During one of my usual record hunting excursions last year, I made a pit
stop at what is now the former sight of See Hear Books on Saint Marks
Place, in the East Village. Looking through old issues of Melody Maker, much to
my surprise I discovered a decade old copy of The Bob cover date May-June
1987. In it was an amazingly candid interview with Alex Chilton, conducted by
Dawn Eden. I'm presenting it here in it's entirety...
PLEASE MR. POSTMAN
Everybody knows somebody who's a Chiltonian. Thats the person who is forever scanning record shops for Box Tops, Big Star and Alex Chilton solo albums (you might even be one yourself). Chilton's fans also include many rock stars more famous than he. R.E.M. once traveled to New Orleans just to meet AC. Chilton's songs have been covered by numerous artists, from the Searchers to the Bangles (whose multi-platinum Different Light included a version of "September Gurls"). As one of the Bob's resident Chiltonians, I recently caught up with the man (via a crackly long distance phone line) while he was in Memphis recording his upcoming album for Big Time Records.
Knowing Chilton to be an astrology buff, I began by telling him I was a
"September Gurl." Pleased, he asked what year I was born. When I told him, he
did a quick calculation and then said, "That's the year of the Monkey. I'm a
The Bob: When did you first start to write songs?
ALEX CHILTON: I was in the Box Tops, and they kept presenting me with such
material that I thought was really not all that good, so I was trying to write
The Bob: Were the Box Tops receptive to doing your songs?
CHILTON: Not too much at first. We had a producer named Dan Penn at first,
and he was not so receptive to doing my things as the producer we had later.
The Bob: It seems that you write songs now in the same as you did back then.
Your new songs still have those bluesy roots.
CHILTON: Yeah, even more so now. I spent a few years here in Memphis, in the
late '70's and early '80's, where I was studying a lot of country blues players
and their styles. So it seems like every record I'll do, I will appropriate
these blues styles that I remember.
The Bob: Who were some of the country blues players that influenced you?
CHILTON: I learned Lightnin' Hopkins style, and John Lee Hooker's style,
Jimmy Reed's style, and Fred McDowell a bit. It's been a part of my environment
around here for a really long time.
The Bob: Your voice sounds raspy in "The Letter" in a way that it doesn't
sound in your other songs. Why is that?
CHILTON: The producer of the Box Tops coached me pretty heavily on singing
anything we ever did, and in a lot of cases it sounds more like him singing than
it sounds like me. There's a book out that has a whole lot about him and a lot
of the people that I worked with in the late '60's. It's called Sweet Soul
Music. I've been reading that lately.
The Bob: It sounds like your producer felt that he had to have a lot of
CHILTON: He certainly did, and I think from reading this book you can learn a
bit about what sort of person he was. He wrote a lot of our material and he
pretty much insisted on it being done.
The Bob: So he was the one who wasn't receptive to your recording originals.
CHILTON: The material that he came up with for me, I just felt from the start
that it was dead wrong for me, that it wasn't good stuff.
The Bob: I read an interview in which you mentioned some unreleased solo
material that was recorded around 1969 or 1970, including "Sugar, Sugar."
CHILTON: Yeah, a lot of those things are from Lost Decade, a whole side of
that. "Sugar, Sugar" is closer to the Yardbirds than the Archies. It was sort of
a humorous thing, meant to be the heavy version of "Sugar, Sugar." Like Iron
Butterfly doing "Sugar, Sugar", real spontaneous. That's floating around
The Bob: I heard this great song of yours from that period that's never been
released. It goes, "All we ever got from them was pain..."
CHILTON: That's from the '69, '70 thing.
The Bob: Will it ever be released?
CHILTON: With any luck, no.
The Bob: That surprises me because I thought it was so pretty.
CHILTON: I don't know. I was just learning to play! (Laughs)
The Bob: Around 1970, you came to New York and played the folk clubs.
CHILTON: Well, I was hanging 'round with people from that scene. there were
still a lot of bluegrass muscians who'd come and hang out in Washington Square
every Sunday at the time. I fell in with a mandolin player down there and we
were good buddies. His name is Grant Weisbrot. He's the guy who's on the Lost
Decade album as Grady Whitebread.
The Bob: At that time, did you think of trying to go farther in the New York
CHILTON: Well, I was still learning to play and stuff, and I wasn't very
professional about it or anything. I just met people and hung around, and we
tried to play every now and then.
