Written by: Dave Cantrell
We all come to our gathered knowledges at our own given speed, happenstance, fueled by the energy of curiosity, running headlong into blind chance and boom! there’s a new element added in ever-broadening strokes to the peculiar collection of works we call, for want of a better term, our taste. Such were the unseen dynamics at play when, in 1977, I wandered once again into the record store north of the UC Berkeley campus (instead of the lecture hall) the same week that Singer Not the Song had been released. That 21-year-old from the elm street suburbs playing college-level hooky didn’t know much but knew enough to trust the tight-knit staff at Rather Ripped Records – on the whole they gave off a warm if snarky mercantile intimacy that made it feel there were in the process of adopting me – and thus walked out clutching that Alex Chilton EP on the oddly names Ork Records.
Ramshackle, bold, and garage-y with a slapdash immediacy that exuded the rough boyish charm one sometimes encounters in a panhandler with panache, it was a record that, over its five short punchy tracks, got your attention by sounding, at least at first blush, like no one involved particularly gave a shit whether anyone liked it or not. Which, paradoxically – not to mention inevitably – made you like it (a conclusion perhaps foregone, with a sly wink, by the fact the 7″‘s brash central cut was called “Take Me Home & Make Me Like It,” that ampersand as much as anything spelling out the shrugging Bowery attitude behind the record’s creation). Though the content itself didn’t rise to – or even approach – life-changing, the EP’s presentation, from its heavy cardstock cover featuring a torn-edged, low-res photo of the singer on stage somewhere, his expression dissolute, resigned, cigarette a-dangle while in the foreground a couple kiss impervious to his efforts, to the throw-off-but-still-sticky nature of the songs, was enough to trigger my curiosity – that of a pedantic, however amateur young student whose studies in such areas far out-paced the soon-to-be abandoned UCB – and the fractured history of Alex Chilton in its limited but astonishing bits fell together, from the prodigal 16-year-old Box Top belting “The Letter” like a libidinal 30-year-old to the quixotic fame and failure that was the result of chasing after Byrds-flecked, Memphis-flavored pop purity in the ill-fated Big Star. From that point on, I did my best to pay attention. It wasn’t always easy.
Following a trajectory that, to some, might mimic the script of a tragic Hollywood biopic, one that tacks a shaky midway between Colin Blunstone and Elliott Smith, the truth, as it so inconveniently is, is both more complicated than that and not.
The son of a fairly successful jazz man, it’s no complete surprise – and in fact brings an apple-from-the-tree context to an otherwise mind-blowing fact – the young Alex found himself fronting an industry-powered teen combo singing a monster hit written by Memphis-based country singer and professional songwriter (Wayne Carson Thompson in the case of “The Letter” but many of the rest of the Box Tops repertoire was composed Brill Building-style by the band’s dream team producers, Dan Penn, Chips Moman, and Spooner Oldham) but despite the built-in lineage, the latent effects of having played a major part in one of the grinding cogs of the music machine, even if a relatively successful one (“Cry Like A Baby” an equal smash hit), might well have contributed to the wariness that seemed to shadow Chilton’s character as he grew into the artistry that would ensure his reputation and his eventual legendary status. While his frustrations commercially are well-noted enough to have become an integral part of his mythos, the far greater weight of that legend rests on his songwriting, the hooks and structures of which seemed to flow from pure pop instincts bubbling up from inside. From all appearances he indeed found solace in his craft and flourished within, but that past, one imagines (not least the death of an older brother when Alex was six), given the dark tinge to that flourishing, left bruises.
Above cult status but never a quote-unquote star, the material on these two albums, released simultaneously on the indispensable Bar/None February 8th, in their way trace an arc of the artist working, in wake of Big Star’s collapse and the disheveled catharsis of the Like Flies on Sherbet album, to negotiate a path that somehow accommodated both the sense of unfulfilled destiny that lay in tatters behind him and the drive toward creative autonomy that would allow him to let all that go. Having returned to his native Memphis from NYC, for a spell Chilton responded to the tension of that limbo by kind of ignoring it, forming the fiery Panther Burns with Tav Falco and, well, drinking a lot. Once the unsustainability of that non-solution became obvious, the songwriter, crumbling, took the advice of a long time family friend and fled to New Orleans in 1982, hoping to remake himself into an image he hadn’t yet really embodied, even if it meant abandoning music. Through disappearance and chosen anonymity, it worked, and some three plus years later, having gotten by working dishwasher shifts and trimming his fair share of Crescent City trees, he re-emerged, essentially guitar in hand. It’s this period the suitably titled From Memphis to New Orleans anthologizes with curatorial care. Spanning the years 1985-1989, its clear that, one, Chilton in his seclusion hadn’t exactly put music out of his mind – his output in this time span is among his most fruitful, suggesting a store of pent up creative energy eager to be released – and two, that a peace was well on its way to being found.
