In early 1979, Alex Chilton formed the Panther Burns with Tav Falco. Chilton was nearly a decade removed from his stint as lead singer in the Top 40 band the Box Tops and almost five years from his last recordings with Big Star, the pop band whose work had sparked a legion of dedicated followers. Over those five years, Chilton had begun his definitive move away from everything he’d done before. He made two solo records that had grown deliberately more simple and primal, crossing rockabilly with outrage, and he’d then moved himself behind the scenes to produce the first singles of the band the Cramps, rockabilly revolutionaries of an even more primitive sort. With his next project, the Panther Burns, Chilton found his least refined band to date and again pushed himself seemingly out of the spotlight, this time in the role of the guitar sideman. Yet he appeared to still have a great hand in the band’s direction. The Panther Burns had started almost as an art project, but a year later they had evolved into a rock ‘n’ roll dance band. They were like no other dance band around.
Jim Duckworth, a jazz guitarist who would soon join the band on drums, saw them for the first time in December 1980. “I’m walking down the street, I’m not even at the club yet,” Duckworth says, “and all I can hear—they’re on stage playing, and it’s in between numbers—but all I could hear was this shrieking, screaming feedback. Not your Jeff Beck-style feedback… more the guitar’s too close to an overpowered amp, shrieking feedback. It was that Metal Machine Music [Lou Reed’s 1975 experiment-in-noise record] on crack sort of thing… They had a synthesizer player. He had no conception of what they were doing. He played between tunes, during the tunes; it was all the same to him. They were doing this back-to-basics roots-rock thing and it was hilarious. It was the funniest fuckin’ show you ever saw. It was loose and it was raw and it really worked. When those guys were on, it was a beautiful thing.”But they weren’t always on. As the late Jim Dickinson, the ringleader of the rock ‘n’ roll scene in Memphis at the time, who had played piano with Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones and produced two of Chilton’s records, says, “If [the Panther Burns] actually fell into a pocket where everyone was playing together, Alex would consciously fuck it up.”
“Alex is an individual who is riddled with complexities and certain polarities,” Tav Falco, the Panther Burns’ lead singer and guitarist, says. “In one moment, he’d want to nail the groove down, an absolutely inexorable groove. On the other hand, he’d want to destroy that groove. There’s no winning. So ultimately, it ended up in chaos… In the Panther Burns in those days, it was every man for himself on stage and most everywhere else. So if something was going along well, there was also the [counter] movement to destroy that—the idea to create something and destroy it, and on the other hand to destroy something and create something out of that destruction—the whole idea of art damage, which was my approach.”
It seemed to be Chilton’s, too. “What happened was the drummer would be playing,” Falco says, “and we’d all be playing sort of together, and Alex would be ready to reach some new heights on the guitar—and there’s no better guitarist in rock ‘n’ roll in my mind than Alex. He’d be reaching for something and just about to nail it down, and he’d go into a complete, serious tirade on stage against the drummer, that he had destroyed the groove and prevented him from doing what he wanted to do on the guitar.”
That’s a fitting representation of Chilton’s career at the time. After recording the third Big Star record in 1974, Chilton would spend the next seven years searching for and then fine-tuning his artistic vision. He would find it an aesthetic of raw spirit and destruction that made for great rock ‘n’ roll and left a number of casualties along the way, including, for a time, Chilton himself.
The backstory to Chilton’s 1975 state of being is well-known. Eight years earlier, at the age of 16, he joined the Box Tops as their singer and recorded the number one hit “The Letter.” As Chilton said in an interview in 1987 in the music magazine The Bob, “The first thing I ever did was the biggest record that I’ll ever have.” (Chilton declined to be interviewed for this article, as he has done for just about every interview request over the last decade.) Before the band broke up in 1970, they had produced six Top 40 singles. In 1971, he formed Big Star with musician Chris Bell. The band became critics’ darlings whose music has gone on to influence more musicians (Wilco, the Replacements) than almost any other “cult” band, but at the time they were a commercial bust. Bell left the band as they were working on their second album, and in 1974, Chilton finished the last Big Star record, Third. Often referred to as a Chilton solo record, Third was a combination of brooding and complex pop songs made inside a whirlpool of drugs and alcohol with a rotating cast of stellar Memphis musicians. It has been called by many Chilton’s masterpiece, yet Chilton couldn’t find a label that would release it for another four years. As one contemporary says of Chilton, at the age of 24 he had already “been in the sausage factory of music and been chewed up and spit out as part of the process.” In 1975, he was trying to figure out what his own place would be in it. Was he going to be a Top 40 singer, a critically appreciated pop songwriter who would have to claw and scratch to get a record deal, or something else entirely? “I was the first person who ever talked to him about artistic vision,” Jim Dickinson told me shortly before he passed away in August. It was something Chilton would try to hone over the next seven years.
