free again

alex

What do I know about this album? Not much. I just listened to it for the first time today.

I know that Alex Chilton, after leaving the Box Tops in late 1969, moved back to his hometown of Memphis and started recording his own songs (not the ones hand-picked for him by his Box Tops producers), at Ardent Studios, the same studio that would record and release Big Star’s #1 Record in 1973. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves just a little bit.

In 1970, Big Star hadn’t even been formed yet. I don’t know all the facts, but my guess is Alex hadn’t even met Chris Bell or Jody Stephens or Andy Hummel. He was already a seasoned music industry veteran at 19 years old, finally free of his obligations to be a hitmaker, but ready to try something new. He enlisted John Fry (Ardent’s founder and producer-to-be for #1 Record and 1974’s follow-up, Radio City) and engineer Terry Manning to helm the sessions.

Listening to this album now, which wasn’t released by Ardent until 1996 and then reissued by Omnivore in 2012, it’s hard to believe it was recorded one year after Woodstock. The vibe is loose and playful, but full of swagger. Chilton’s legendary twin gifts, genius and ambivalence, are in full view. Here he most closely resembles his heir, Paul Westerberg, also an incredibly gifted but legendarily lazy songwriter who nevertheless wrote one of the greatest rock peans of all time. Laurel Canyon-esque melodies sidle up to grungy, sloppy covers, while pop gems and soulful ballads lurk in between the grooves. Chilton moves easily, almost too easily, between Gram Parsons-style country rock and pre-Ramones punk.

To this writer, the real hidden treasure is “The EMI Song (Smile For Me).” A plaintive opening lyric gives way to a driving piano riff that would make Leon Russell smile. And on the Omnivore reissue, we get to hear it twice, in its finished version and in an alternate, mono mix. Both versions rock. Then, highlighting his chimerical spirit, he sings a raunchy blues rip-off, “All I Really Want Is Money.” These two songs, side by side, one achingly beautiful and the other crass and seemingly tossed off after a day-long drunk, encapsulate Chilton’s entire career in less than eight minutes.

The weird and wonderful thing about music like this is that, like a book or a painting or a poem, once it leaves the creator’s hands, it becomes ours. I’m hearing this record for the first time today 43 years after it was recorded. I would have been three at the time. Even so, it sat in a Memphis vault for 26 years before it even saw the light of day. If anything, it shows that our personal musical history, the one we take for granted, is only a small fraction of what it might have been. Millions of parallel universes exist. We might not hear the soundtrack of our adolescence until 20 years after it was put down on tape.

I don’t know much else about this album and frankly, I don’t want to know. There’s Pitchfork and Wikipedia for that. All I do know is that this album moves me. I listened to it on the way out to my favorite swimming hole tonight. I parked by the side of the road at dusk and hiked a pine needle-strewn path through the woods until I got to a quiet secluded spot, stripped off my sweaty, ash-encrusted landscaping clothes, and eased myself into the water. I heard distant voices across the pond, but saw no one. The sun was setting and the water was silky and luxurious against my skin. It washed the dirt, and the day’s cares, away.

I know Alex Chilton had no idea that this is what his album would be used for. He gave it to us and now we run with it, letting it take us to the swimming holes or the dive bars or the honky-tonk joints or the deserted football fields at night where we drink beer while the cop cars drive by in the distance and we laugh and crank the Stones even louder. It’s truth and fantasy at the same time. Our birth and death. Our childhood and old age, two conflicting ideas, held in our minds at exactly the same time. It’s impossible, they say. I say: not so. We are dying and living, drowning and swimming, and music is our steady girlfriend or boyfriend through it all. But Alex doesn’t know this. He’s just a kid in a Memphis studio. How can he know?

I see him on the cover above, backlit against the window of somebody’s mansion (his mansion?), giving him the appearance of a cigarette-smoking angel in a white shirt and bell-bottom jeans (which, in my opinion, is what all angels should look like and would make me believe in God again). And just look at that long hair. Hair I’m trying to grow right now but will probably have to cut off before I get fired. Like his hair, this much awesomeness and sublime beauty is almost too much to bear.

And I’m in love. With that song.

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