Plucking a clutch of tracks from 1985’s Feudalist Tarts EP, fully half of the High Priest LP (1989) and a couple each off the No Sex and Blacklist Ep’s (’86 and ’89 respectively), plus a Tarts reissue bonus track (a lively reading of Don Gibson’s “Lonely Weekend,” Chilton on guitar channeling a N’Awlins version of Mike Bloomfield), the stretch of material, while not vast, nonetheless gives display of an artist not just increasingly comfortable in his skin but also – inextricably related – unconcerned in the healthiest way imaginable with his legacy, its past weight having apparently been mostly shed in the minimum wage trenches. Straightaway, in the earliest cuts, the chipper unforced groove of “B-A-B-Y,” the carefree swing through Willie Tee’s “Thank You John” and on to the first original here, “Lost My Job” with its loose and bluesy lope that has that throwaway heft of John Lennon vamping on some Ray Charles between takes, there’s a palpable stir of freedom living inside the sound and attitude. From each of these cherry-picked releases to the next, whatever a song’s provenance or authorship, the takeaway is the specter of a renewed spirit, of the laconic confidence of a man vibrantly relaxed.
Thus does the raunch of Eve Darby’s “Take It Off” (from High Priest) succeed without a hint of irony, tongue never straying anywhere near the cheek but instead, well, (ahem), anyway…while “Dalai Lama” works just as well by returning said tongue – respectfully, mind – to its famous hideout as the holy one is fêted with a lighthearted romp halfway between rockabilly and a rockin’ funk pop joint. Similarly, the two selections from No Sex take the singer’s power pop bona fides and fling them into the rough and tumble streets, scuffing them up and making them like it, the title track close to classic midwest garage mode that Chris Butler might consider covering, the more blistering “Underclass” seared at least a tad by some latent Panther Burned heat. By the time we get to the two selections from Blacklist – a tightly relaxed, groove-fectious turn at “Little GTO” and the eerily prescient “Guantanamerica,” all wry asides and Jersey sax (“can the crust get any flakier?” indeed), Chilton sounds positively unruffled, his lost found as he manifests the puckish disregard of early middle age. Which, as luck would have it, is a convenient lead-in point to From Memphis to New Orleans‘ companion release.
An altogether gentler and, by virtue of its consistent – and studiously unforced – reverence for the jazz-pop corners of the mid-century American songbook, more coherent collection, Songs From Robin Hood Lane pulls eight tracks from two seldom-heard Chilton-related outings (1994’s solo album Clichés and the one-off collaboration LP from 1991 by pick-up group Medium Cool called Imagination that featured four different vocalists including Chilton and James White) and augments them with four previously unreleased cuts. Though of the two the smoother and cooler by definition, Songs‘ contents will likely cause the greater shock to all but the most well-versed fan. It isn’t, after all, exactly expected to find the name ‘Chilton’ sharing the marquee with the likes of such renowned, crooner-associated names like Sammy Kahn, Jerome Kern, Frank Loesser or Cole bloody Porter. For those of you, however, that have read this far and have taken a few mental notes, it should make, if not perfect, at least stylistic sense considering Chilton’s upbringing.
Hoping to capture – or at least echo somewhere in the pocket of – the music he heard in his boyhood home, what’s heard here may prove a tad disorienting but gauged in their deeper context these tracks help shape a further contour to our understanding of the guy that was all or partly responsible for giving us “September Gurls,” “The Ballad of El Goodo,” and “When My Baby’s Beside Me” and whose biggest influence as a singer, it should be noted, was Chet Baker. Past that, it’s also just an ace listen, swinging with an assured indie nonchalance set against a sharply capable sense of homage. There is no smirking here, no irony, just love as Chilton proves an adroit, lived-in liaison between the world of his dad and that of the son’s – shall we say – ardent followers.
Opening with the throaty flight of a flute over a brushed snare and a sublimely threadbare bassline announcing a drowsily jazzed reading of “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” – on of those heretofore unreleased tracks – there’s nothing but blue (if often partly clouded) skies from a mostly monochrome, vanilla past. Pretty much split evenly between those Medium Cool sessions – slicker, or at least suaver, attempting tribute-style to emulate the Chet Baker cool – and the far more unadorned, coffee shop intimacy of the Clichés album where it’s just Mr Chilton and his trusted acoustic, two through lines tie the record together: one the animating spirit common to both projects, the other the sound of the singer, that familiar voice retaining its everyman warmth – you barely hear the Southern but you hear it – while having slipped free overall of the need to fashion itself a la rocknroll, garage, rustic power pop whatever. It’s a delicious irony that, as he tackles the likes of, say, “Time After Time,” hung out there in carefree finger-snapping limbo, or the pared-down “My Baby Just Cares For Me” (dig the woody pops of acoustic-thumped percussion), the less he sounds like the subject that inspired the Replacements’ “Alex Chilton” the more he sounds like Alex Chilton minus quotation marks of any kind.
All through Songs From Robin Hood Lane, from the near-guitar soli self-accompaniment that frames a loving take on “Let’s Get Lost,” the melancholic trawl through “Like Someone in Love” – inebriatingly good – the sultry sweetness of “All of You,” it’s something of a marvel to hear this artist known, fairly or not, for a flinty aesthetic matching a flintily reticent personality, being this unabashed, this unshielded, this texturally au naturel. In the end, however, one can’t help but suspect, given the commingled history of this material and the hues of his ambered youth, that this wasn’t so much a wholly different side to Alex Chilton as an achingly sublimated one that lurked all along behind the complicated, often dazzling glare of his better-known work and its impact. Whatever the case, both these volumes abide like founding lights in the official Chilton firmament. They are, in a word, essential.