Mighty few semi-obscure musicians earn a full-scale obituary on National Public Radio -- but that's what happened yesterday in the case of Alex Chilton, who died at age 59.
Chilton had one major chart hit -- "The Letter," released in 1967 when he was a member of the Box Tops. But his impact has been much larger that his one-hit-wonder status implies, particularly when it comes to a subsequent group, Big Star. That band's "In the Street" became the theme song for That '70s Show, and an episode of How I Met Your Mother was graced by "Thirteen," one of the loveliest rock ballads ever written -- just two of countless pop-cultural references.
Fortunately, I got a chance to interview Chilton back in 1991, prior to the launch of Westword's online archives. The piece captures the anti-show-biz part of his character; he was scheduled to do an interview to advance a local appearance, but he didn't phone until a week past deadline, having missed the messages because he was living in a tent. Look below for the article, appearing online for the first time:
"Feedback" column, October 2-8, 1991
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SHOW ME HOW
It's exactly the sort of thing you'd expect from Alex Chilton.
I'd been trying to reach this great, sort-of lost hero of rock and roll since late August to interview him for an article that I hoped would run in advance of his September 28 Mercury Cafe show. He never called back... until the day the article ("Alex in Wonderland," WW 9/25) hit the streets. But he had a good reason.
"I've been living in a tent for the last year, more or less," he says in his Southern gentleman's voice. "Actually, I spent the winter in an apartment in New Orleans, but otherwise I've been in a tent."
The tent is set up beside the house Chilton is building in Tennessee. (He's handling everything on his own, despite his claim that "I know nothing about what I'm doing.") "It's small," he notes. "It has two-by-tens, beams or something like that. I don't know what you call them."
How many bedrooms?
"One, I guess," he answers. "I mean, it's just one room. I'm starting small. It's just a simple life out in the country."
That simple life is only occasionally interrupted by tours: Chilton says he'll only play a handful of dates in 1991. He's ready for the road, however, because he's having what he calls "a creative surge, a feeling of freedom and liberation" created by, in part, "girlfriend stuff." But he says the days when he would write about "girlfriend stuff" in the emotional manner that marked some of his most searing work are over.
"I'm more on an even keel and have more emotional equilibrium than I had in my mid-twenties," he says. "It's not like I ever chose to show that much naked emotion in the first place, and I think it's a kind of negative thing for fans and artists both to engage in that kind of soul laceration. There are probably a lot of confused young college students who get their masochistic kids listening to some of my more ridiculous, maudlin outpourings of the past."
These days, Chilton finds himself in the mood for straightforward, hooky tunes -- "I have a real knack for writing a good pop song," he admits, in one of the larger understatements of all time -- and that's just what he played during his Mercury gig.
The new "What's Your Sign" was both hooky and funny enough to catch the full house off guard, and Chilton's fine guitar playing and stage presence proved he's not ready to be institutionalized. Yet.
So what's next for Chilton? Getting back to work -- but not working too hard. "I just need enough money to keep body and soul together," he says. "I enjoy being an artist and I enjoy having a cultural influence on the world, so I wouldn't mind having a big hit record one bit." He adds that "everything I do is designed to succeed, as odd as that may sound.
I never doubted that for a minute, Alex. Thanks for calling.