Alex Chilton and the art of falling apart

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The Replacements wrote a song about Alex Chilton during the 1980s, when he was a cult figure who hadn’t quite been rediscovered yet. It reimagined Chilton as the world-conquering pop superstar he only really was at the very start of his career, and never again: ‘Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes ’round / They sing “I’m in love. What’s that song? I’m in love with that song.”‘

Chilton had his first #1 hit at the age of 16 with The Box Tops, with “The Letter,” a sneering, propulsive slab of teen pop that stands head and shoulders over a lot of its peers – seriously, look at the video above and check out the star power blooming in that kid.

He then resurfaced in the mid-70s as part of Memphis’ Big Star, one of the most influential power-pop bands of all time, crafting unforgettable anthems like “In The Street” and “September Gurls” before moving on to brittle, beautiful broken gems on the gorgeous Third/Sister-Lovers album. Big Star got ‘rediscovered’ by many of us in the 1990s through some great CD reissues, and their cult only continues to grow decades later – like the Velvet Underground, they became legends only long after they were gone. 

But after Big Star crumbled apart, Chilton’s career from the late ‘70s to his sadly early death at age 59 in 2010 was a strange hopscotch through genres, laced heavily with sardonic wit and a weird irresistible ennui. He spent the rest of his life carefully taking apart all the things he’d built up – perfect pop songs, aching singer-songwriter ballads – creating a kind of ramshackle, slacker troubadour persona where almost every song seems delivered with a wink and a mildly insincere croon. It’s the sound of irony, the art of falling apart.

Yet while I adore Chilton’s tighter, more remembered Big Star and Box Tops work, there’s a strange charm in him crashing his way through tunes like “My Baby Just Cares For Me” that I find unforgettable.  Live albums of him from the period sputter and crackle with devil-may-care slacker pop, but Chilton himself is never less than magnetic. Sometimes you feel him pushing a song just as much as he could before it broke apart. 

Alex Chilton Posed In New YorkIt wasn’t for nothing that one of his best albums is called A Man Called Destruction. He was the spirit of punk rock incarnated in a teen crooner’s body. 

The man wrote some of the great songs of the 1970s, but after that he worked as a dishwasher, a tree-trimmer, a janitor, and a wayfaring gig musician. He moved to New Orleans, where the city’s jazz added a cool, chilled-out vibe to his sound. His sporadic albums mixed loose-limbed originals like “No Sex,” “Bangkok” and “Lost My Job” with out-of-the-box covers of all kinds of ‘50s and ‘60s rarities. He called an album of covers Cliches. He called another one, um, Loose Shoes and Tight Pussy.

Sometimes Chilton could get so loose he’s practically in pieces – since his death, we’ve seen a fair bit of barrel-scraping in unreleased music come out, some of it great, some of it unlistenable. 

Do I wish Alex Chilton had written some kind of Pet Sounds-type final masterpiece that had gotten him the acclaim he deserved before the end? Yeah, sort of, but I also appreciate diving into the bits and pieces he left behind, of a man who had nothing to prove and who spent his time scribbling around in the margins and between the lines of the craft he peaked at by age 25. 

Martin Phillipps and the endless cool of The Chills

The-Chills-For-WebsiteIt all started with a few mixtapes.

mens-black-nz-music-month-2019-teeMy first exposure to New Zealand music was a high school girlfriend, who put Crowded House’s Temple Of Low Men on a tape and hit me right in the feels. My second a few years later was another mix tape, by a Kiwi I’d been pen pals with in the pre-internet days, of “Noisyland Music” that included bands with weird names like The Chills, The Clean, JPSE and The Verlaines. (Dear reader, I married said Kiwi and we’re coming up on our 20th anniversary this year, good god.) 

The Chills were the ones that hooked me. They didn’t sound quite like anything else this Mississippi college student was listening to, spooky and atmospheric and achingly pretty. “Pink Frost” bubbled through the cassette player in my battered VW Rabbit and it sounded like transmissions from another world. 