In Memphis at the time, the sausage factory that was the music business was falling apart. Stax Records, essentially the business’s lifeline in Memphis, was going bankrupt and about to close down completely. It affected the city’s economy at large. Banks that had been tied up in its failing loans started to go down with it. “When Stax shut down, it shut down work for a lot of music people,” says Richard Rosebrough, a drummer and music engineer who worked with Chilton then. “A lot of folks left town. A lot of folks went into hibernation. A lot of folks went under rocks. It was a dark time.”
Chilton’s own deterioration mirrored the town. In 1967, as lead singer of the Box Tops, he’d been a skinny kid with long, shaggy hair flopping in front of his face, and good enough looks to attract a bevy of women. Eight years later, he didn’t look much different, but he’d begun carrying a heavy dose of attitude around with him. “At that point, Alex was dressing in a yellow safety patrol raincoat,” Dickinson said. “He cut quite a picture. He would just go out in public and get in trouble. He was just a little too out there for the local gendarmes… He’d been beaten up by the cops a couple of times.” Chilton hired Dickinson’s friend Danny Graflund as a bodyguard during the Third sessions because Jerry Lee Lewis and local musician Don Nix had one. But Chilton probably needed one, too. “Alex had a mouth,” future bandmate Ross Johnson says. “He talked a lot of shit, but he didn’t have the muscle to back it up.” Graflund was a great bear of a man, and with him by Chilton’s side, Chilton’s presence became only more striking. He regularly challenged the public’s capacity for the aesthetically unpleasing, and not just in musical terms. “He and [his girlfriend] would do what they call dancing, which was kind of like Apache dancing, only real,” Dickinson said. “There was violence involved, let me put it that way.” Chilton formed a short-lived folk trio with two women who could barely sing, and he called it Gangrene and the Scurvy Girls. He seemed to be developing the art of confrontation.
In the midst of this period, in mid-1975, Chilton sent demo tapes of a couple new songs to Jon Tiven, a New York-based rock critic who was doing A&R work for Chess Records and who had been a great supporter of Big Star. “They were sort of in the genre of Metal Machine Music by Lou Reed,” Tiven says. “They were rambling, not particularly focused musical pieces. I played them for a few people I knew at record companies and they looked at me, like, was I entirely crazy or just… The idea of this stuff actually being something they would be interested in was as far from their minds as it could possibly be.” Nonetheless, Tiven and Chilton agreed for Tiven to come down to Memphis. Tiven’s goal was to make something that they “could present to record companies.” It might’ve been Chilton’s, too, in fleeting moments.
The sessions represent a transitional period for Chilton, a final step away from a pop past with even the slightest concern for commercial viability toward a deliberately primal take on rock ‘n’ roll’s roots. His ambivalence about these recordings was evident from the start.
“I flew down to Memphis and Alex greeted me there with his girlfriend,” Tiven says. “They both looked like they just got out of a concentration camp, not a drop of color in their faces. And Alex had his arm in a sling. I was, like, ‘What’s the deal with the sling?’ He takes me aside and says, ‘[My girlfriend] and I had a big fight last night and I went to punch her and I hit the wall and I sprained my arm and I can’t play any guitar.’”
Instead of canceling the sessions, the two went ahead as planned. The first night in the studio, Chilton brought in the musicians, including Richard Rosebrough as the drummer (he also engineered the sessions) and the bassist John Lightman, who had played with Chilton in the last live incarnation of Big Star the year before. “I was at Trader Dick’s,” Lightman says, referring to the bar down the street from Ardent. “Alex says, ‘Hey, you want to go next door and play some music?’ That was how I was alerted to the session, which I had no idea was a session. I thought they were just over there jamming.”
One song they played that first night was “Take Me Home and Make Me Like It”, a tune Chilton had begun writing with Graflund, the bodyguard he hired during the Big Star Third sessions. “I had the hook,” Graflund says. “When I would get a little wasted, I had this little song I’d sing. It was kind of like ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, but it was ‘Spit on me, drag me through the gutters, then take me home and make me like it.’”
Dickinson remembered it as well. “The beginning of it was ‘Rape me, scrape me, videotape me,’ which is a great phrase,” he said. “Why they left that out, I don’t know.”
