By John Ramsey Miller
You know you’re getting old when about all you hear from your friends is “Kerplunk.” This week Alex Chilton died in New Orleans of a heart attack. My wife called to tell me because she heard it on NPR on the way to work. It was all over the internet and international wire services. Alex got good press, if that’s any indication of the mark he made on the face of the world––more specifically music. Critics loved him. Famous and non-known musicians loved him and called him an influence on their work. His fans loved him.
When I met Alex in early 70’s Memphis (His mother, Mary, had an art gallery and his father, Sidney, owned a lighting company) he had a group called BIG STAR which he and Chris Bell started after Alex left the BOX TOPS. His father, Sidney, played Jazz as a hobby, and he was a talented musician. Alex was credited as being one of the pioneers of punk music, and he was one hell of a character. Oddly, or paradoxically, he loved performing and playing music, but he shunned fame and fortune. He’d had a big dose of fame as a 16 year old when he sang “Give me A Ticket for an Aeroplane.” He recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis. He was uncomfortable around people, especially when he was the center of attention. But he loved being seen from an audience. He was skeptical of almost everything. As a photographer I shot one of his solo album covers, “Feudalist Tarts/ No Sex.” I still have a copy, but I don’t think I’ve ever listened to it. It was an LP and I didn’t have a turntable. I doubt he ever read any of my books.
When I was living in New Orleans he moved there around the corner from Susie and I, and we saw each other pretty often for a while. He wasn’t playing music then in public, he was recharging by washing dishes in a bar anonymously, and he liked that nobody knew who he was. That way he could observe life on his terms, and participate the same way. He was gentle and talented, had an oblique sense of humor and he was extremely intelligent. He was a natural writer. He could paint. He was a poet. He had a way of getting people immediately. He was shy, and everything seemed to bore him. I suppose most of the people who knew him saw him differently. I saw him as brilliant and somehow lost. Everybody in his family is dead now except for his sister. I haven’t seen him in fifteen years, or spoken to him, but he made a lasting impression on me. If he told you he was going to do something––like play guitar at your wedding––chances were excellent that he wouldn’t show up or (next time you saw him) tell you he had decided to do something else that day. He was such an elusive character I don’t think I could write him and do him justice. All I can tell you is that he was always there one minute, and gone the next. He was here Tuesday, and now he’s gone for good.
The older I get the more I appreciate the people I know, the more I’m affected by the passing of one of the ones who influenced me, made my life richer at some point. My life has been rich–– filled with great characters and a lot have passed on and I sorely miss all of them.