When I went to college and worked for WONC, the radio station there, many things happened to me musically. I learned about all sorts of music and I gained friendships to last a lifetime. “Alternative” was still relevant as a music term — it meant something, even though if you looked at the music it referenced, it covered all sorts of genres and artists.
All sorts of holes in my musical history books were filled in and expanded; where my father had left me with a vast knowledge of all things oldies station and my mother was 70s FM, I had managed to soak up all things from the top 40s radio of the 1980s. But all classic rock, new wave, punk, indie rock, folk, bluegrass, rap, and pretty much anything that didn’t fall within those first three categories were left off my radar completely.
I had so much to learn. Squeeze, XTC, Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, ELO, Brian Wilson, Neil Young, The Rolling Stones deep cuts, The Velvet Underground, David Bowie, Van Morrison, Dire Straits, Material Issue, Toad the Wet Sprocket, 10,000 Maniacs, most of R.E.M., Indigo Girls, Del Amitri, Fountains of Wayne, Shawn Colvin, Soup Dragons, Teenage Fanclub, Uncle Tupelo, Bob Mould, The Replacements, The Posies, Trip Shakespeare, Jellyfish, Nirvana, Dada, James, Lemonheads, Nine Inch Nails, King Missile, Sonic Youth, Jane’s Addiction, The Raspberries, The Byrds … the list goes on and on and on and on ….
There was a band I had never heard of before. Big Star. Apparently, they were very influential to so many other bands I liked and respected. How could this be? I had never, ever heard of this band. I started to listen and I really liked them. There was something soft and compelling about them. I couldn’t quite say what it was, but I knew that “The Ballad of El Goodo” just floored me every time. I just wanted to sit in the studio and turn the speakers up as loud as I could. And cry somehow, even though I didn’t know why.
Later on, as years went by, it turned out that Big Star had “reunited” as such. The Posies, another band I learned about and loved from back in college, was touring with Alex Chilton, the lead singer (who also had a song written about him by The Replacements), and they were coming to (Cabaret) Metro. Would we be there? Of course we would.
My friends, Shawn and Ryan, and I got tickets and went to the show. We were standing front row. They had told me that Alex could be unpredictable; that he was known to be moody and sullen sometimes on stage, and other times he was magnanimous and a gracious host. I was trying not to have high expectations; from they way they made it seem, he was often more burdened by the resentment of a career that was more critically acclaimed than materially successful, and although I didn’t want him to come off as bitter or unhappy, who was I to judge these secret wishes or someone else’s dark days?
As is often the case, I had no idea who the opening band was or what to expect. Again, it’s often better to have no expectations and to hope for the medium and go from there. The opening band, Frisbie, walked out in matching outfits, ala the Beatles, and I was immediately taken. This was a good sign. They started up and I was set adrift in a sea of power pop — jingly jangly and harmonies galore. Their keyboard player would pick up a trumpet and accompany them w/a horn, and between that and the two lead vocalists (one successfully becoming “Paul” and one successfully becoming “John”), I was sold. Fangirl. I was dedicated to seeing them whenever and wherever they played next.
And so it would go for at least the next seven years. Little did I know the things I would see and hear over those years. How I would become friends with that band. How I would see them rise and fall and break up and come together. How I would see them suffer at the hands of mental illness and how I would also suffer at the hands of my own. They would get married and some would get divorced. They would have children; I would get sober. They would lose friends and so would I. They would make new ones and so would I. There was no way to say that moment in time would mark the beginning of an era. There never is — history is only known from the future and hindsight always and only becomes clearer as you walk away from it.
Frisbie ended with a perfect cacophony in their song “Mourning Machines,” and I can say for one, that I was blissfully stunned. And I don’t remember what happened after that except for Big Star was wonderful. Alex was fine. He was superb. He wasn’t upset or sarcastic or moody. He played songs and sang and I was so happy to be there. I couldn’t quite believe it.
Just like yesterday — I couldn’t quite believe it. Alex Chilton was dead? I saw on Twitter a reference to a Big Star song and made a comment not knowing what the Tweet was referencing. For some reason, I went to that person’s page to read more of his tweets and saw the news. It was like someone had shoved me back into the couch. I was so sad. I was so, so, so sad. I went and played “The Ballad of El Goodo” and cried some.
I normally am not a person who cries at celebrity (was Alex Chilton a celebrity?) deaths. It seems weird and trite and strange. I didn’t know him. I never met him. I didn’t have …. but I DID have a personal connection with him. He might not have had one with *me,* but I most certainly did have a personal connection with him. I have memories that are associated with his music and they evoke very strong emotions. I have people and places and things that wouldn’t be in my life if it weren’t for going to see him perform. I have an era of my life that I associate with getting to know him.
It seems so sudden. Maybe that’s the best way. Maybe now he can stop “trying hard against unbelievable odds …” Godspeed, Alex. Godspeed.