The version cut that night was a chaotic, rambling mess of a jam, well suited to the lyrical content. Though Dickinson argued that the way Chilton played that song live “had much more of a Memphis crazy atmosphere to it,” he acknowledged that those recordings had “a different kind of crazy spirit.”
“We were in the studio for about three hours,” Lightman says. “During which time everybody was just getting totally fucked up, just blind drunk.”
“I don’t know what drug Alex was on,” Tiven says, “but he was definitely lighter than air.”
With less inspired results, Tiven had Chilton and company run through “Jesus Christ”, a song Chilton had recorded for Third. “I thought that was a really good song,” Tiven says. “When we did it, Alex sang it in a German accent and sang, ‘You’re going to rot in your grave tonight, Jesus Christ.’ He was really trying his best to be as offensive as possible.”
The band tried a few other songs before the session came to a close with Graflund pissing on the studio wall.
A few days later, after a meeting with the Ardent Studios boss and a message to clean up their act, the two went back into the studio. Rosebrough remained the engineer and drummer, but Tiven handpicked a new band. “They were all Memphis people,” he says, “people I knew who weren’t part of Alex’s usual gang of ‘Let’s get high and do something fucked up in the studio and see if it sounds like something anyone would be interested in.’ They were one generation younger, Big Star fans who were trying to do power pop.” In light of Chilton’s recent demos and current lifestyle, they may not have been the best choice. “[Alex] had mild resentment to them,” Tiven says. “He said, ‘They’re pukes.’ I said, ‘Pukes? What’s “pukes”?’ ‘You know, they’re just regurgitating Beatles stuff.’ These guys were closer to the first Big Star record, and I figured that couldn’t be too bad to have him surrounded by people who were enamored of his earlier work, who could maybe coax him into doing something that’s a little bit more melodic.” But, as Tiven was quickly learning, “he wasn’t really into being melodic at that point in time.” It was the beginning of a pattern that would be repeated throughout Chilton’s career. Musicians who had been greatly influenced and inspired by Big Star would come to expect and hope for that sound every time he played, and in response, Chilton would find a way to distance himself from it. Not surprisingly, Tiven soon found himself at odds with Chilton. The first night, Chilton would “just sing whatever came into his mind,” Tiven says. But when they returned to the studio with the new band, he “just closed down.”
The songs they recorded are a combination of Chilton’s edgy looseness and Tiven’s pop intentions, and are spiced with the crazy debauchery of the time period. “[Alex] was in a strange head in terms of trying to get through to his artistic self,” Tiven says. “We were doing this version of ‘All of the Time’ [a new song Chilton had written] and he says, ‘I can’t just sing this like a straight pop song because that’s not what I want to do anymore.’ I said, ‘Sing it like [Roxy Music’s] Bryan Ferry would sing it.’ That he could relate to. If he could throw in a bit of irony into the song, then he felt like he was at least doing his job.”
They also recorded Tiven’s love song “(Every Time I) Close My Eyes.” “I said, ‘I haven’t written a lot of things that I think would be appropriate for you, but this might be good,’” Tiven says. “I played it for him, and he said, ‘Oh yeah, it’s got that Leave It to Beaver innocence.’” It didn’t sound like a compliment.
After four days of sessions, Tiven and Rosebrough mixed down the tapes, and Tiven took them to New York to try to find a buyer. The relationship between him and Chilton would remain strained over the next two years—issues over money and who had control of the tapes seem to have been involved. It finally came to an end, Tiven says, when Chilton “tried to poke my eye out with a lit cigarette.”
Chilton remained in Memphis, where he continued to search for a musical vision. The following year, Dickinson remembered Chilton and his folk trio playing a handful of bicentennial shows with Dickinson’s band Mud Boy and the Neutrons. Chilton played a 12-string acoustic and two women sang backup. “It was Alex’s version of [the 1920s country trio] the Carter Family,” Dickinson said. “It was a really interesting transition. It provided him with ‘Alligator Man’ and ‘Lorena’ and several other songs that ended up on Like Flies on Sherbert,” he added, referring to the solo record Chilton would record two years later. But opinions varied. “It was a freak show,” Johnson says.
One of the songs Dickinson referred to, “No More the Moon Shines on Lorena”, is a rare Carter Family track, a love song written from the perspective of a slave on a plantation that would become a staple of Chilton’s solo shows for years to come. Chilton first heard it one night at Graflund’s home. It’s a tender love song, full of pathos, though one might call it lyrically dated. Naturally, that appealed to Chilton. As Graflund says, “Alex loved that deal in the song, ‘the coon in the corn playing with the wild banana.’”
