Alex Chilton Remembered: A Conversation With Big Star's Jody Stephens

Big Star
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On May 15th, the surviving members of the reunion edition of pop cult legends Big Star – original drummer Jody Stephens and singer-guitarists Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer of the Posies — will play one more show: a homecoming at Levitt Shell in Memphis, Big Star's hometown. Their performance will be a tribute to late singer Alex Chilton, who died on March 17th. Like the all-star salute held in Chilton's memory the weekend after his passing at SXSW in Austin, Texas, the Memphis concert will feature friends and guests singing with Big Star, revisiting songs from the band's three classic Seventies albums. But Stringfellow told me, during the interviews for my recent tribute story on Chilton, that the show "should reflect more than the Big Star years,"¬ referring to Chilton's early hits with the Box Tops and his later, eccentric solo material. "Alex would turn over in his grave if every memorial was intensely focused on Big Star. Now's the time to put it all out there."

Stephens admitted to me that this would be the final Big Star show, although not his last with Auer and Stringfellow. "I can't see us going out as Big Star," Stephens said. "But I would hate to compound the loss of Alex by saying,'That's it' for Ken and Jon, too. I can't imagine not playing with them. There's so much fun — but an emotional bond there too."

In an interview for that Chilton tribute, Stephens spoke at length, fondly and frankly, about his time in the original Big Star — with Chilton, bassist Andy Hummel and singer-guitarist Chris Bell — in the early Seventies and with Chilton in the resurrection version with Auer and Stringfellow, from their first show together in 1993 until what turned out to be their last, in Brooklyn last November. Here are unpublished outtakes from that conversation.

Alex did not have a voice with a strong singular character, like that of Robert Plant or Mick Jagger. But his singing was immediately recognizable — direct and soulful, in the hits he recorded with the Box Tops and on Big Star songs like "Ballad of El Goodo" and "Holocaust." He didn't have to act out his songs.
No, he just delivered them. That's what was so engaging to me and lots of people — his voice and how he delivered those lines. Some people have this innate ability, to connect. Others, while they have a great voice, don't connect in the same way.

Did you recognize it when you first heard him sing?
Yeah. When Alex joined the band and we started working up that material on [1972's] #1 Record, it was such a wonderful period. I'd been playing cover songs with my brother Jimmy, then with Andy and Chris. Now, with Alex joining, all of a sudden, these guys were writing and singing songs that connected emotionally with me as much as the bands we'd been covering, like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

It was incredibly thrilling, to walk into Ardent Studios [in Memphis] and work through those songs, to record them. We'd sit our instruments down, go into the control room and listen back, with [engineer and Ardent founder] John Fry. There was a sense of wonderment, some little magic, that is inexplicable to me.

Alex had a reputation for being difficult and mercurial. Chris had one for perfectionism. Yet they sound, on that first album, like they are working in perfect union.
For #1 Record, they seemed to me to be very similar people. They had this great care for their guitar parts and how they interacted, and this care for their vocals, how they blended. Alex and Chris were certainly the leaders, the pilots at the time. Chris had an overall vision for #1 Record, but Alex had an opinion about things, usually about something being done a little too carefully. Because he had this experience under his belt [with the Box Tops], he could express himself and quickly figure out what he thought would work and what wouldn't.

Did Alex ever get abrupt with you?
Oh, sure. It's funny. Jon Auer told this story [at a SXSW panel on Big Star] about Alex correcting his grammar. I was speaking with Alex once. We'd gotten together for a gig, I was seeing him for the first time in awhile and he said, "How are you?" I said, "I'm good." He goes, "No, well." I knew immediately — "Oh, I'm doing well." From then on, when he said, "How are you?" I just said, "Fine."

It was a matter of doing things right.
It's that mystery of Alex. There were times when Jon and Ken would say, "What are the lyrics to that song?" And he would say, "Whatever you think." He wasn't a stickler about a song he wrote. But I would sing Andy's song "Way Out West" [on the 1974 album, Radio City], and for some reason, I was singing, "She's a schemer and she makes me mad." Alex corrected me: "She's a schemer and she makes me bad." The next gig, I sang it that way. Alex turned around and smiled.

I also remember getting ready to go onstage once, and I was thinking about this one song. I said, "Alex, how does this song end?" And he said, "Well, it doesn't matter, if you haven't won 'em over by then."

Alex seemed to have a mixed relationship with the Big Star repertoire, especially the songs on the dramatic and troubled 3rd. I'd seen you do "Thank You Friends" and Ken told me that you did "For You" on occasion, but Alex did not appear to like going back to the parts of his life, in the mid-Seventies, reflected on that album.
There was an intense personal relationship with those songs. And I don't think he cared to revisit those emotions. Last year, when we were in Spain, we tried working up "Kizza Me." Jon, Ken and I spent time listening to it, practicing it. Then Alex joined in. He probably hadn't touched it since the Seventies. At the next gig, I said, "What about 'Kizza Me'?" And he said, "It didn't sound very good." I think it didn't come off for him, because he didn't want to do it.

It's hard to decode the darkness of Alex — the legends and rumors. And he cultivated such a mystery about those parts of his life. As far as you can tell, how dark was it? As dark as people think?
I don't know about that period of time. After 1975, I wasn't in touch with him at all. We had different lifestyles. Alex and I seemed to connect musically. That's where, for me, the deep connection was made. But when we were recording [the 2005 album] In Space, there was one rule we went by, when we sat down to write a song. That came from Alex. And it was, "Keep it positive." He wasn't interested in doing anything dark and sarcastic.

Jeff Tweedy said Alex was Alex all his life. He didn't have to be anyone else. While there were periods that may have been exaggerated by alcohol and drugs, Alex was always Alex. You can tell from Radio City to 3rd there had been a change. But he was still following his muse. I could tell by the chords he would use and the way he would use them — it was carefully thought out. That's what created the mystery. How can anyone who is so analytical be so free-spirited? Look at 3rd. That is nothing but a guy channeling the emotions he was feeling at the time, completely unadulterated.

He really lived the rock & roll life in reverse —¬ big hits, then critical acclaim, then a long life under the radar, doing only what he wanted to do, when he wanted to do it.
I keep thinking about the time he was washing dishes in New Orleans, around 1982. I can't help thinking it was a cleansing period for Alex, a purging of something. It really takes you down to zero, a great opportunity to rebuild.

He was washing dishes — but not in a self-pitying way.
No, not at all. I'm sure Alex was really good at it.

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