Friday, February 11, 2011

A Man Called Destruction AKA The Tortured Genius of Alex Chilton

Hey baby in the 1980s
Baby Doc brought it up from Haiti
Can’t get it on
Or even get high
C’mon Baby, fuck me and die

And he speaks to our worst, on the down low fears with :

I worry about the future
Junky blood is gonna pollute you
Pretty soon we’re all gonna get it
It’s time to buy some stuff on credit
No Sex

But the unrealized genius of No Sex is only part of the problem. I’m really trying to understand the almost lost art of creating and performing original rock n’ roll music. 30 years ago Greg Shaw (BOMP Records) wrote that live original music was becoming cultish and that the mass appeal of rock music had declined, just as did with Big Band, Blues and Jazz.
For every time there is a season, and now rock ‘n roll sits on a shelf in Cleveland, like a dusty artifact in a museum to be gawked at wearily and half bored like middle school kids on a class trip not wanting to go and caring less about rock and roll music when they could free-rap like Robert Johnson riffin’ with the Devil at the crossroads. But it’s tight to mug with Aguilara’s tiny stage dress and wonder what it might be like with someone like her – sex is always part of it. But the exhibit conveys little of the energy and sexual tension of the music - it’s all too…perfect. Music was never intended to be perfect or to be put on the shelf. Doesn’t matter if it is blues, jazz or gospel, the medium is the message and the message is steamy, slicked back, all wet and swampy. Just ask Charles Fountain from the Blind Boys of Alabama. Back in the day when he was just a pup, in some little backwoods town in Mississippi or Alabama, a grandma would come to the revival and bring him back home to her 15 year-old granddaughter. You didn’t know exactly what to expect - until she made a move. And she always made a move. It was kept quiet yet it was known to all the gospel performers. One show after another – it was hard to call upon real emotion…every time, after all its just business -maybe a little comfort would do. But for grandma it was real, it was all about experiencing the truth – the Holy Ghost. Lawd have mercy, let God’s will be done!

Maybe that’s why I dig Alex Chilton…he sifts through the bullshit and tells it like it is – while speaking in tongues. His gospel is at once exhilarating and infuriating. I don’t really understand his point of view yet I seem to “get it” intuitively. Which brings us to the best record I’ve heard in 2007: Alex Chilton – Live in London. Only problem is it was recorded in 1980 and it was thought to be so criminally bad that it wasn’t released until 1982. I absolutely love it. And I can’t stop playing it. If I go a day without it, I become anxious and shaky and I lose control of all bodily functions. Call me crazy for my cultish devotion to Chilton’s Dadaism. Chilton no doubt is a “doomed artist on a collision course to hell” why else would he record such a mess as Live in London and then decide to release it. In turn it’s both invigorating (the glorious Rock Hard) and irritating (the drizzle and sludge of No More the Moon Shines on Lorena). His early success is covered by a punked-up and sloppy version of The Letter – perfect. This may be the spit-in-the-face to the suits that controlled every aspect of the Box Tops career. Chilton was only 16 at the time. In a later interview, he referred to the experience as “scummy”. The disc opens with a dusky slowed down version of the decadent punk classic Bangkok –

Two slanty-eyed men lying in bed
one got his mauser, the other said

Making love the Japanese way
I learned aggressively in Hong Kong

In rapid succession the Chilton gospel comes alive with energetic versions of Big Star’s “In the Street” followed by solo gems such as the astonishing,sonic perfection of “Hey Little Child”, the testosterone fueled, tongue in cheek “Rock Hard” and the hilarious My Rival. Chilton’s guitar work is supremely sloppy and iconoclastic. This cat just flat out plays his ass off. He’s a masterful guitarist that eschews technique for sound and feel. Nighttime (from Big Star3) is a Lennon-esque minimalist masterpiece about pain and longing. Chilton digs down into his early Memphis roots and dusts off a coupla gems in masterful fashion -Train Kept a Rollin’ is better than the Yardbirds version and has a heavy rockabilly sound that rivals the Johnny Burnette’s original and Alligator Man takes us way back to an eccentric Cajun folklore. Big Star’s pop masterpiece September Gurls gets an undeserved hurried and somewhat disappointing treatment. And though the Panther Burns’ juiced and ready “Stranded on a Dateless Night” is a pop rock gem the disc closes with the out of place yet almost charming Carter Family oldie “No More the Moon Shines on Lorena”. What was Alex thinking…did he purposely set out to piss off his well-bred British fans – or was he giving them an education? What more can we expect of a man called Destruction?

Bo White

Epilogue: Alex Chilton continued to evolve as an artist after moving to New Orleans in the eighties. He dropped out of the music business for six months after the poor reception of his Live in London CD, working as a dishwasher and a tree trimmer. In due time he was back performing and recording obscure yet phenomenal musical gems in a series of EPs that included Feudalist Tarts, No Sex and Black List. His association with New Orleans’ led him to a more restrained cool-jazz approach to his craft and his incredible guitar technique continued to expand and evolve. New York punk mavens, The Replacements, wrote and recorded a song in his honor entitled, Alex Chilton, of all things - go figure. Chilton released Live in Anvers in 2004. Reviews suggest it is a typical Chilton show, solid and professional with good singin' and good playin'. It should also be noted that Chilton was still living in New Orleans during the Katrina debacle and experienced some harrowing moments before he was rescued and brought to safety. Alex Chilton is a survivor.
If you want to learn more about Alex Chilton and the golden era of Memphis music and culture, pick up Robert Gordon's remarkable no-holds-barred chronicle It Came From Memphis.

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