While Chilton cultivated his musical catalog, he also began refining his guitar playing. Around this time, he sometimes played at the bar Procape Gardens. “His whole concept was, ‘If I were a 13 year old right now and I were just learning my instrument, how would I play this guitar?’” Mud Boy and the Neutrons’ guitarist Sid Selvidge told author Robert Gordon in Gordon’s excellent history of Memphis music, It Came from Memphis. “People don’t realize what an accomplished guitar player Alex is, his versatility. He’s a consummate guitarist. So from that level of sophistication, he was trying to play without knowing all that he knows. He was trying to play note for note what somebody who doesn’t play the guitar would play like… That was his idea. And it fits perfectly into rock ‘n’ roll.”
Meanwhile, in New York, Tiven had shopped the tapes of the Chilton recordings to all the major labels without any success until he ran into Terry Ork. Ork, who was managing the punk rock band Television at the time, had his own label, Ork Records, and he liked what Tiven played him. In 1977, he put out an EP called Singer Not the Song.All of its five tracks were recorded with the Tiven performers. (The rest of the sessions would be released in 1981 under the title Bach’s Bottom.) It received mixed reviews. From the lofty perch of his much-read reviews column in The Village Voice, Robert Christgau gave it an ‘A.’ Later, a member of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion would call it “the Rosetta Stone of punk rock.” But as the British music magazine Sounds noted at the time, “A lot of people don’t like it.” Chilton himself, clearly channeling the sourness of his relationship with Tiven, wasn’t so impressed. “It’s okay,” he told Sounds, “but it’s not what I would do.”
That year, Ork helped Chilton move to New York to play in support of the EP. In February, Chilton started gigging regularly around town and soon became a fixture at CBGB, but he never really mixed with the bigger names there, such as Blondie or Talking Heads. Instead, he formed a lasting bond with up-and-coming band the Cramps.
The Cramps had formed less than a year earlier. Guitarist Poison Ivy was still learning how to play guitar when she and singer Lux Interior found soon-to-be lead guitarist Bryan Gregory, who hadn’t yet begun. But that didn’t stop him from buying a 25-dollar pawnshop guitar and stenciling ‘The Cramps’ on it. They added a drummer and worked up a set list of half originals and half covers that crossed rockabilly with distorted garage rock and psychedelia. If their sound wasn’t striking enough, their appearance was. As one early critic noted, they looked like “members of the zombie mafia.” In April 1977, they opened for their friends the Ramones at CBGB. They weren’t immediately embraced, though. “The cheering by admirers up front clashed with jeering from Ramoniacs in the back,” James Wolcott wrote in The Village Voice. “There was much bitching… about how they couldn’t play their instruments and all the songs sounded alike.” Wolcott caught the irony: “This,” he wrote, “from Ramones fans.” Later that night, the Ramones played “Teenage Lobotomy” live for the first time.
The Cramps shared Chilton’s musical taste, reveling in underappreciated rockabilly obscurities it takes a musical connoisseur to discover, such as the Phantom’s “Love Me.” And they matched Chilton’s vision of musical proficiency. “The Cramps created a concept and then let the musicianship catch up,” Wolcott wrote. “It still hasn’t.” Or, as Dickinson put it, “They could barely play. That’s what made it good.” The Cramps also shared Chilton’s joy of damaged performance. “I remember going to see T. Rex in Cleveland,” Lux Interior, whose own stage presence has been described as “a midnight liaison between James Brown and Frankenstein,” told Creem in 1980. “[T. Rex’s singer and guitarist] Marc Bolan weighed 300 pounds, and came out in this batwing costume, and beat his guitar with a whip. ‘Holy shit!’ I thought. ‘This guy is my idol!’” By the end of the year, Chilton would call the Cramps “the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world.” In October, he brought them down to Memphis to produce their first singles.
“As a producer, Alex was just trying to create a situation,” says Rosebrough. “We would invite people down and maybe get somebody in a bad mood right about the time that we were recording, just to get them stirred up when we turned the tape on.” Lux Interior would be no exception. To begin their song “I Was a Teenage Werewolf”, Interior had the idea of crashing through the doors of the studio with the tape rolling and him screaming at the top of his lungs. That would be the band’s cue to begin playing. “A perfectly good idea,” Rosebrough says. “But Alex brought this guy in, a street guy named Eric, and Eric didn’t know that this was going on. Alex sat Eric down in the chair in the studio right next to the microphone. When Lux came screaming through the door and knocking things over, Eric confronted him and tried to stop him. He thought Lux was mad.” A melee ensued. As Interior said of Chilton at the time, “Regardless of what you may have heard about him, he really is completely, totally out of his mind.”