Songs like “I Love My Leather Jacket,” “Kaleidoscope World” and “Heavenly Pop Hit” were clever and catchy, soaked in that peculiar sense of isolation and grey-skies mysticism that music coming from an island on the bottom of the world has. Pre-internet, NZ could be a lonely, alternately stifling and cozy place, and The Chills more than anything caught that zeitgeist in their music. And that voice – lead singer/songwriter Martin Phillipps really was The Chills, and the gorgeous ache of his voice the heart of their songs. 

Since I heard those crackly mix tapes decades ago, I’ve moved to New Zealand, become a citizen, listened to a couple hundred NZ bands, great to awful, watched our Lorde and saviour take over the music world for a little while, and through it all I’ve always had a soft spot for The Chills. 

Last night we watched a wonderful new documentary, The Chills: The Triumph And Tragedy Of Martin Phillipps, which told of the ups and downs of this seminal NZ band, and featured both a Q&A and acoustic set by Phillipps afterwards. It was a great night, a full house of people who grew up with the Chills since their Dunedin days and those like me who stumbled across them on the other side of the world. 

The Chills story is that of a million other bands – scrappy beginning, a few minor hits, hard yards of global touring, and then swept up by a record label that doesn’t quite know what to do with them. Cue drugs, drink, label stoushes and a revolving door of more than 30 (!) band members in Phillipps’ orbit over the years. Yet the low-key charm and honesty of Phillipps and the band members keeps the film’s sadly common tale fresh. 

A diagnosis of Hepatitis C might have spelled the end of Phillipps’ story, but the marvellously intimate documentary has some surprises in store. It breezily moves back and forth between the Chills’ rise and fall and Martin Phillipps today, in his cluttered Dunedin home, navigating dreadful hospital visits and still trying to give the band another go. 

Best of all, it was great to see Phillipps after the show chatting with the crowd, happy and healthy after the wilderness years, well into his third act and keeping the Chills as mind-bogglingly cool as ever. He played “Pink Frost,” of course, in a haunting acoustic version, and as the chords warbled throughout the theatre I could close my eyes and almost imagine them playing again on that mix tape, a million years ago and 6,000 miles away. 

Review: Mavis Staples and Tami Neilson, Civic Theatre, April 23, Auckland

I’ve realised in recent years that if you have a chance to see a legend, you see the legend. I saw Prince perform just two months before he died, but I’ll always regret not seeing Leonard Cohen giving his last concert ever in Auckland or missing out on what turned out to be David Bowie’s final tour in 2004. 

mavis-tami-auckland-live-v21133x628So when soul legend Mavis Staples came to town, I made sure to be there because I didn’t want to miss what might be my only chance to see her way down here in NZ.  That may sound a bit morbid, but honestly, Mavis and outstanding opening act Tami Neilson were actually one of the most life-affirming, optimistic shows I’ve been to in ages. In a time when the news seems to bring us down almost every day, you need a little Mavis Staples singing that “love is the only transportation.”

It’s hard to sum up just how awesome Mavis Staples’ career has been. She’s been singing since 1950, when she was just 11 years old, with the family Staple Singers. She marched with Martin Luther King Jr. Bob Dylan wanted to marry her. She’s worked with everyone from Prince to Jeff Tweedy to Curtis Mayfield. Songs like “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself” are part of American history.

IMG_5784Today, Mavis Staples is a few months away from 80 years old, she’s barely five feet tall, and she was obviously nursing a sore throat, but she still tore the roof off the Civic Theatre in Auckland with her soaring voice and inspirational message. 

Backed up by a crack back-up band, for an hour or so she took us through soul and gospel history, covering Funkadelic and the Talking Heads, and hammering home her message of positivity against the odds – “Build a Bridge,” “We Get By,” “No Time For Cryin’” – it’s all about rising up and carrying on. Mavis even joked that she might run for President. I’d vote for her in a second over the current occupant. 

1528670891846Opening for Mavis was the wonderful Tami Neilson, a Canadian/New Zealander country singer I’ve been wanting to see for ages. She didn’t disappoint, nearly managing to actually upstage Mavis Staples with a rip-roaring fierce set of her rockabilly/country anthems. She’s got a stunning stage presence, all retro charm and easygoing charisma. Neilson’s got a voice like Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton had a super-charged baby and she let it tear through the Civic. Stragglers who wandered in late because they’re too cool to see an opening act were missing one of the best performances I’ve seen in ages, proud and strong and every way a match for Mavis Staples. If you don’t know Tami Neilson, check her out. I’d say she’s on her way to being a legend, too. 

