Alex Chilton: 1975-1981
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“The gigs themselves were kind of dark,” Windsor says. “There was quite a lot of expectation, but they weren’t that well attended.
“It was a bit scary to be on stage with Alex Chilton,” Windsor continues. “I was a huge Big Star fan, but it wasn’t Big Star. It wasn’t that big, jangly, beautiful melodic thing. He’d gone right back to basics. He wanted it pretty primal… I remember friends coming along saying they were a bit shocked by how grungy it was. I think they were expecting the Byrds with a bit of punk attitude thrown in, but it wasn’t really. It was much more mysterious.”
Naturally, the album received the gamut of responses. Ric Menck, Matthew Sweet’s frequent drummer, told Windsor that it was one of his all-time favorite records. The web site allmusic.com calls it “shambolic and listless,” capturing Chilton “at his weakest.” Christgau didn’t review it.
When Chilton flew back to the States, he returned to playing with the Panther Burns. One night in late 1980, the Panther Burns played a show at Danceteria in New York as the opening act for new-wave artist Joe “King” Carrasco. Music historian Robert Palmer sat in with them on clarinet that night, playing, as Falco says, in his unique style. “He was completely atonal, beyond Eric Dolphy, complete squawking. [The booker] came backstage after the show and said, ‘That’s the worst godawful mess I’ve ever heard in my life, man, but there’s somebody here that wants to talk to you about making a record. Should I let him back here?’ But before he could let him in, Alex tore into [the booker] in such a verbal tirade. It was breathtaking. ‘Who are you to make any kind of judgment whatsoever about music, period? You’re just booking this joint, and you think you know? You have no idea.’ Anyway, [the guy] came back and said, ‘I’d like to do a record,’ and he put up the bread for an album.”
“Alex was a very, very nice guy most of the time, if you didn’t cross him or try to use him,” Johnson says. “But if you did, he had this Cheshire Cat smile. It was a smile you didn’t want to see. And he’d say something cruel and biting. Alex was a master of that. He had a real acid tongue. You ran out of the room to avoid that.”
The acid tongue could have had something to do with Chilton’s own artistic impatience. You could feel it rising to the surface. He’d been playing with the Panther Burns for almost two years now. He must have been asking himself what further depths of aural challenge he could present to his audience—and himself.
Back at the Well one night around this time, he saw local act the Randy Band play. “I was playing drums,” Jim Duckworth says. “The Randy Band got good and drunk about three-quarters of the way through their show, and the singer turned around and said, ‘You play guitar.’ I said, ‘I can’t. I’ve been playing drums all night.’ He says, “Well, then I quit.’ So I had to get up there and play guitar. Apparently, Chilton thought this was pretty good He sent a female up to me [after the show], and she said, ‘Alex says you’re a good drummer.’ I ended up meeting him, talking to him, seeing him around, drinking with him a lot.”
A few months later, at Miss Kitty’s, a Midtown bar, Chilton brought in Duckworth to audition with the Panther Burns. “I was playing drums, and Alex looks over at me. He’s playing guitar. He plays this melody one half step sharp, which sounds really discordant and wild. And he’s smiling like the fuckin’ Cheshire Cat while he did it. I’ll remember that all my life. It was wild, it was beautiful. I mean, his concept was deep, in my opinion. He was fucking it up, is how I would’ve thought of it back then in my crude, less-educated fashion.”
Before the band went into the studio, Chilton fired Johnson from the band, “for drinking or something,” Johnson says. “Big mistake by Alex,” Falco says. “He felt Ross was not, how shall we say, fit for a recording session.” But Chilton may have had other ideas in mind. Duckworth played a few shows as the drummer, but in no time at all, he and Chilton were trading off on drums and guitar.
That summer, they went into Ardent Studios, where, Falco says, “we got with an engineer we thought we could bulldoze into letting us be ourselves. Before he knew what was happening, we were in there and out of there with the Panther Burns sound. We went in there and in six hours we recorded the album.” Chilton had spent four days recording the Singer Not the Song EP and three days doing Like Flies on Sherbert. Even for Chilton, six hours was an impressive feat.
