OK, so, uh.
On St. Patrick’s Day, a rock musician and studio guru named Alex Chilton passed away at 59 from a heart attack while mowing his lawn in New Orleans. Chilton is best known to the average person as the author of the theme song to ‘That 70’s Show,’ a song called “In the Street” originally written for and recorded with his early 70s outfit Big Star. I won’t go in to detail about that part of Chilton’s career here, there’s plenty easily available elsewhere.
I was introduced to the music of this part of Chilton’s career when the long-unavailable Big Star records were released on CD in the mid-90s.
After the frustration of Big Star, Chilton turned definitively away from mainstream approaches to music, really kicking off this segment of his career with my favorite part of his work, the recording and engineering of the Cramps‘ first two records. It’s here that I first encountered his work. Throughout the eighties and early nineties, an eclectic range of artists worked with him in the studio, including, most importantly for the purposes of my little tale here, a New Orleans based band known as the Royal Pendletons.
This band was/is led by my ex-bandmates in Modock, Matt Uhlmann and Mike Hurtt.
On a visit to New Orleans I paid in 1993, Matt told me about meeting Chilton and excitedly outlined his supportive relationship with the band, including longterm loans of gear. Sadly, I did not get to meet Mr. Chilton on that visit, and I have yet to pay a return call on the Crescent City.
When I heard the news of Chilton’s passing on the evening of St. Patrick’s Day, I was quite saddened, and somewhat mystified by that. Thinking it through, it was clearly because I have developed an emotional connection to the melancholy parts of the Big Star catalog. I was cheered by some friends’ beautifully sad rendition of Nighttime, the title of this post:
As all this was passing through my internet browser, a memorial discussion was opened at Musical Family Tree by the site’s initiator, Jeb Banner. Many of my hometown cohort dropped by to leave a note.
A comment by one old friend and noticing that Mr. Chilton’s widow’s name was Laura combined overnight to make me wonder if he had married a friend of mine. Logging in to the site, I was stunned to find my tickle of curiosity completely confirmed. There’s more to the story, really a lot more, most of which I’ll never know.
I’m not really sure how to process all of this; after all, in the end, I never met the guy. But his music and his life directly impacted a passel of people around me, either as the Big Star guy or less visibly as an idiosyncratic and profoundly self-directed music producer. I guess in the end, my sense of loss about his death was more founded on direct social impact than I realized, and that has placed me into a reflective frame of mind.