Scott Walker and the art of mutation

VARIOUSThe artists I admire the most are the chameleons, the mutators and innovators, the ones who never stand still. That’s why the Beatles will always trump the Rolling Stones, David Bowie will always beat Elton John to me.

And the king of chameleons was the late Scott Walker, who flew so far ahead of the farthest stars in his strange career. 

Walker died this week at 76, and it’s been heartening to see this cult artist’s cult artist applauded and recognised from so many corners. The twists of his career outstripped almost every other pop star. “Imagine Andy Williams reinventing himself as Stockhausen,” wrote a Guardian writer a while back, and that sums it up nicely. 

Born in Ohio, Walker began as a swinging ‘60s teen pop icon with the Walker Brothers (who weren’t actually brothers), belting out classics like “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”, Scott’s uniquely evocative baritone frequently rising above the banality of their early material. 

But it’s with Walker’s solo career that he really began to find his own voice, moving to the UK and creating increasingly baroque, lonesome pop anthems in a run of four amazing albums from Scott to Scott 4. Then after a few disappointing albums, he sort of vanished. He resurfaced briefly in the late 1970s with Bowie-esque, broody gems like “The Electrician” and then vanished again, releasing only two proper albums between 1978 and 2006. Each time he came back, it was as a different being. 

Scott-Walker-4AD-press-shot-web-optimised-1000-CREDIT-Jamie-HawkesworthBy 2006’s The Drift, Walker had exploded into full-on experimental surrealism, with terrifying drones and waves of sound and a voice that now sounded like the heavens shaking themselves awake. There were no pop anthems here. Legendarily, he hunted for just the right percussion sound on “The Drift” by punching hunks of raw meat. It wasn’t for everyone – indeed, you’ve really got to be in the proper frame of mind for late Scott Walker – but it was a gloriously creative twilight zone he was exploring in. His lyrics became twisted and strange Joycean rambles, his songs willfully avoiding traditional structures.

Imagine William S. Burroughs if he’d been a composer to fully get the clattering, obscure and layered effect of works like The Drift or 2012’s Bish Bosch. Yet there was always a hint of the yearning heartbroken pop singer of his earliest work there in the shadows too, the through line of a career so wilfully independent that a novice would be hard pressed to recognise the work of 1967 Scott Walker and 2016 Scott Walker as being by the same creative, haunting voice. 

Here are four songs to remember him by, each showing a different facet of his yearning sound: (1. The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore, orchestral pop given a strange, epic sheen by his young yet ancient voice:

(2. His debauched and ecstatic cover of Jacques Brel’s Jacky, as subversive as all get out. Glam rock starts here. 

(3. Nite Flights, sinuous Bowie-esque glamour incarnate from the 1978 Walker Brothers reunion:

(4. Finally, Epizootics!, to give you a taste of just how out-there late-period Walker circa 2012’s Bish Bosch had gotten – stick with it, it’s got a groove that hypnotizes you and this video is like David Lynch’s nightmares unfolding. It’ll either grab you right in the spleen or repulse you deep in places you might not even know you had. How could these four songs be by the same man? It’s a fitting coda to Walker’s career for me – taking you places nobody else could. 

In defence of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’

1308227299001_5810993950001_5810990937001-vsReal talk: I liked Bohemian Rhapsody quite a lot. 

Is is the Best Picture of 2018? Hardly – I’d pick BlackKklansman or possibly The Favourite over it any day.

But in this era where there’s often no shades of grey in debate, Rhapsody sure has come under an awful lot of fire by the critical class – who are probably spitting bullets that it won four Academy Awards (more than any other movie this year) and has grossed US$214 million, becoming the biggest biopic of all time. 

