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Remembering Alex Chilton

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Scott already covered the awful news, but if anyone is worth a follow-up post, it’s Alex Chilton.  Like most of my contemporaries, I came to admire Alex Chilton through his professional admirers; and like everyone who came of age before the Internet, what I knew about him consisted of a host of believable rumors. I’ve never tried to verify those rumors, though, because it was their believability that mattered more than their truth. For example, Alex Chilton indirectly named one of the most important albums of the 1990s via the resilience of a particular lyrical gesture: the sincerely feigned grand statement. On “September Gurls,” he sings:

I  loved you, well, never mind.
I’ve been crying, all the time.

That “never mind” alerts us to the fact that the narrator is a liar, albeit a sympathetic one, because if he were actually that nonchalant he wouldn’t be “crying all the time.” Paul Westerberg picks up on the gesture on the aptly titled “Never mind,” in which he sings:

It makes no sense, to apologize.
The words, I thought, I brought, I left behind,
So, never mind.
All over but the shouting, just a waste of time.
Never mind.

Westerberg’s delivery on the second line is ambiguously clipped: he sounds like someone on the verge of tears, but the reason for them could be that he has no idea what to say; that he knows that no matter what he says, it won’t be enough; that he knew what to say, that he had the right words, but that he’s forgotten them; or many an other et cetera. More important for our purposes is what Westerberg learned from Chilton, i.e. how to turn an explicit denial of any significance into an implicit statement of maximal importance.

What looks like boilerplate passive-aggression on paper is, in “Never mind,” nothing of the sort: Westerberg shouts “never mind” like an interrupted stutterer, out of sheer frustration over his inability to articulate what he means. The result is that, as in “September Gurls,” the words intended to divest a situation of emotional import acquire the very significance their existence is intended to diminish. Which, of course, is why Kurt Cobain named Nirvana’s second album after that Mats track and penned this:

I found it hard, it’s hard to find.
Oh well, whatever, never mind.

That lyric reads like a canned slacker response to adversity, and maybe it is; but in “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the phrase appears a powerful song, so even absent any solid evidence that Cobain’s citing Westerberg citing Chilton, I could believe he was.

Such was the legend of Alex Chilton in 1991—a full year before Fantasy Records reissued #1 Record and Radio City, meaning that this is what I thought on the strength of the lyrics on the Bangles’ cover of “September Gurls” and his work with the Box Tops. I had absolutely no idea what Big Star would sound like, only that Chilton was a force worth reckoning with.

And so he was.

I’d link to some of his catalog, but I’m still having problems listening to Big Star because of the accident, and anyway, every other blog you read is linking to one of the four Big Star videos on Youtube. Which, when you think about it, is fairly incredible: when I was in high school, I was one of five people I knew who were into Big Star. There must be some powerful process of self-selection at work here, is all I can say.

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