(Author of A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man with special guests)
I first heard about Big Star from reading Circus magazine in 1972 around the time of the release of their first LP. I even recall getting into a “Who’s on First” dilemma when I tried to tell someone about this new band that I heard were going to be “big stars.” Regretfully, Big Star didn’t get played on New York radio back then, and their record was nowhere to be found in local stores. So it wasn’t until I heard The Bangles 1986 cover of “September Gurls” that I began to discover these power pop giants from Memphis.
I eventually devoured everything about Big Star and its leader, Alex Chilton, that I could get my hands on. This included being lucky enough to see one of their rare live shows when the second generation version of Big Star played Nashville’s Uptown Mix in 2001 (Here’s a photo from that show by Dave Weil.)
This all leads up to the new fabulous and exhaustive book by Holly George-Warren. The noted rock journalist recently made an appearance during Americana week at Howlin’ Books (located inside Grimeys Too) to discuss and read from her bio on the late Alex Chilton.
Holly spoke passionately about her love of Chilton’s music and her interest in his rather colorful life. She eloquently read an intriguing segment from her book which concluded with the climactic title that Alex wanted her to use for a book about his days as the 15-year-old lead singer for The Box Tops: “I Slept with Charlie Manson.” (Sorry, but I am going to make you read Holly’s book to find out the rest.)
Holly also brought along some interesting guests including drummer Jody Stephens, the lone surviving member of Big Star. Jody provided some fan-delicious Alex insights before teaming up with local musicians Will Kimbrough and William Tyler to perform. While Jody’s appearance was an obvious one, the presence of the other two begged for explanation. Well, it turns out that Will’s wife is the owner of the book store, and that he was both a fan and casual acquaintance of Alex. Tyler on the other hand was connected through his parents who grew up with Chilton in Mississippi.
Tyler’s Mom and Dad were a smash reminiscing with Holly about both young and old Chilton. One memorable tale was of a night with their young children in New Orleans where Alex had taken employment as a dishwasher to do the backwards thing of “going to New Orleans to quit drinking.” William later followed up on this story recalling how patient Alex was with all of his non-stop geeky music questions that he got away with only because he was “almost-family.”
Before beautifully singing two Big Star songs written by the late Andy Hummel, Jody had a few interesting quips about Alex. One cleared up that mysterious second line in “September Gurls”: “I was your butch and you were touched.” It seems that the “b” in “Butch” should be capitalized since it was meant as a reference to dog from a comic strip (i.e. like a puppy dog following you around). Knowing this, I wonder if The Bangles still would have changed the suspect line in their version of the song.
After accompanying Jody on acoustic guitars, Kimbrough and Tyler each did a song on their own. Will performed “Dear Alex,” a tribute song that he wrote and recorded back in 1987 as a part of Will & the Bushmen. Tyler then chose a lesser-known Big Star song, performing “Nighttime” from the much misunderstood Third/Sister Lovers LP.
My appreciation goes out to Howlin’ Books for hosting this fabulous event, and my congratulations go out to Holly for writing this wonderful book. She mentioned that it was three and a half years in the making, that doing the research was the best part, and that she had so much info that many great stories got cut by her editor. Maybe someday she can find a way to let some of the missing material slip out.
- Way Out West (Jody Stephens)
- The India Song (Jody Stephens)
- Dear Alex (Will Kimbrough)
- Nighttime (William Tyler)