The Bob: Since you weren't allowed to play on the Box Tops' recordings,
perhaps you were unsure of your own ability?
CHILTON: Yeah, but when the Box Tops first started out, I couldn't play
guitar much at all. Only after we had our first hit records did I start playing.
The Bob: You once said that the reason Big Star was more melodic than you
later work was because you made compromises to do what the group wanted to do.
CHILTON: I would have been writing bluesier things at the time. Another
reason why those things are more melodic than later things is because when I was
first learning to play and stuff, which I pretty much was then, I could stumble
upon a cliche and be really impressed that I could make that sound. These days,
I'm not so amazed with the cliches that I stumble upon.
The Bob: When Big Star's #1 Album came out, even though it recieved rave
reviews in all the trade publications, somehow it failed to take off.
CHILTON: It was a great album but there were just problems in trying to get
it sold, get it into the stores. We'd get a lot of radio play on it somewhere
but couldn't get it released there; stuff like that.
The Bob: Since Big Star was into the Beatles rather than the heavier rock of
the time, they really preceded the power-pop revival.
CHILTON: Yeah, I loved British music myself. When I first got interested in
rock 'n' roll in 1964, it was when all the British stuff first started coming
out. "64 through '66, I thought music was great. But then in '67, when all this
psychedelic California music started happening...people got more pretentious,
but '64 to '66 was still three minute songs and everything was fairly
understandable. It was great.
The Bob: I was listening to a Yoko Ono album from around 1971, and there's a
song on it called "Mrs. Lennon"...
CHILTON: Yes, it's just like "Holocaust." Exactly.
The Bob: Did you have that song in mind when you wrote "Holocaust"?
CHILTON: I don't know. I think that it was one of those instances of
plagarism that you sort of are aware of somewhere in your mind, but not...I
think that, at the time I was doing the tune, I didn't realize that I was
The Bob: Critics usually regard Big Star Third as either Big Star's
weakest album or it's strongest. You don't seem to consider it to be as good as
some critics think it is.
CHILTON: At that time, we'd been trying to make these Big Star albums which
were real slick and pop. I guess that I had been wanting to find myself and
find...I don't know, I was sort of groping as a writer until about 1976, and so
I started getting into heavy-duty groping there on the third Big Star album.
Sure enough, after a couple of years, I kind of did find myself and did find
myself artistically a bit better.
The Bob: I think I see what you mean. It would have been hard for you to have
gone on writing songs in the vein of Big Star Third.
CHILTON: Well, actually, it would be easy writing songs in that vein.
The Bob: Really? You mean you could write another 10 versions of "Kangaroo"?
CHILTON: I'm certain I could.
The Bob: It's surprising to hear you describe songs like that as easy,
because, to me, nobody else can write songs like that.
CHILTON: What's cool about that piece of music is the way it's performed. the
first verse of the song is good, but, starting at the second verse, it lays a
couple of eggs. But the way the music sounds on that is truly revolutionary, I
think. You're right. I was just thinking, I'm gonna make a note of that, that I
need to do something that sounds like "Kangaroo" on this next record.
The Bob: I understand that you've kicked both drugs and alcohol.
CHILTON: That's true, although cigarettes are a drug. I don't know--drugs
were pretty easy to quit taking. I was never addicted to anything to begin with.
But then, liquor--I had to wait about another six years before I finally got
around to quitting that. I'm sure glad I did.
The Bob: Is your new album going to be in the same vein as your last couple
CHILTON: It's hard for me to say right now. I've got about half of it mapped
out and the other half is pretty open, so when I get that other half together,
that's gonna make all the difference. I don't know what it'll be like.
The Bob: You don't seem to be bitter about very much. You seem to take
everything in stride.
CHILTON: Well, I don't know; making money off a thing like the Bangles record
makes up for a lot of things. I guess that my life has been a series of flukes
in the record business. The first thing I ever did was the biggest record that
I'll ever have. I've been paid for some things that were real successful, for no
good reasons; and I've not been paid for things that weren't so successful for a
lot of good reasons. You can't live your life being upset about things, but it's
a lot easier to not be upset about it if you've got enough money yourself. If
your walking around broke and working a job from nine to five or seven to five,
and you're really struggling to make ends meet, you start thinking about people
who have ripped you off and getting pretty angry at them.
The Bob: People like Jon Tiven (a producer who reportedly owes Chilton
CHILTON: Yes, him especially! I haven't seen him in a bunch of years, but it always amazes me that people like that still manage to walk around and prosper.***