“Rhapsody” isn’t a perfect movie, but it’s a rousing entertainment that superbly speaks to the American Dream, circa 2019 – which is, simply, getting famous. Every other person wants to be a star, whether it’s on Instagram or YouTube, and Freddie Mercury’s story hits a chord with them. Farrokh Bulsara, a native of Zanzibar, reinvented himself as a star. 

I remember Freddie Mercury’s death, in 1991, which seems a million years ago now. I’d never have thought we’d still be talking about him quite so much in 2019, but when he died, there was an outpouring of Queen tributes and the songs were inescapable (thank you, Wayne’s World). Mercury’s AIDS-related death at just 45 is a key reason for the ongoing posthumous fame – there’s few more inescapable storylines that run through the annals of rock history than dying young. 

queenQueen are a band critics loved to hate. “Lyrically, Queen’s songs manage to be pretentious and irrelevant,” The New York Times wrote in 1978. Rolling Stone’s Dave Marsh actually called them “the first truly fascist rock band,” which, wow, is not a piece of criticism that’s aged well. 

I wouldn’t call Queen my favourite band by any means, but I appreciate a lot of their work, their raucous anthems and their sprawling eclecticism. Queen didn’t take themselves that seriously – an awful lot of their songs sound like band in-jokes – but they hit on one of the key qualities for rock’n’roll success, the marriage of the sublime and the absurd. There’s few songs more ridiculous than “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but dammit if Mercury’s aching solo verses don’t get me every time. 

Bohemian Rhapsody, penned by Kiwi screenwriter Anthony McCarten, has come under fire for historically fudging the facts. No, Mercury didn’t tell the band he had AIDS before Live Aid. No, the band didn’t break up before that concert. But I’d argue that the biopic as a genre has never been about 100% historical accuracy – look at Amadeus, another Oscar-winning musical which portrayed Mozart and Salieri as mortal enemies, which they weren’t in real life. The biopic tells a story, using history, but it isn’t history. 

McCarten’s screenplay does what it can with Mercury’s complicated sexuality – Mary Austin was indeed the ‘love of his life,’ but Mercury was also gay. He also was extremely private and didn’t reveal his AIDS diagnosis until the day before he died, so the movie’s sometimes cagey take on his private life echoes Mercury’s own.

I wouldn’t argue that Bohemian Rhapsody is fundamentally flawed because it stretches facts, like most other biopics have. There’s a divide in watching it between the head and the heart. My head saw some pretty darned clunky lines and a lot of Rock Movie 101 cliches, but my gut was swayed by Queen’s absurdly catchy songs, Rami Malek’s outstanding performance and that go-for-broke Live Aid show climax which is every fame-chaser’s dream of acceptance. 

PRY8WA-920x584It’s a very simple story of a band that came from nothing and made it big, which has its DNA all over every single reality TV show millions watch every single week. Rhapsody works for many because it speaks to the weirdos and the oddballs, to that dream of getting famous. Everybody wants to be something. It’s no wonder it’s a global hit. 

Look at me, who they once called the gay “Paki” boy with funny teeth, with thousands screaming my name.

Look at me. Aren’t I beautiful? Don’t you want to be me? 

That’s So ’90s Week: The day Kurt died

January 2019: …Let’s wrap up That’s So ’90s Week here on the blog with a multiple-flashback-approach. Here’s a newspaper column I wrote in April 1999, on the fifth anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, trying to make sense of that moment in time. Revisiting my words now in 2019, nearly 25 years on (!) after Kurt’s death, it’s a weird echoing effect indeed. A reminder that something sad never quite leaves your brain, that few moments are ever completely one thing. It’s one of my favorite of the couple hundred columns I wrote, back when there were newspaper columns. 

kurtcobain06

April 1999: Five years ago now.

Few people noticed it and few comments were made in the news about it, but Friday was the fifth anniversary of the day Kurt Cobain died. The lead singer of the grunge rock band Nirvana took his own life with a shotgun in an apartment in Seattle five years ago.

In his suicide note, Cobain quoted Neil Young’s lyric about how it’s better to burn out quickly than fade away.

The thing no one told Kurt is that everyone fades, in fact and in memory.

A lot of you out there could probably give two tosses for Kurt Cobain’s sorry fate. Just another screwed-up junkie musician.

