The revered pop musician Alex Chilton died on St. Patrick's Day at age 59, sabotaging a day of revelry with his typical mordancy. Way back in 1967, he growled out the vocals on "The Letter," the No. 1 hit of the short-lived Box Tops. Encouraged to gruff up his voice by producer Dan Penn, Chilton, the quintessential old soul, sang decades beyond his age. He was 16.
After the decades caught up with him, Chilton told an interviewer that the Box Tops "were Dan's peculiar version of soul music." Chilton went on to blaze the power pop path with the similarly short-lived but hugely influential Big Star. He later specialized in sloppy one-take DIY rock 'n' roll during the CBGB era and devoted himself to laconic covers of standards like "Volare." Ultimately, he settled uncomfortably into legend status with occasional Box Tops and Big Star reunions. Although he ranged far and wide and will be remembered as a pop pioneer first and foremost, Chilton's authentic output was his own peculiar version of soul music.
Big Star's third and final album is an accidental masterpiece. Chilton claimed he was forced off the project, recorded haphazardly in 1974, before it was finished. "I was just throwing ideas at the wall," he later recalled, adding in his reliably contrarian and aggrieved way, "Nowhere does it conform to what I had in mind at all."
The record languished unnamed and unreleased for four years. It's now "officially" called Third/ Sister Lovers, but the album's neglected third title, Beale Street Green, is the appropriate one. Beale Street is the musical epicenter of Memphis, where Chilton was born and raised. Beale Street is blues and soul, and so is Beale Street Green (for "green," read "blue"). Listen to the deeply downhearted "Holocaust," the grief-dazed "Kangaroo," the defeated but defiant "You Can't Have Me," the lovely and frail "Nightime": What he was "throwing at the wall" was his soul. It stuck, and he allowed (the also late) producer Jim Dickinson to capture it on tape.
Don't let this vulnerability fool you. By the time the album came out four years later, in 1978, Chilton was already a pop has-been. Big Star's bid for big stardom had stiffed, and their leader's final three decades were erratic and messy, a musical raspberry thumbed at success. The Beatles cover he recorded was "I'm So Tired." He abruptly ended the sloppy first take after 36 seconds—and left it on the album.
Chilton, who lived in New Orleans, was supposed to perform on March 20 at South by Southwest. But his death was classic Chilton. He simply preferred not to—to succeed, to give in, to play the indie music game that he himself helped create. He'd rather die than attend his own celebration.
But by keeping his bite—a bite as sharp and nervy and gripping as his guitar playing on Big Star's second album, the great, polished, poised Radio City—he never got long in the tooth and kept his best work from decay. He came off a slacker, even though Alex Chilton was the Bartleby of music.