The record that came of the Ardent sessions is called Behind the Magnolia Curtain. “What you have there that appeals to sensibilities of certain music lovers,” Falco says diplomatically, “is the fact that you have guitarists playing the drums. That always imparts a special sound which is a pretty good sound actually. You get a special approach, an attack. You also get a special groove out of that. I really like the way Alex plays the drums. But as critical as he is of drummers’ grooves, his groove is totally out the window on drums.”
To give the recording an imprint of its own, Falco brought in the Tate County, Mississippi Drum Corps marching band to play on four tracks. One of those was “Bourgeois Blues”, the same number that Falco did at the Orpheum show two years earlier. David Evans, the musicologist, came with them, and, Duckworth says, laughing, “I guess he felt like he had to be their interpreter for us. ‘They say they want some whiskey.’ There were three of them. ‘They say they want some chicken.’ We played drums together. They lined up facing me. We were in the middle of the studio. It was insane coming through the headphones. Of course, we’d never done it before like that, never did it again. All the cymbals you hear would be me. I’m bass, snare, and cymbals. They’re two snares and a bass drum. When we’re warming up, Jessie Mae Hemphill [one of the drummers] said, ‘It sounds like Africa.’ It was beautiful.” Over the top of it all, Chilton’s guitar transitioned seamlessly from fluidity to futility. “The engineer at Ardent,” Duckworth continues, “Gus was asking him something, and the guy finally said, ‘Look, if you’re asking me if I like it, I don’t!’ He hated it!”
The album has vicious renditions of Asie Payton’s “Blind Man” and rockabilly artist Cordell Jackson’s “She’s the One That’s Got It”, and includes a total of 14 covers, which Interview magazine said the band filled “with wild life.” The Commercial Appeal said the record “captures the untamed fire of Panther Burns.” The Village Voice’s John Morthland recommended it, not as highly as he did Grandmaster Flash’s “It’s Nasty” but just above Joan Jett’s I Love Rock N’ Roll.
Having possibly taken his aesthetic as far as it could go, Chilton didn’t stay with the Panther Burns for long after they finished recording. Later that summer, he put together a band for a month-long solo tour of the eastern half of the US. As usual, things didn’t go exactly as planned. “I was going to play guitar, and he was just going to sing,” Duckworth says. “Initially, it was supposed to be a relatively large ensemble. It was supposed to be a keyboard player, who also had the vehicle that was going to take us around. He was going to drive and play keyboards. And there was another guitar player we were supposed to pick up in New York. The night before we left, Chilton and the bass player were in a bar with the keyboardist playing pool and drinking, and apparently Chilton picked a fight with the keyboardist. I don’t think it got physical, but it ended up with him neither driving nor playing keyboards. So we rented a car and drove to New York. We played one show in New York. It was a short show, and it was loose, man, it was rough. It was that loose rockabilly shit where he was doing ‘Blind Man’ and [rockabilly singer Dorsey Burnette’s] ‘Bertha Lou’ and [Johnny Mathis’s] ‘Chances Are’, but the way we played that was fucked up. The other guitar player quit after that first show. So it ended up being me, bass, and drums.”
By the time Chilton returned to Memphis that fall, he’d had enough of playing music altogether. He moved to New Orleans the following year, and didn’t resurface on the music scene for some time. When he did, it was in an almost completely different incarnation. His departure was part of a larger exodus out of Memphis. Dickinson moved deep into the woods outside of town, where he started a recording studio with his musician sons. He continued to make his own records and to produce others’ up until his death this August. Falco moved to Europe, where he now lives and still leads the Panther Burns. And to this day, Chilton resides in New Orleans.
“Memphis is a place of murder and death,” Falco said in a recent article about the band. “They kill artists there. It’s documented.” He went on to name a litany of the casualties. Chilton got out before he could be added to that list. But he never sounded the same again.
Listen: Alex Chilton, “”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=anPgTes5Pu4" target="_blank">Can’t Seem to Make You Mine" [at youtube.com]