In addition to setting up mini-brawls in the studio, Chilton would find other ways to inspire the Cramps. “The Cramps were funny,” Johnson says, “they hated all the [current] bands. They only liked the Ramones. They hated Television. When Alex wasn’t happy with a vocal take, he’d say to Lux, ‘You sound like [Television singer and guitarist] Tom Verlaine.’ That would really piss him off.”
What Chilton wasn’t able to do with the Cramps, though, was what he liked to do himself in the studio, and that was to improvise. The Cramps simply didn’t have the musical flexibility capable of that. “As raw as that music sounds,” Dickinson said, “it was totally calculated and arranged. In fact, I had to show Ivy how to play a D chord. She had never played a D chord.”
One night, Chilton brought the Cramps to Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio, where so many legendary rock ‘n’ roll recordings had been made. The studio hadn’t changed at all in the 20-plus years since Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis had made rock ‘n’ roll history there. The black-and-white tile floor, the modern kidney-shaped office desks, the mirror over the front desk with the creaky metal table fan, all of it remained. “It’s like walking into a time machine,” Dickinson said. “It’s a naturally crazy space. You walk in the room and start to feel weird.”
The Cramps fit right in. “I’ve seen the strangest people walk in and out of the front door of Phillips,” Rosebrough says. “When [the Cramps] walked in, I was just sitting in the lobby, and Bryan [Gregory] comes in, dressed in black from head to toe, bleach blond hair over half his face, and he’s wearing this holster strapped to his leg with a real long pistol in it. He walked in the front door, walked right past the desk, on back into the studio. The holster was just, squeak, squeak, squeak, squeak. He had bought this brand new leather holster to put this gun in. Brand new leather squeaks. You’ve got to oil it, work with it, settle it in. I thought, ‘What a scene, what a display.’”
The recordings in 1977 made up the Cramps’ first singles, and you can hear echoes of Chilton on them: In Interior’s accentuated vocal stylings and in the clean, simple licks of Ivy’s guitar. But inspiration was a two-way street. Chilton would later add Jack Scott’s 1959 rarity “The Way I Walk”, the B-side of the first of these singles, to his set. The Cramps’ first recorded original, “Human Fly”, came from these sessions; as did their version of the Trashmen’s 1963 song “Surfin’ Bird”, which the Ramones liked so much they recorded it themselves and rocketed it to fame. In 1979, the label IRS collected the singles under the title Gravest Hits. When the Cramps toured England that year as the opener for the Police, who had just scored big with the hit single “Roxanne”, their course to success was charted. Later that summer, they would return to Memphis to record Songs the Lord Taught Us, their first full-length album, again with Chilton on board as producer.
“I was sort of groping as a writer until about 1976,” Chilton has said. By the end of 1978, with a handful of new songs he was itching to record, it was time for Chilton the solo artist to return to the studio. But he needed a band, and he needed one that could match his degenerating musical vision.
Gordon called Dickinson’s band Mud Boy and the Neutrons “the missing link between the Rolling Stones and [blues singer] Furry Lewis” and their sound “the guttural howl of the bump and grind.” As a producer, Dickinson had a gift for creating coherence out of chaos. After Chilton booked the studio, Dickinson was the one he turned to. “The words he said to me,” Dickinson said, “were, ‘Bring your band.’ So that’s what I did.”
The sessions would last three days, so quick because Chilton and Dickinson liked to press the record button as the band first learned the song, and then the stop button before they finished. “I’m the one that got [Alex] into spontaneous production,” said Dickinson, a heavyset, white-bearded storyteller when I spoke to him—a slimmer, baby-faced one in 1978, who often wore sunglasses and a smile that could rouse mischief from a sunflower. “The two places where I learned it were from working with the Rolling Stones [Dickinson played piano on Sticky Fingers], who literally would take the first take they would get through without a major mistake. We didn’t even say the words, ‘Should we do it again?’ That is, of course, where the song comes to life. That is the most living the song will ever be. Where I learned my second lesson was from working with Ronnie Milsap. [His producer] would be working on the kick drum when Ronnie Milsap was totally bored with the song. There’s nothing worse to hear in a recording than boredom. And after the third or fourth time through a song, unless you’re a professional session player, the boredom is going to come through no matter who you are. Alex can really suck when he’s bored. It was a perfect place for me to apply the technique.”
