Thursday, March 18, 2010

Alex Chilton and the anatomy of "Feel" + "The Ballad of El Goodo"

Upon learning of Alex Chilton's death last night at the age of 59, I assumed that there would be the standard outpouring of love and uncritical devotion from the standard quarters, or the three M's, as I plan to call them: Middle-aged indie rockers, Memphisians, and Miserable teenagers. Apparently he cast a net a bit wider than that, evidenced by the number of trade publications announcing the death of "the lead vocalist of the Box Tops" on their front pages. The Replacements song "Alex Chilton," which is probably as famous and enduring of a musical love letter as any Big Star song, once seemed to be a missive from a parallel universe, wherein "children by the millions sing for Alex Chilton," conjuring ridiculous levels of adoration unthinkable for any modern artist, save maybe Michael Jackson. But...just a few hours ago, Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee decided to delay the health care vote an extra two minutes in order to pay tribute to the man (making this probably the first and last time many of these representatives will ever hear the words "indie" or "alternative" in their lives), and the SXSW Festival in Austin will probably be a far more muted event this year, so emotionally pervasive was his effect on musicians and fans of all ages (the reformed Big Star was set to play the festival on Saturday). So maybe this Westerbergian utopia is finally made manifest as it was intended--his death in Memphis, by no means marking a life tragically cut short, could be the catalyst for a groundswell of support and adoration from the millions of children yet to hear his music.

Like Greg, I also started to listen to Chilton's music in high school*, and though I haven't really given it up since, it's hard to come back to these albums without immediately feeling like I'm picking up where I left off at high school, as if those interim years boiling with hardbreak and madness are reduced to a simpler, more reflective period in my life. Big Star still remains emotional music for me, but the kinds of emotions it engenders are rooted firmly in my past, so when I say I'm mourning Alex Chilton I also feel as if I'm mourning the effect such music used to have on me, before I went to college and got more preoccupied with the nonsense all incoming adults must face.

In fact, when I started out listening to Big Star, my immediate reactions were so personalized that I first felt as if the music was some sort of canard, embodying as it seemed to do every single facile and petty emotion that made me the teenager that I was. At first, it made me feel selfish, given the easiness with which Big Star's music seemed to penetrate my adolescent fallacies. Chilton's voice, a tuneful, lilting whine, could be easily appropriated by someone of my limited vocal range; his guitar-playing, an always underrated component of his work, was chimey and complex, rooted in something bluesy and flighty at the same time, and when he felt like it (such as in "O My Soul") he could really turn it into a beautiful second voice.

It's perhaps inappropriate to point out at this moment that Chilton was neither the most prolific or daring of songwriters--his solo work in particular was always spotty, and the Big Star reunion record that came out a few years ago, In Space, was pretty terrible. But in a way that seemed to matter less with Chilton than it did for other artists. I would go after Mick Jagger or Pete Townshend for their lack of interest in putting out new material, but Big Star's moment in the 70s was so defined, so concrete, that I couldn't imagine anyone continuing to write that kind of music well into their 40s or 50s. Not only that: I didn't think I had the emotional facility to listen to any more of that kind of music, at least not without feeling like I was regressing severely.

Why was this? I'm not sure, but I do know that when I first started listening to #1 Record/Radio City, I would rarely make it past the first two songs "Feel" and "The Ballad of El Goodo." I trained myself to restart the CD upon hearing the first rumblings of guitar in "In The Street." For a while, I could never get past those two songs, and I wondered why this would be given the general quality of Big Star's music. Chris Bell's songs, of which "Feel" was one, were great, and in many ways Chilton improved as a musician after that first album, but I couldn't push myself to go further. For a while, those two songs were enough, in fact way more than I was capable of handling.

If you have 7:55 to spare today, I really encourage listening to those two songs in isolation, which each show Chris Bell and Alex Chilton play off the respective strength of each other. Those first descending chromatic notes of "Feel," played on both a chunky electric and (less audible) acoustic guitar, explode into a fiery miasma of bluesy apprehension, with Chilton's voice the anguished instrument overlaying the dramatic instrumentation. What comes after, however, is even more flooring in context: "Feel like I'm dying--never gonna live again." The way Chilton phrases that chorus is the rarest of things in popular music--the most articulate and yet most simple of poetry, inviting readings out of the most simple declarative sentences. I take the line "feel like I'm dying" to not have anything to do with anyone actually close to death, but rather it signifies a mental state all too familiar too anguished teens of all stripes, so unfamiliar with this new idea of having to make choices with permanent ramifications. And this is followed by the admission that the narrator is "never gonna live again," which again doesn't seem to have anything to do with death and more with the idea that we all will spend of the rest of our lives lonely, directionless, and ultimately unfulfilled. These are all sentiments that are heavily implied by an eight-word chorus. And for a teenager, it's about all you need to hear.

"The Ballad of El Goodo," on the other hand, is more specific in this regard, and yet it is somehow just as piercing as a lyrical accompaniment to the most insular among us. It begins: "Years ago my heart was set to live, whoa/I've been trying hard against unbelievable odds." It is completely unlike any opening lyric ever uttered in pop music previously--these aren't sentiments dictated by the rhythm or melody of the song, they're straight out of someone's diary. And then he follows THAT devastating remark with "It gets so hard in times like now to hold on," stretching out the penultimate word in that phrase ("hoooold on") as if he is grasping at something desperate, unattainable. The whole song functions as a series of insights almost too penetrating to bear, and all of this is in addition to a level of songcraft previously deemed impossible by any group of non-Beatles. Chilton's deft fretwork (at least I think it's Chilton) at the beginning of the track weaves its way around these insights, subtly and devastatingly highlighting the dramatic fulcrum of the song, continuing into the ether even as the rest of the band stops and starts around him. You can imagine how intensely I and many others could relate to this song. In particular, if I had had the technological capabilities, I would have spent a lot of my evenings listening to Chilton sing "hoooold on" repeatedly, on loop, accompanied by that back-and-forth high register guitar-playing.

Big Star's next two albums have moments of equal power, but for a while I saw no need to go further than those first two tracks off #1 Record. Nothing they did after, whether it be the famous "September Gurls" or even "Holocaust," had such an immediately wounding effect. And even as I am older and in nearly every way a more jaded individual than I used to be, I find it impossible to tire of those few songs. I think that every major music fan knows of about a dozen songs that become so familiar and so personal that they essentially become part of one's emotional DNA. For me, I can trace many of the best and worst decisions of my life back to my initial responses to those two seemingly innocent pop tracks.

So we can take comfort knowing, at Chilton's passing, that many others probably felt his songs even more deeply and profoundly than even I did, and I can't conceivably think of a more enduring legacy than that. Many bands have changed my life, but only Big Star managed to define the way I used to think and feel so specifically. For that, and for "Feel" and "The Ballad of El Goodo," I say this to Mr. Chilton with all the sincerity that a now-23-year-old white American male fuck-up can muster: Thank you, friend.

*I got it via Greg, actually, so thanks for that.

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