Alex Chilton died. He was 59 and, though I don’t own a single Big Star album and only know a handful of his songs, his passing makes me sad. It’s mainly down to the brilliance of one song, Thirteen, written with Chris Bell. I’ve yet to hear a better encapsulation of first love mixed up with puberty, emotional immaturity, confusion and fear. It’s a piece of inspired songwriting and Chilton conjures up the angst of those teenage years with amazing precision. We forget what being a teenager is like, often for good reason, but a quick listen to this song and, for better or worse, you’re back there.
Chilton tasted success early, topping the American charts in 1967 when he was only 16 years old and singing with the The Box Tops. Their song, The Letter, reached number one, but after forming Big Star in the early 70’s his commercial success waned. His music seemed to have the potential to reach a wider audience, but he was destined to be one of those artists name checked and respected by famous musicians, but unable to reach the same heights. He’s been covered and and cited as an influence by Teenage Fanclub, Wilco, REM, Matthew Sweet, Afghan Whigs, Billy Bragg, Elliott Smith and Primal Scream.
In a 1987 interview Chilton offered up this view on his cult status:
“Fame has a lot of baggage to carry around. I wouldn’t want to be like Bruce Springsteen. I don’t need that much money and wouldn’t want to have 20 bodyguards following me.”
To me, there’s no doubt that Chilton was capable of writing songs that could transcend their indie roots and become pop songs, but whether he wanted to is another question. He lived through commercial success and indie obscurity and continued to carve out his own niche, producing quality music right up until his passing. He may not have shifted truckloads of CD’s and filled stadiums, but his work eventually found an audience.
Also, seek out September Gurls (sic) and The Ballad Of El Goodo, if this post catches your interest. Here’s the demo version of Thirteen. It’s a little more intimate and hissy than the Big Star version; I prefer it.