would you be an outlaw for my love?

If you follow me on Reader, you may have noticed (and expressed some level of annoyance) at the amount of Alex Chilton articles I’ve been sharing or tweeting about.  As I sit to write this post, I regret having shared so many articles that expressed, ever so elegantly, exactly what I want to say now.  But even though I knew I wanted to write my own thoughts on Alex Chilton, I just couldn’t help myself.  I was on the road and unable to write a piece myself, but I felt compelled to do my part to make sure that anyone who would listen to my inane ramblings knew not only of Alex Chilton, but why music fans all around the world were mourning.

It was a mission that was validated by the four six-word tweets that I received from strangers and non-strangers throughout the week: “Who the fuck is Alex Chilton?”

Well allow me to retort.  Or not really.

At this point you can google Alex Chilton and get the answer.  You can read a number of eloquent tributes (my favorites are Carrie Brownstein’s and Paul Westerberg’s) that so exactly encompass Alex Chilton’s impact and what he meant to the music community.

So that’s been done.  The point of this post, and the reason why 15 minutes after unlocking my front door after a two-week vacation I opened up my laptop to start typing, is to simply memorialize who the fuck Alex Chilton was to me.

Back in the pre-Napster days, finding music wasn’t as easy as opening a web browser, popping in a search term, and clicking “play now”.  Growing up in the Bay Area suburbs without cool older siblings to guide my way or access to a college rock station (that damn Mt. Diablo successfully blocked any radio signals coming from the punk underground in Berkeley), I pretty much relied on happenstance and MTV’s 120 Minutes for my musical discoveries.  In the case of Alex Chilton, it would be the former.

The odd thing is that I knew Alex Chilton before I “knew” Alex Chilton.  I discovered The Replacements in 1993.  After falling in love with their seminal “Let It Be” and kinda in like with “Tim”, I finally scrounged up enough money to get a used copy of their much maligned “Pleased To Meet Me”.  Of course, being the contrarian that I am, I loved that album, primarily for two tracks: “Never Mind” and “Alex Chilton”.

The dumb thing is that I had no idea Alex Chilton was an actual person.  I just thought it was a cool sounding name that Westerberg threw in there because it had the syntax that he needed.  So there I was, at 15, cranking “Alex Chilton” in my room dancing around like an idiot.  I.  Loved.  That.  Song.  LOVED IT.  The energy and the lyrics completely captured my love for music at the time.

Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes ’round
They sing “I’m in love. What’s that song?
I’m in love with that song.”

God.  Every time that part of the song comes on, “I’m in love.  What’s that song?  I’m in love with that song.”  I rock out with the goofiest grin on my face.  It’s just so anthemic and over the years I would, to myself, replace “Alex Chilton” with my artist du jour.  Jenny Lewis, U2, Oasis, John Lennon, Win Butler, Corin Tucker, etc.  They’ve all received the Alex Chilton treatment.  Come on.  Do me a favor.  Crank it up and walk around your room while you’re listening.  If you’re not dancing around and doing the handclaps by the end I simply ask that you check your pulse and try again.

Ok.  Stop waxing.  Keep telling.

I wouldn’t learn who Alex Chilton was until I went off to college.  I bought the Empire Records soundtrack (crap movie, great soundtrack) and fell in love with Evan Dando’s “The Ballad of El Goodo”.  I listened to it on loop when my roommate was in class, cranking it up, lying in bed with my legs up against the wall, trying to stay cool (we didn’t have A/C in the dorms).  One day I was flipping through the CD booklet and noticed that Dando didn’t actually write El Goodo.  Some dude named A. Chilton did.

Lightbulb.

By then the interwebs were in full force and I learned that Alex Chilton was the lead singer of Big Star, a band that people believed should have been up there with The Beatles, he was from Memphis, and he was, in fact, the “Alex Chilton” I had danced to.  I ran across the street to The Wherehouse (remember those?) and found Big Star’s most popular album, “#1 Record/Radio Star” and the rest is history.  The jangly guitar, the dischordant solos, the beautiful lyrics.  Big Star just pulled me in and wouldn’t let me go.

Thirteen.  One of the most beautiful love songs ever written and famously covered by Elliot Smith.  “Would you be an outlaw for my love?”  Uh, duh.  I love Elliot’s version, but Alex’s shaky voice in the original always makes me tear up.

I’m In Love With A Girl.  I would literally listen to this song as I drove around Irvine, equal parts imagining and hoping that a boy would someday sing this simple and sweet song to me.  Hasn’t happened yet, but I still imagine and hope as fervently now as I did 15 years ago.

As I would learn a few years ago while randomly Wikipediaing bands in my iTunes library (yes, I do this to pass time), Alex Chilton was a true artist who refused to bow down to commercial influence or mainstream taste.  He was sorely disappointed that no one was interested in Big Star’s music but he continued to make music on his own terms and basically said “If you like it, great.  If you don’t, fuck you.”  As I find myself gravitating more and more towards that ethos I can see why well-respected artists and musicians put him on a pedestal.  He lived it, he breathed it, he was awesome.

So that’s who Alex Chilton was to me.  A guy who made me laugh, sing, dance, swoon, and think, and who thankfully influenced so many of my favorite bands and artists.  He was revered in the music community and you can almost see musicians walking around with black armbands these days, “September Gurls” ringing from their headphones.

As for me, my “black armband” is listening to “Alex Chilton” on loop.  Because, as usual, Westerberg nailed it:

Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes ’round
They sing “I’m in love. What’s that song?
I’m in love with that song.”

Invisible man who can sing in a visible voice.

I never travel far, without a little Big Star

If he was from Venus, would he meet us on the moon?
If he died in Memphis, then that’d be cool, babe.

Alex Chilton, RIP.

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