Like Flies on Sherbert, the record that came out of these sessions, turned out to be a spirited romp, a band sounding on the verge of falling apart before ever coming together. The process, unsurprisingly, was a mess. Rosebrough was technically the engineer, but he was also often the drummer. This caused a few complications. The recording of “No More the Moon Shines on Lorena” begins with the sound of the tape starting. “Sometimes there was somebody in the control room and a lot of times there was nobody there,” Dickinson said. “The beginning of ‘Lorena’ where it’s spoken, that was overdubbed because whoever started the machine didn’t start it soon enough.” Behind Chilton, you can hear the band learning the song as they follow the chord changes. They gain momentum as the song continues, and by the end they evolve—or devolve—into explosive abandon.
Of Chilton’s new songs, the unequivocal masterpiece is “My Rival”, a song he’d written in New York the previous year. Two high-pitch squeals from the tape machine again begin the track, sounding like pistol shots here, as a guitar churns out a chunky rhythm. Behind it, another guitar freely solos and a Minimoog synthesizer whistles like a warped police siren. Chilton, as he does throughout the record, actually sings, absent of any of the hammy inflections from the Tiven sessions. The lyrics speak darkly of the narrator’s jilted frustration: “My rival / I’m going to stab him on arrival / Shoot him dead with my rifle.” Chilton had recently broken up with his girlfriend. “That’s what ‘My Rival’ is about,” Dickinson said. “That was all very calculated by Alex. He’s definitely a manipulator… He created the triangle that supposedly broke them up. He introduced her to the drummer that he was talking about.” At the end of the song, again, all hell breaks loose, as the first guitar begins to feed back and the other guitar and synthesizer run wild. “The Minimoog was sitting around broken at [the studio],” Dickinson said. “I played it and all I did was twist knobs.”
While Chilton paid newfound attention to his singing on the record, he didn’t feel the same way about his guitar playing, but Dickinson’s presence gave him a new way to employ the musical vision he’d experimented with at Procape and found in the Cramps. “Alex is a very underrated player,” Dickinson said, “but it tends to bore him. A lot of the guitar on Sherbert is me. Alex said, ‘You still play like you’re 14 years old.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I play bad.’ That’s what he wanted.” No place is this more evident than on the cover of country singer Jimmy C. Newman’s 1962 song “Alligator Man.” Chilton sings merrily, from the point of view of a local celebrity, not, obviously, a far reach for him, “When I bring my hides to town / All the people gather ’round / They just want to shake the hand / Of the top ’gator man.” Dickinson giddily plucks away alongside him, creating a festive atmosphere to the song. While the bassist falls in and out of beat and the drummer—in this case played by guitarist Mike Ladd—thumps along uninhibitedly, the cut becomes so innocently joyous that it makes complete sense when a third guitarist jumps in for the final verse and solos alongside Dickinson.
Yet the mood inside the studio for Like Flies on Sherbert didn’t always match the enthusiasm caught on tape. “It was tense,” Rosebrough says. “Sometimes we had a whole lot of fun, sometimes we pushed each other, and sometimes we got pissed off at each other. Sometime during that process, my friendship with Alex ended. It was real hard being around him.
“One of my most memorable parts of the record occurred near the end when we were mixing the album,” Rosebrough says. “Alex and I took two songs and created this third song in between them, made it all into one song, in kind of a Phil Spectorish thing. I was real proud of it, the way it all came together. It involved some real quick mixing and transition from one song to another and splicing. Alex didn’t like it and ended up erasing it. It had something called ‘Riding through the Reich’, a really anti-Semitic thing [in which he rhymed ‘Reich’ with ‘kike’]. It transitioned into a version of ‘Lili Marlene.’ It had a section of ‘Jingle Bells’ in there, where all three melodies were playing at the same time. I thought it was real good. Dickinson thought it was going to be the single of the album… I saw it as being a remarkable and very interesting little studio production, taken in the context that Alex was really out of his mind and offensive to everyone. If he was singing about Lorena or an anti-Semitic song, that’s just what Alex was doing at the time. He was an offensive little bastard.”
Like Flies on Sherbert came out the following year, after Chilton took months mixing it and added another recording session at Ardent on August 16, 1979, the second anniversary of Elvis’s death, to record his paean to a drug-addled Elvis, “Baron of Love, Pt. II”, and “Hey! Little Child”, Chilton’s “cross between a [’60s garage primitives] Troggs song and a cha-cha-cha.” The record was released on the Peabody label, with a printing of 500 copies. The following year, the British label Aura re-released it, and it received glowing reviews in Sounds (“Don’t knock my four-star rating. The reviews editor won’t let me write anymore.”) and was a featured release in Creem. But as with most of Chilton’s work, critical response was not unanimous. The Village Voice’s Christgau gave it a “B.” Another reviewer called it “the best showcase of Chilton’s disintegration.”
