Alex Chilton’s passing last week at the too-soon age of 59 has been noted and eulogized by many, many people – as well it should be. Chilton somehow managed to stay under the mainstream radar for over four decades while influencing a couple of generations’ worth of musicians (so far).
Chilton’s brush with the Big Time came at the age of 16, when he lead the Box Tops through “The Letter”. (That’s right – that’s a 16-year-old kid growling out those lyrics.) But Big Time be damned – it was the sound of Chilton’s band Big Star in the early 70’s that changed everything. Terms like “tension-filled folk/rock” and “ragged and raw guitar pop” were applied to Big Star’s music. If you were a music fan, it was cool to have a Big Star album on the shelf; if you were a band, it was even cooler to name-drop Chilton and Big Star as having influenced your sound. Chilton would sometimes publicly question the importance of Big Star’s music; bands from R.E.M. to Yo La Tengo would gladly debate the point.
Me, I have a couple of things to admit to you. First, my awareness of Alex Chilton came second-hand. It was my discovery of The Replacements 21 years ago that lead me to seek out Chilton and Big Star – a path not unlike a Derek Trucks fan searching out old Howlin’ Wolf and Charlie Christian records. Secondly, as impressed as I was by Chilton and the musical fuse he’d lit, The Replacements were something I couldn’t shake. They were both perfect and flawed; they were both genius and dumb-ass. They might be out of tune and off the beat or they might be dead-nuts on in that Karl Wallenda hold-your-breath-and-pray-they-make-it way. The Replacements bowed to their hero in 1987 with the recording of “Alex Chilton” – then managed to drunkenly upset the backstage buffet table when they shared a marquee with him.
Whereas Chilton attained fame at a young age and chose to go in his own direction for the next 40-plus years, The Replacements slugged it out in the musical trenches for a decade or so, seeming to go out of their way to fuck up every time the aforementioned Big Time got within reach. Sure, they hammered bare-knuckled on fame’s door as any hard-working band would – and when it opened, they took a look in … but like a bunch of drunken rock ‘n’ roll Charlie Chaplins, The Replacements would blow it. (Was it on purpose? What do you think? Do you suppose it was the hand of fate that turned the mid-80’s gig at CBGB into a live train wreck in front of a house full of industry execs and rock critics? Even the fact that original ‘Mats guitarist Bob Stinson had mummified himself in aluminum foil prior to staggering out onstage couldn’t save the set; the band struggled to actually complete a song.)
In typical I-missed-it-I’m-from-Maine fashion, I didn’t cross paths with The Replacements until late in their existence – the night of May 31, 1989, to be exact. At that point in time, I was in a bit of a black hole musically – both personally and with the world at large. My guitar was spending most of its time in the case under the bed, and about the only release of then-recent vintage I was interested in listening to was Keith Richards’ first solo album, Talk Is Cheap. In fact, ol’ Keith was the reason I was sitting in front of the television that particular night. (I didn’t go cold turkey on TV until 1995, but that’s another story.) The occasion was a glitzed-out event called the “1st International Rock Awards” (I think there might have been three of the things before it swallowed its own head) and Keith was to be presented with a “Living Legend” award during the broadcast. Me, I was just hoping he’d play a live number with the X-Pensive Winos that night (which he did). That wasn’t the moment that spun my head around, however.
Picture this: returning from a commercial break, the cameras go live on multi-colored spotlights panning over a cheering crowd. The female announcer lists off some of the upcoming guests, including: “John Taylor! David Bowie’s Tin Machine! Tina Turner! John Waite!” The audience roars! It’s all too wonderful!
There’s a pause, and then the announcer sounds like she’s just found a dead mouse in her can of Tab: “We apologize … here they are: The Replacements.” The crowd reacts a little nervously – is something not quite right here? There’s a hiccup of silence, then one sole bass drum thump that has nothing to do with the riff guitarist Slim Dunlop had launched into – the opening chords to “Talent Show” from the ‘Mats’ Don’t Tell A Soul album. As the camera begins to slowly swoop in on the stage, lead singer/guitarist Paul Westerberg leans into the mic: “What the hell are we doing here?” Uh-oh … someone’s not sticking to the script …
Bassist Tommy Stinson may be laughing – it’s hard to tell from a distance as he takes a lurch backwards, then steps back into the spotlight, rubbing his head like he’d just gotten up. Dunlop cranks away at the intro while Westerberg hits the occasional power chord on his Gibson. The camera zeroes in on him – hair tousled and a bottom-of-the-laundry-basket white shirt with the right elbow ripped out – as he begins the first verse:
In my waxed-up hair and my painted shoes
Got an offer that you might refuse
Tonight, tonight, we’re gonna take a stab
Come on along, we’ll grab a cab …
A little slurry, a little bleary-eyed, Westerberg fluctuates between staring right back into the guts of the face-on camera defiantly and pointedly ignoring it. Dunlop makes the chord change:
We ain’t much to look at, so
Close your eyes, here we go …
Drummer Chris Mars is locked in on the beat now, riding the cymbals and kicking the bass pedal on the downbeat:
We’re playin’ at the talent show
Playin’ at the talent show …