WE KNOW ALEX CHILTON not for his achievements, but for what should have been. For a handful of decades Chilton embodied the perennial rock and roll underdog, a coulda-been-a-contender singer/songwriter vastly superior to his peers, yet never quite as successful. The tacit assumption being that history would eventually correct itself, rock revisionism would force an apology for the deeds of the past, and Chilton's day in the sun would rightfully arrive.
It should have happened in the 1980s, when the Replacements' "Alex Chilton" anointed him as a nearly infallible figure, the rock and roll everyman, just as willing to share his stash as to be followed by "children by the million" for his music. But that gave way to the '90s and eventually the aughts, where it seemed inevitable that someone, anyone, would finally drag Chilton into the limelight. But it never happened. Chiltonism reached a fevered pitch in influence alone. He was still performing into his late 50s, mere days away from a slot in the SXSW dog and pony show, when he died of a heart attack in New Orleans on March 17. He was 59.
Of course, there is more to artistic achievement than robust bank account balances, but half-truths and rumors spread throughout the years that Chilton spent the '80s penniless, washing dishes in some New Orleans dive, that he'd been swept away in the rising water of a broken levee left in Katrina's path, or was living in a tent somewhere in Tennessee (as Paul Westerberg himself confirmed in his recent New York Times obituary). It was clear that Chilton never reached a level of financial comfort fitting for someone of his skill.
Along with the equally tragic Chris Bell (who passed in 1978 in a car crash), Big Star took shape in the early '70s, quickly laying waste to the bloated rock frontier of the era. Big Star (and perhaps the Raspberries) was happy to reject rock and roll as anything other than an avenue for beaming pop songs, jangling guitar, and vocal harmonies that hearkened back to the earliest days of the Byrds. They wanted to be the Beatles of American soil, but it was not meant to be.
Never quite right for the fickle ways of rock and roll, the band's now-classic debut, #1 Record, was at one time rumored to have more promotional copies available than commercial copies sold. To Stax Records and the overly ambitious landscape of '70s rock, Chilton was a flaming wreck of massive pop hooks and heartfelt lyrics that best illustrated the unpredictable nature of his chosen profession. He was proof that groundbreaking music, previous pop chart success (don't forget Chilton topped the pop charts as the then-16-year-old singer of the Box Tops' "The Letter"), and critical acclaim are still mere pieces in an unsolvable equation, and not a guaranteed means of success.
Credit an arrested development that turned his frantic request for a ticket on an aer-o-plane into his closest taste of success, that Chilton later penned what is arguably rock music's finest firsthand ode to blooming teenage love in Big Star's ubiquitous "Thirteen." Chilton's imagery is innocence personified, as a pair of young lovers come of age amid the confusing birth of rock and roll. His lyrics "Won't you tell your dad, 'Get off my back'/Tell him what we said 'bout 'Paint it Black'/rock and roll is here to stay" perfectly capture an era of both teenage uncertainty and pop culture evolution. (Anyone coming of age in the Voodoo Lounge days of the Rolling Stones might find it hard to believe, but there was actually a time when they were considered dangerous.)
For a stretch in the early '70s, Chilton might have been the finest rock and roll frontman America had, but even that historic period was buried in the excess of the times, only later to be unearthed by countless bands (Wilco, Death Cab for Cutie, et al.) aping the pop structure that he helped create. Chilton's chords resonated deeply, in ways seldom associated with the fleeting nature of rock, and the tributes didn't stop at the end of Paul Westerberg's pen. Teenage Fanclub titled their underrated Thirteen LP after his song of the same name, and when his recently scheduled SXSW gig was quickly turned into a posthumous affair, former bandmates, M. Ward, members of R.E.M., and more came together in Chilton's honor.
Even when it seemed that critical nostalgia had won out, and Big Star's "In the Street" would cross over via the opening theme music of That '70s Show, the show's producers passed on the band's version, instead funding a slicker version from Chilton disciples Cheap Trick. While other critically acclaimed, commercially unsuccessful artists found refuge in late-career (or posthumous) rediscovery—Volkswagen commercials scored by the voice of Nick Drake, or Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" as the finest moment of Jeff Buckley's all-too-short existence—Chilton was left waiting. There was an unspoken inevitability to Chilton's career, in which he'd eventually get his long-overdue victory lap, coasting to late-career success in a storm of tickertape and acceptance.
What they didn't understand then, we understand now. And for that, let us all be thankful for the life of Alex Chilton: After so many years, we're still in love with that song.