In late 1977, while in London, Chilton had told Sounds, “I’m really hot on the idea of gettin’ on TV with just an electric guitar and no band… loud and feeding back an’ doin a coupla songs real outrageous, just like I HAD a band behind me.” To his delight, less than a year later, he’d find someone who actually executed this idea, and it would plant the seed for Chilton’s next musical project.
Gus Nelson, soon to become known as Tav Falco, was then a member of the Big Dixie Brick Company, what he calls an “art action group” formed with three others, two of whom, he says in his gentle Southern drawl, “were professional go-go dancers at titty clubs and biker joints around town.” The group often performed during shows by Dickinson’s band Mud Boy and the Neutrons. Falco’s first musical performance came during one of these, at the Orpheum Theatre in October 1978. Falco took the stage that night more as a performance artist than a musician. He and Chilton didn’t know each other then, but that was about to change. When Dickinson related the story, he mimicked Falco’s soft-spoken voice endearingly. “The day before the show,” he said, “Gus came up to me and said, ‘Jim, would you mind if I sang a song?’ I said, ‘No, Gus, certainly. I had no idea. Would you like the band to play with you?’ He said, ‘No no, I’ll accompany myself.’”
Falco is a small man, who often fashions a pencil-thin mustache that looks hand-painted and wears his black hair in a pompadour. But he didn’t have the mustache then, and he didn’t have the pompadour. He just had a boyish face and a big head of black curly hair. He was unassuming, the quiet guy in the background with a lot of ideas he kept to himself. For that show, Falco says, “I had my own video installation on stage with a large video monitor. I brought my own sound system to the Orpheum Theatre because I didn’t want the house engineer to tamper with my sound. Mainly, I just didn’t want them to pull the plug on me, which I knew would be quite likely.”
“He set up a stool and a chair on stage and a guitar amplifier,” Dickinson said, “and a Skil saw which was plugged in on the stool.” An electric chainsaw sat on a second stool. He wore a tuxedo. He played a discordant version of Lead Belly’s “Bourgeois Blues” on electric guitar, and when he finished he began blowing a police whistle and put the guitar on the floor. “He picked up the [chain]saw and sawed through the guitar, strings first,” Dickinson said.
“[The engineers] didn’t pull the plug,” Falco says. “They have an incredible sound system at the Orpheum. It was absolutely crystal clear.” Then he switched saws. The destruction of the guitar sounded like an explosion went off in the auditorium, like thunder had crashed through into the theater itself. “For 1978, it caused unbridled hysteria, to my surprise,” Falco says. “People got out of their theater seats and were screaming and appalled. Others were elated and enthralled. Others were outraged and booing. It was the typical howl of contempt, derision, and ecstasy that Panther Burns were known to generate later in our performances as a group.”
“Alex, who was in the audience, came backstage,” Dickinson said, “and he pointed at Gus, and he said, ‘You and me. We’re a band!’”
Self-taught and undeveloped, Falco’s musicianship immediately appealed to Chilton. Falco had learned to play guitar by playing along to videotapes of blues musicians. But, he says, “I was only playing a rudimentary form of blues at that point. I never thought it possible to play rock ‘n’ roll. That was too complicated.” That’s where Chilton came in. When he and Chilton got together to play at the end of 1978, Falco says, “[Alex] said, ‘Why don’t you start a band, and I’ll play guitar in it for a while and get it started. All you have to do is come up with a name. I’ll bring a drummer.’”
Johnson had just begun playing drums then, and on occasion he had played with Chilton in a trio called the Yard Dogs, who performed afternoons on the street in downtown Memphis—essentially, making a lot of noise until they’d be shut down by the police. Johnson had done some writing as a rock critic at that point, but what he was really good at was drinking. He ran into Chilton and Falco at a bar one night. “I auditioned by playing a beat along to a Buddy Holly song on the jukebox,” Johnson says. “Just me and my hands on a Formica table.” He fit in perfectly.
