On the first day of SXSW Music 2010, Jody Stephens of Big Star was in the registration line at the Convention Center when his cell phone rang and he received some devastating news. “I don’t know how to tell you this,” Stephens told Julia Ervin of SXSW, “but Alex Chilton just died.” The Big Star leader had a heart attack in New Orleans, where he’d lived since the ‘80s. He was 59.
Bob Mehr of the Memphis Commercial Appeal heard the news in his hotel room, took a few minutes to gather himself, then went to work writing the obituary of a Memphis man with a profound influence on the alternative rock that SXSW stood on in its formative years. Big Star, on the heels of a retrospective boxed set release, was going to have a big presence at SXSW 2010, with a panel in its honor in addition to a big showcase. But with Chilton’s shocking passing, the band was even more in the minds of conference-goers.
Chilton’s relationship with SXSW went back to the first year, though he wouldn’t perform until the third. “Alex Chilton” was the name of the best song on the Replacements 1987 album Pleased To Meet Me, whose producer Jim Dickinson was one of the few prominent out-of-towners to make the maiden conference. Dickinson produced Big Star’s 1974 LP Third/Sister, which Rolling Stone called “Chilton’s untidy masterpiece,” as well as the first True Believers album, which brought him to SXSW 87’s producer panel.
“Jim was really part of the family,” says SXSW co-founder Louis Jay Meyers. “He had breakfast with our staff at the hotel every morning at 7:30.”
Dickinson died eight months before Chilton, at age 67, so SXSW already had a heavy heart. The news that Chilton had passed, on the first day of SXSW Music no less, put the conference into a dark spin. But staffers, led by Big Star fanatic Brent Grulke, rebounded by putting together an Alex Chilton tribute concert at Antone’s in the slot that had been reserved for Big Star. “We told Jody (Stephens) that we’d follow his lead,” says Andy Flynn of SXSW, “and I think by the end of the day we had the tribute concert pretty much booked.” Chilton could be opinionated, hard-headed, those who knew him agreed, but the yearning beauty of his music became the focus.
After Chicago publicist Heather West read a moving message from Chilton’s widow Laura, more than a dozen guests, including John Doe of X, Curt Kirkwood of Meat Puppets and M. Ward joined the remaining Big Star members in a reflection of what Alex Chilton left the world. Original Big Star bassist Andy Hummel, in the final stages of cancer, joined drummer Stephens onstage for the first time in 36 years. This love fest was wet with tears.
“It was a pretty heavy week,” recalls Mehr, “but you couldn’t help but be moved by the outpouring.” Throughout the music festival bands dedicated songs to Alex and testified to his massive influence. A highlight was Cheap Trick performing “In the Street,” the Chilton song they covered for the theme of That ‘70s Show, to a crowd of nearly 10,000 at Auditorium Shores.
Mehr hosted Saturday’s “I Never Travel Far Without a Little Big Star” panel, “which ended up being a bit like a wake,” and closed it by reciting a tribute penned by Chilton’s former bandmate Tav Falco. It read, in part:
“What matters is that those whom he touched, were touched immutably. His legacy is of the mind, of the soul, of earthly pleasure, and of just and lost causes. He left us that redeeming spark of wit and flame to keep us going when we’re hovering down in the foxhole of doubt and uncertainty and dodging the adverse missives of Lady Luck...”
SXSW was invented for bands like Big Star, great artists who deserve a greater audience. It’s a celebration of music, which always provides a measure of relief.
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Photos (l-r): John Doe, Sondre Lerche, Amy Speace during the Big Star Tribute at SXSW 2010
All photos by Oscar Ricardo Silva