But I cared about him then and I care about him now, in the strange way you can care for someone you’ve never met who touched your life with their work – the way I care about, say, John Updike or George Lucas or Michael Stipe. It’s an abstract emotion but that makes it no less real.

A song can capture a moment forever. I hear “Pretty In Pink” by O.M.D. and I’m 15 again, instantly. The Velvet Underground always conjures up drunken all-night college parties, me leaning with my head up against the speaker.

And Nirvana. Nirvana was the music I listened to when I drove, loud clashing and screaming about the world. The music spoke of the underbelly of life, the flesh-rendering pain love can cause, the numbness a life can slip into, potential wasted. It was the music for me, then, the person I was then.

Strangely, the day Kurt Cobain died was one of the finest days I had ever known.

That morning, I had found out that I was the recipient of a summer internship with Billboard magazine in New York City.

I’d won out over dozens of other journalism students from around the country, and I’d spend the summer working for one of the biggest music magazines in the world, in the heart of the Big Apple. It was all too good to be true, and the world itself seemed to blossom and spread around me, acres of possibility and potential flowering.

I decided to drive home, from college in Mississippi up to Memphis to tell my parents the good news. I turned on the radio, and they were playing Nirvana, “Come As You Are,” and I began humming along. The song ended, and I heard the DJ say something about “the late Kurt Cobain.” My heart skipped the tiniest bit, the way it always does when you first hear bad news.

I gleaned the rest of the details over the next few minutes. Found in Seattle. Suicide. A shotgun. Heroin problems.

Kurt Cobain was dead.

It was a black spot, a small black spot on an otherwise pristine day.

I drove around Memphis that sunny April afternoon for a good while, playing the tape of Nirvana’s In Utero album I’d kept in the car and thinking what I considered mighty deep philosophical thoughts about life, the universe and everything, about how maybe only a razor’s edge of choice and circumstance separates the cocky college kid from the rock star with a shotgun in his mouth.

The sun splintered jewels of light into the car as I drove, pinballing between highs and lows.

I felt insanely happy one second – I was bound for New York City, where all things begin, where I could be anything! – and terribly apprehensive the next – New York alone, I was only 22, what would happen to me there?

The black spot on the day sat there, too, imprinting on the back of my brain a vague terror of demons unseen, unknowable.

Photo of Kurt COBAIN and NIRVANA

“What else should I be? All apologies… What else could I say… everyone is gay… What else could I write… I don’t have the right… What else should I be? All apologies…”

—Kurt Cobain, 1967-1994

Yeah, he was a junkie. He was a self-proclaimed screwed-up loser who felt he didn’t deserve half of the adulation and acclaim given him during his short, sad life.

Kurt Cobain was not the nicest guy, and his music reflected that – the burnt-throat garglings of someone who would wake up some mornings with absolutely no idea of why he was here or what the point of it all was.

His screams and fractured musical chords tried to make some sense of that chaos. I would not wish his life on me or anyone, but what he said to me with his music made a difference to me, then, and when I listen to it now it still resonates.

I wrote a column, back then in spring 1994, about Kurt Cobain’s death.

I wrote: “I know there were others out there who gladly drank in Nirvana’s music, their corrosive rage and pain, and who saw Cobain as another scared, angry kid like themselves. Cobain’s music didn’t appeal to everyone: it was probably just scary noise to a lot of you reading this. But to me, there was something that could seem so very eloquent about a scream. Nirvana’s music could be beautiful in its ugliness.”

Kurt Cobain’s music came from pain. But in some way, the raw abrasiveness of it all was a healing salve to me. Ugly and beautiful, now strange and gone with no more to come from that dark and gifted place in Kurt Cobain’s heart.

It was a beautiful day there, driving around Memphis five years ago. That little black spot that was Kurt Cobain’s end… perhaps it made the air and sunlight seem sweeter still.

Another fine singer who is a favourite of mine put it best, perhaps, in a song of his own:

“There’s a bit of magic in everything, And some loss to even things out.”

