Just off Bleecker Street, in the West Village, Manhattan and we’re digging for records, some choice, chance piece of delectable vinyl to take home as a souvenir of this wonderful trip. It’s May 2013. This is a beautiful vinyl-only record store, the name of which was neither photographed nor remembered and I’ve already got A Charlie Brown Christmas by the Vince Guaraldi Trio on festive green vinyl under my arm – an out-of-season snap at $10. Flicking through the oldies I come across a slim square I’ve never laid eyes on before – The Box Tops Super Hits. Its faded cover, protected by a tough plastic sleeve, shows one familiar, incredibly young face. Alex Chilton is staring back at me from the past, preserved perfectly under the plastic covering.
Back in 1997, down and across the island from there, then over the Williamsburg Bridge Alex Chilton has a gig at the Knitting Factory. The power is lost during the show and Chilton, uncharacteristically some would say, decides to keep the faithful entertained – just a voice, an acoustic guitar and a set of esoteric cover versions fracked from the wealth of Chilton’s encyclopedic musical mind. The night is captured on tape, and is now out in the world.
Of the 17 songs played by candlelight on this evening, latterly accompanied by Richard Dworkin lightly dusting a snare drum with a pair of brushes, often punctuated by the voices of enthusiastic patrons high on booze and their interactions with Chilton, the Big Star frontman offers not one original song, sticking instead to fumbled standards (Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case of You’ barely makes it out of the blocks, Tammy Wynette’s “D.I.V.O.R.C.E.” struggles to even get that far but proves immensely entertaining once the crowd kick it into life), wry obscurities (Bill Monroe’s “Footprints In The Snow”) and the truly unexpected (Chet Baker’s “Let’s Get Lost” is approached, tickled and abandoned perfectly). His voice, tremulous, always searching, always yearning, makes everything he plays sound like the aftershocks of a broken heart, his teasing humour assuring you that despite everything it’d probably be ok.
Across the Atlantic Ocean in Barcelona it’s Spring 2012 and a group of musicians including second era Big Star members Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer, Mike Mills, Jeff Tweedy, Ira Kaplan, Sharon Van Etten play Big Star’s final album proper, Third, in its entirety alongside the last surviving member of the original lineup – drummer Jody Stephens. Chilton has died almost exactly two years previous, the victim of a heart attack combined with a lack of health insurance. As the assembled cast clamber through “Kangaroo” and the near-unbearable “Holocaust”, the tears flow. I’m holding on to the seat in front of me, looking at the ground instead of the stage, teeth gritted tightly. As I glance to either side I see the friends who have accompanied me to the Auditori are in a similar situation. In the absence of Chilton’s face, his voice – these songs are now funereal, final. This might be the last time we’ll have a physical representation of his music right in front of our eyes.
Back in Brooklyn ‘97 Chilton is riding the descending wave of the riff from “My Baby Just Cares For Me”, a version so addictive as to justify innumerate back-to-back replays, calling to mind his days in The Box Tops when stunning soulful versions of “Trains & Boats & Planes” and “You Keep Me Hanging On” were his and the band’s stock-in-trade, where he sang (mostly)other people’s songs, most specifically Wayne Thompson’s with blue-eyed power and rare naivety. That Thompson wrote the band’s most iconic song “The Letter” and was himself a country player is echoed here with Chilton tapping country classics like “Walk The Line” and Clyde Owens’ “Last Bouquet”, letting loose on them with real glee. Although Chilton keeps indicating that he’s done, that the next song will be his last, he continues to play.
Last leap across the water to London, England where Big Star are, for some unknowable reason, supporting Tindersticks in a tent in Hyde Park on a warm July evening, 2009. As Big Star take the stage only my friend and I populate the space, hanging from the barrier. This doesn’t bode well. Chilton acknowledges my friend’s Big Star T-shirt as he adjusts his mic, mouthing ‘Thank You’ to him. Their set, as ever, consists of all those wonderful twilit summer teen anthems-that-should-have-been – “September Gurls”, “Back Of A Car”, “In The Street”, and the place gradually fills out. Someone shouts ‘Who are you?’. Chilton responds but I can’t recall the answer.
In Barcelona the crowd has risen from their seats and we’re stood a couple of feet from the beaming orchestra of Chilton aficionados and friends. The words to “Thank You Friends” then “September Gurls” rise from the throats of all in the room, we may still be in tears but we’re reaching past finality now, hoping for eternity, bright, orange and yellow light bathing fans and band alike.
In the West Village I’m gazing at Chilton still, wondering, as I hand the record to the owner to pay for it. He looks at the record now. ‘The Box Tops?’ He exhales long and hard as he studies the sleeve. ‘Alex Chilton fan huh?’ I nod, ‘You have to be’. The old guy laughs, regards Chilton’s face once more and smiles and nods in agreement.
In London we get to speak briefly to Jody Stephens – once more, content slips my mind. At the outdoor bar Alex Chilton stands with a couple of friends, post-show drink and cigarette in hand. My friend decides he’ll speak to him despite Chilton’s apparently unfriendly rep. I decline the chance to meet one of my idols and leave them to it. They discuss bootleg t-shirts and Elliott Smith. I stay in my seat, twenty feet away.
At the Knitting Factory Alex Chilton plays Loudon Wainwright’s “Motel Blues”, a song so torn, funny, full of heart and impact that Chilton himself could have written it. He’s playing it to this tiny group of fans who’ve become friends, albeit temporarily, on this one special evening. In Spain, the fans pour out of the Auditori, shell-shocked and brimming with grief and joy. In a New York record shop an old man is giving us the nod and sending us on our way with his card, now lost. In the park My friend is talking to Alex Chilton about t-shirts and Elliott Smith and I choose to stay put.
In my flat this rainy afternoon in Whitechapel I stare at the sleeve of The Box Tops Super Hits and I listen to Electricity By Candlelight. This is the closest I’ll ever get to that missed conversation, the nearest I’ll be to that faraway night. I was wrong, you know. Over the oceans Alex Chilton’s words, even the borrowed ones, don’t tell of death, they aren’t funereal or final. His voice is always searching, yearning, attaching itself to memories that will last us the rest of our lives.