-night stint to promote it, two sets each night. The opening band were The Gories, who I was later to find out were produced by Alex. Already fully familiar with the punkier aspects of garage music, The Gories proceeded to deliver a noisy, shambolic set that was itself to become what other groups would revere and strive for years later. This guy knows how to pick his openers I thought to myself.
Chilton by comparison was extremely laid back, but, just as interesting. Fussing with the sound, turning down requests, he exuded this nervous energy that sort of kept me wondering what was going to happen next. I started to slowly understand why Westerberg and crew were fascinated by him. Here was a brilliant songwriter, basically screwed by the music business, seemingly turning his back to his sudden indie-cred. Very, uh, Replacements-like. Avoiding anything resembling his pop roots, his set consisted of old standards, R&B covers, jazzy covers and a very small handful of decent, if uninspired, originals. Yet, much like The Mats, flashes of brilliance would eek out in spite of himself. His guitar playing was second to none, and if he wanted to, esoteric jazz chords would fly out of his guitar with ease. We stayed for the second set.
That was the start of a long and amazing journey following the man. After that day Lisa and I caught the next night, and the next. On Chilton’s second trip through the city that same year we returned as well. We ended up catching him at every gig in NY and Hoboken for the next several years. Even bass player Ron Easley once mentioned “Oh, its these guys again” when he saw us at one show. But, unlike other fans, we never approached Chilton or asked for his autograph. We didn’t want to become his buddy…we just wanted to hear him play. If Lisa and I happened to catch a bad show, instead of lamenting it, we’d stick around for the next set. Sure enough, nine times out of ten it would be better.
Now one could argue that his lack of professionalism was deplorable. A slap in the face of people paying good money to see him. True, but knowing his background of record label letdowns, lost opportunities, and shattered expectations (all before his mid-twenties!) it wasn’t too difficult to see how this came about. Being “professional” not only didn’t work for him, but was also a sure ticket to misery. Take him or leave him…your choice.
When you see someone perform over and over again you also tend to see nuances of their personality emerge. It’s very easy to write off Chilton as jaded, surly and difficult. Which I am sure he was. Regardless, small things stick out in my mind about him. Like how once at The Knitting Factory, a music collector friend (and sometime roadie) Joey Decurzio made Alex come to him for a light instead of the other way around. Hilariously, the people around me were aghast…but “Al”, as Joey called him, took it in stride…even thanked him. No doubt because Joe treated him like any other guy.
Another time a solo show was in danger of being cancelled because of a water break in the vicinity of The Knitting Factory (now in the Leonard St. location). When I walked into the club there were only candles lighting the interior since the power was out. I felt like I walked onto the set of “Interview with a Vampire”. As I stood around with a handful of hopeful fans, Alex came out and invited everyone into the candle-lit main room. He placed a stool in the middle of the floor and, acoustic in hand, asked for requests. Laughing when he could not remember certain “classic” Big Star songs, he did a short 7-song set and thanked the 30 or so of us for coming. Then, to my surprise, we had our admission refunded to us.
In another instance, I arrived early for a show at Fez, located underneath the Time restaurant in the East Village. Having never been there I wandered around the upstairs eatery before someone took pity on me and informed me the performance space was downstairs. Since the doors weren’t open yet I was told to come back. As I was leaving I turned the corner and ran into Alex Chilton trying to open a locked side door, beat-up guitar case in hand. He sees me and asks me me how to get in. I told him I had to figure it out as well and showed him the entrance. Then, taking a page from Joey, I said “Oh, Al, what time are you going on? They wouldn’t tell me”. He stopped, thought carefully about it, and told me he was sorry because he also was in the dark about it. I thanked him anyway and we went our separate ways.
Personal interactions like that filled out my portrait of the person many were all too happy to write off for decades.
Musically, surprises also abounded. Like suddenly deciding to kick out a frantic version of Warren Smith’s rockabilly classic, “Ubangi Stomp”, another night, the Stones’ “Brown Sugar” (with an audience member on guitar), and then one particularly memorable guest spot.
In November of 1987 a Replacements gig coincided with a Chilton show in NJ. Lisa and I naturally bought tickets for both. As soon as the Mats show ended at the Beacon theater we made a beeline for the tiny stage of Maxwells in Hoboken. I still remember Lisa coming up and saying excitedly “He’s here, he’s here” meaning Mr. Westerberg. Sure enough that night we were all treated to a fantastic version of “Little GTO” with Paul sitting in.
Near the tail end of Chilton’s solo tours I lost touch with Lisa but still continued to attend the shows, running into other familiar faces from show to show. When his 60s soul/pop group The Box Tops announced a reunion, I was elated but also a little skeptical, having seen Chilton’s mercurial ways test the patience of even the most seasoned session musicians. I wondered how he would fare with his former bandmates. To my surprise The Box Tops shows were among the most enjoyable gigs I ever saw. Chilton was smiling and genuinely happy to revisit this part of his past. If he had ghosts of the past haunting him from that period, they seemed to have been finally exorcised.
Around the summer of 2001, the city sponsored a summer music festival downtown that offered lunchtime music for the financial crowd. To my surprise The Box Tops were slated to play one afternoon. Having a FT job uptown though sort of left me wondering how to finagle my way into seeing this show. Finally, the day before the show I told my boss I had an urgent “appointment” and might be gone for a couple of hours that afternoon. The ruse worked and the next day I found myself downtown — at the World Trade Center Plaza. The gig was fantastic and as I looked over the towers looming over the sun drenched stage I could not help but feel this was a great, great, day. All that would change just a few weeks later.
By the time the Big Star gigs came around the idea of an intimate Chilton solo gig was less and less likely to happen. The tradeoff though was, we did get a chance to hear those classic old songs once again. Except for “In The Street”, and even less frequently, “September Gurls”, none of the other Big Star tunes were ever performed by him when I saw him solo…at least in NY.
The last time I saw Chilton was November 2009 when Big Star made an appearance in NYC. The price was a hefty $35. A far cry from the $10 sets at the old Knitting Factory 23 years ago. Once my friend Paul and I were inside the large, ornate, Masonic Temple in Fort Greene, we shimmied our way to a good viewing spot. The immense crowds made it difficult to get close, but again, the music was what we were here for.
As soon as the band started you could tell this was going to be a special night. It was a few years since Big Star last played in NY and the anticipation of the fans helped percolate a good atmosphere. As those old familiar tunes washed over me once again, it was as if I was hearing them for the first time. That small intangible thrill you get when something deeply personal resonates was still there. And from the looks of the crowd, I was not alone. Apparently, the band felt it, too, as a haunting, passionate “Daisy Glaze” delivered by former Posie, Ken Stringfellow, all but confirmed it. It actually earned him a Chilton smile of approval. Impressive.
The closing one song encore (Todd Rundgren’s “S-L-U-T”) was adequate but the lights quickly went up as soon it was over. Alex was done. As we made our way out we passed a sweaty Jody Stephens standing by the exit, personally thanking the audience for coming. No doubt feeling a little guilty. As a Chilton fan, I’d experienced this before, no surprises here. I was just happy to have been transported to pop nirvana for that short while. Besides, I figured they’d be back for another show soon anyway….