–Lou Reed, “Magic & Loss”

Photo of Kurt COBAIN and NIRVANA

 

Year in Review: My top 10 pop-culture moments of 2018

I’ve always dug the year-in-review lists, but I’m kind of an old dude now, and I couldn’t tell you 10 albums that came out in 2018 that I dug and I’m usually about 6 months behind on the streaming thing everyone is talking about.

So instead, here’s 10 moments in pop culture that made my year – whether it’s something new to everyone, or something old and glorious I discovered for myself this year. Because frankly, there’s a heck of a lot of great things in the past that are often way more interesting than whatever is flitting through the world this week. 

InfinityWar5a4bb0e7cdea1.0Superheroic golden age: Every once in a while I think how 13-year-old me would’ve reeled at the idea of a new big-budget superhero movie or TV show every few months. I pretty much dug them all in various ways and all the comic book moments they brought to life — Avengers: Infinity War somehow magically capturing Jim Starlin’s complicated villain Thanos without him seeming absurd; Black Panther’s Shakespearean grandeur, as the king returns to take his crown; the gleefully over-the-top Aquaman, with a pitch-perfect Black Manta/Aquaman battle that had me grinning like a loon; the fantastic third season of Daredevil bringing Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk’s battle to a climax; Ant-Man and the Wasp turning San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf into a size-changing playground. (And I’m still waiting for Into The Spider-Verse to open in New Zealand!)

Orson Welles lives: Who woulda thought we’d see a “new” Welles film 30+ years after his death? I loved The Other Side of the Wind, which was sprawling, chaotic and fragmented like much of Welles’ final work. By its very nature incomplete, it still evoked a dying world of Hollywood legends and graced us with a few more of Welles’ picture-perfect screen compositions. 

Lady Bird: Technically this came out in 2017, but this smart, witty and surprising comedy about a girl’s coming of age in Sacramento is one of the best films I’ve seen in years, with Greta Gerwig building on the promise she’d shown with Frances Ha and other movies. 

robin williams biography main-min“Robin” by Dave Itzkoff: Robin Williams was a remarkable talent who battled addiction and tragedy much of his life. Schlock like Patch Adams made us forget how amazing he could be; this definitive biography brings him back to life and reminds us of what we lost. 

Immortal Hulk: The Hulk is Marvel’s endlessly protean creation, who’s been reconfigured and reimagined dozens of times over the years. This current take by Al Ewing is a moody horror epic that’s creepily unforgettable and shows the Hulk can still surprise after over 50 years. 

John Coltrane: Yep, the man’s been dead for 51 years, but like the best of artists, his work is still capable of endless surprises. I watched the terrific documentary Chasing Trane this year and have been diving into many of Coltrane’s squawkier, chaotic later albums like the superb Sun Ship. It’s not music for every mood, but when it works, peak Coltrane is like watching the sky split open and unfold itself. 

“Leonardo Da Vinci” by Walter Isaacson: A biography that truly reveals an entire world, with fascinating focus on how exactly Da Vinci created his masterpieces, and the world he lived in. Made me want to zip off to Europe to see the works in person. 

Ron-Stallworth-and-Patrice-in-BlacKkKlansmanBlack entertainment: They’ve all got ‘black’ in the name and they all provided strong, uplifting portrayals of the African-American experience – Black Panther, which broke a zillion box office records along the way; Black Lightning, which took a lesser-known DC superhero and gave us one of the realest portrayals of a strong black family on TV in ages; BlacKkKlansman, which was Spike Lee’s strongest movie in years, as feisty, creative and witty as “Do The Right Thing.”  

Let’s go to a gig: I saw some great concerts this year, from Grace Jones’ imperial grandeur at Auckland City Limits to what might’ve been legendary Bob Dylan’s final concert in New Zealand (and the best show I’ve seen from him yet) to cool and somewhat retro gigs by Peter Murphy of Bauhaus, Billy Bragg and the Breeders. Great times all. 

Universal horror: The best thrills are often the old ones. As I battled a variety of health and personal setbacks this year, somehow I got the most comfort from flickering black and white images of horror and mystery. I’ve always loved the old Universal horror movies of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, and rarely a week went by where I didn’t resurrect Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi or Lon Chaney for a bit of spooky pleasure. The immortal ones never really die, you know.