Panther Burns’ first show was in early 1979 in a rented cotton loft on Front Street. “By a cotton loft, I mean a cotton grading room in a cotton company,” Falco says. “We built our own stage out of scrap lumber.” Chilton proved that his name still meant something locally: Put it on a Memphis bill and a crowd will follow. “The cotton room was stuffed with people,” Falco says. “We had a very exuberant audience.” Dickinson’s band opened up. “Jim called himself Captain Memphis and he wore a wrestling mask over his head.” Perhaps inspired by Dickinson’s broken-synthesizer playing on Like Flies on Sherbert, the Panther Burns had added a synthesizer player, Eric Hill, who stood bare-chested behind his instrument and as a result looked as though he was naked. “He had no earthly idea how to play,” Falco says. “I had no knowledge how to play anything except very rudimentary R.L. Burnside-type blues songs. Alex was the only so-called real musician in our group. We did eight songs that night. We repeated those same songs again before the night was over.” He begins to name them: “‘Train Kept A-Rollin’, ‘Drop Your Mask’, a tango that I’d adapted from an Xavier Cugat song that I don’t remember the title of because I only had a fragment on a piece of cassette tape and I pretty much had to write the thing—there was maybe one verse intact—‘Red Headed Woman’, and a [1950s rockabilly performer] Charlie Feathers song, ‘One Hand Loose.’ That was pretty much the repertoire for the first couple months, because I’m a slow learner.”
“Their first gig was unbelievable,” Dickinson said. “And they got worse every time they played.”
The next night, Charlie Feathers himself was the opening act. “He brought his whole family and a rocking chair down there to the cotton loft,” Falco says. “Unbelievable! He brought a rocking chair and the whole family. He was into it, totally into it.”
“Charlie Feathers hated my drumming,” Johnson says. “When Tav said, ‘We’re going to play one for Charlie. It’s called “One Hand Loose”’, Charlie put his head down and started shouting, ‘No! No! No!’”
Rosebrough was there the first night, too. “They asked me to record it multi-track. I spent all day bringing multi-track equipment down there and setting it up in the room behind the stage.” At one point, “Alex pissed off the back of the stage, all over my mic cords. I became annoyed. I went downstairs. It was on the third floor. I went down to the second floor, just to chill out… and all of a sudden I heard all these screams and shrieks, screeches, people running out of this upstairs hall where they were playing, coming down the stairs. They said, ‘Pissing off the stage!’ Alex had started pissing off the front of the stage, too. Everybody was just really offended, grossed out. I would’ve been, too, had I seen this. I didn’t see it, thankfully. But I saw the results. He cleared the place. Just doing his thing.”
By 1980, the Panther Burns had switched venues, from the cotton loft to a dive bar on Madison Avenue called the Well where they had a regular gig. “We mutated from an art project to a band there,” Johnson says. “The audiences wanted three sets a night. People wanted to dance. It was only when we played out of town that people stood in front of the stage. That was strange.”
In the spring of 1980, the Aura label, based in England, re-released Like Flies on Sherbert and brought Chilton to London for two shows to support the album. The label put together a band to back Chilton that consisted of the rhythm section of the Soft Boys and the guitarist from the punk band the Vibrators, Knox. Two nights were booked at a small club in Camden Lock called Dingwalls. The Soft Boys had put out one record at the time, the Vibrators two. Not unlike his experience at CBGB in New York, Chilton, now at the age of 29, was the old man on the scene.
“We were all slightly in awe of him,” Knox says, “because he’d had a million-selling record with the Box Tops.”
“I’d heard all sorts of horror stories about him,” Morris Windsor, the drummer of the shows, says, “so I was amazed that he was as together as he was… He seemed every inch the Southern gentleman.”
“He was a really nice bloke,” Knox says. “He was real passionate about music. He seemed to embody that full-on [commitment] of being completely sucked in to doing music, [where] it becomes the whole thing you do… He really liked rockabilly. He always said, in his [Southern] accent, ‘Rockabilly will inherit the earth.’”
“He seemed to know exactly what he wanted,” Windsor says. “He said he wanted a ‘blaring sound.’ It kind of was a blaring sound, especially with Knox on guitar. That brought a raw element to it.”
More than any other Chilton release over this period, Live in London, the record that came from the two shows they played, showcases Chilton’s guitar playing. After a churning version of the Chilton original “Bangkok” to open the album, the band segues into Lowell Fulson’s 1966 single “Tramp”, again evidence of Chilton’s encyclopedic knowledge of music and discerning choice in covers, and Chilton scorches the speakers with an electrifying solo. He continues the impassioned guitar playing on “The Letter”, turning it from a pop standard with strings and horns to, indeed, a blaring rocker. The band tears through the songs, and then is cheered by a smattering of applause. It’s all very understated. Chilton quietly thanks the crowd and politely introduces the next song. And then the band explodes into another aggressive demolition of both Big Star and Chilton solo material. The contrast is striking.
“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, “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine” [at youtube.com]