Alex Chilton never made himself that easy to love -- often it seemed like he made it his duty to defy conventions, or at least deliver awful shows -- but that hardly stopped him from being loved. Perhaps there weren't the "children by the millions" that Paul Westerberg sang of in his 1987 tribute, a song that cemented his myth for many, but there were certainly thousands upon thousands, enough for him to have an impact that stretched across generations, from the Baby Boomers who loved his blue-eyed soul beginnings with the Box Tops, to the Gen-Xers who discovered Big Star years, sometimes decades, after the group disintegrated. As news of his death from an apparent heart attack at the age of 59 spread Wednesday evening, Big Star dominated the obituaries and tributes, which is appropriate: As enduring as "The Letter," "Soul Deep," and "Cry Like a Baby" are, Big Star was indeed mythical, a fleeting comet that lit up the sky and left a trail in its wake.
The thing is, Chilton never was as enamored with Big Star as the rest of us. As the cult grew in the '80s, Alex recoiled to his R&B beginnings, knocking out exceedingly ragged covers and pervy originals, like 1985's AIDS satire "No Sex." At that point, Alex was just finishing up a self-imposed exile in New Orleans, where he chose to wash dishes instead of play guitar, a story that somehow enhanced Chilton's slacker legend. It was a legend passed along via word of mouth; dubbed C-90 cassettes of Big Star's long-out-of-print LPs; and artist interviews, chief among them R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, who passed along the torch given to him by Chilton's earliest disciples, Chris Stamey and Mitch Easter, whose late '70s pop band the Sneakers were arguably the first of the countless guitar-pop groups to find inspiration in #1 Record and Radio City. This same scenario played out in microcosm throughout the U.S. and U.K. for generations, Big Star's myth growing slowly as their albums were passed along via record store employees, college radio DJs, record collectors, and any other pop-music obsessives. By the mid-'80s, this wave was beginning to crest, with the Bangles covering "September Gurls" on their '86 blockbuster Different Light and Westerberg's terrific tribute, but even then it was nearly impossible to actually buy Big Star records in the U.S. It required effort to find this music: You had to be part of a circle that passed along tapes, you had to find a record store that stocked an import of the German Line edition of #1 Record/Radio City.
All of this has been forgotten in recent years, after Rykodisc finally released a version of Third/Sister Lovers that approximated a finished album, and the two-fer no longer existed just as a European import -- not to mention last year's loving four-disc box Keep an Eye on the Sky from Rhino -- but the years, even decades, where being a fan of Big Star and Alex Chilton required work on the part of the listener, resulted in this enormous cult who held him closely to their heart even when Chilton rarely returned the embrace. Sensing a quick buck -- and he was never one to turn down easy money -- Alex consented to a reunion of Big Star in 1993, augmenting himself and original drummer Jody Stephens with Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies, one of the early '90s bands most indebted to Big Star, but the resulting Columbia: Live at Missouri University felt tossed off in the way so many Chilton gigs of the '80s and '90s did: He never seemed all that interested in the songs he was singing. For a long time, it seemed as he actively resented the cult who loved him, baiting his audience by singing "Volare" instead of his hits, and in a sense who could blame him: He was faced with an audience comprised of many fans that fetishized the worst year of his life, worshipping the scary, narcotic murk of "Kanga Roo" and "Holocaust" when he made it plain that he had no interest to return to this darkness by never talking to the hipsters and journalists who wanted to reduce his life to a tortured artist cliché.
Alex may have had his demons, but apart from that period of the mid-'70s, he never quite seemed tortured. Surely, he bore deep scars from how the record industry mishandled him, both as the lead singer of the Box Tops and how Big Star never got off the ground, and he did seem to delight in tweaking his audience, but once he cleaned up he found his groove, eventually embracing Big Star as a working unit, leading them through a perfectly OK 2005 studio comeback In Space. That album appeared many years too late to truly capitalize on the Big Star cult, but by that point it was pretty clear that Alex was more interested in playing what he wanted, whenever he wanted. And so he did, sometimes playing oldies tours on his own or as the leader of the Box Tops, sometimes playing with Big Star, and all those who crossed his path in the last 15 years or so report that he was a warm, generous spirit far removed from the ornery legend of the '70s and '80s. Perhaps that's because he was surrounding himself with working musicians, and that's how he always saw himself: He never was as precious about music as his devotees; he pounded out soul as a teenager, tried to make it as a folk singer after that didn't work, then made those brilliant records with Chris Bell at Ardent Studios before returning to the R&B that was his first love. Many in Alex's cult tend to overlook these bookends to Big Star -- which is a shame in regards to the Box Tops, as he was one of the great white soul singers of the '60s, but understandable in regards to his solo records, which are sloppy but not without charm -- but that's also understandable: The three albums Chilton made with Big Star are incandescent, shining so brightly they obscure everything else he did, and what many other bands did too.