My Evening with Alex Chilton by Mark Wallace
Alex Chilton was appearing at the 9:30 Club in D.C. and I had to go.
A year or two earlier I had discovered Chilton’s music by finding a record called Big Star’s Third (known now usually by its originally intended title, Sister Lovers) in one of the many record stores I frequented in the mid-80s. I had never heard of him but the record had a mysterious dark blue cover with a drawing of Chilton’s face in moody silhouette. The back cover chatter about a “lost classic” hooked me. The record had somehow escaped being picked out of a bin at a time when all the Big Star records (The Velvet Underground records too) were out of print. It was an era when there really were lost classics.
Other friends of mine turned out to own the other two Big Star records and soon a lot of us were Big Star fans. In 1985 and 86 Chilton released two new EP’s. Several of the new songs, “Lost My Job,” and “No Sex,” were tightly distilled examples of later-Reagan-years dead end malaise. Between working a couple jobs I couldn’t stand, getting out of a relationship with a girlfriend who had a drinking and cocaine problem, and building a drinking problem of my own, I had plenty of malaise. I was a writer but didn’t know anyone in any writing communities yet. Nothing was happening. I was developing a public patter of sardonic morbid bitterness that I had translated into occasional short stories and failed novels.
Only one friend, my housemate at the time, Ginette (she was a Chilton fan too), went with me to the show. I’m sure it must have been on an early-in-the-week weeknight. There were maybe twenty people in the audience. This was the old, smaller 9:30 Club on F Street with its not large main stage and only one tiny back bar, but it was still painfully empty. Chilton was a rock and roll legend, but that night it seemed he was a secret. Ginette and I didn’t mind. Chilton and his two other band members played a solidly rocking show for the few of us milling around, a set in which his onstage grumpiness chimed well with the cynicism of his best recent songs.
When the show was over and Chilton had disappeared from stage, Ginette said, “Let’s go talk to him.”
I was startled and asked her what made her think he’d want to talk to us. She shrugged. “There’s nobody here. He’s not likely to be talking to anybody else.”
I doubt I was persuaded, but I went along with it. We walked downstairs to where the musicians were. A few people were packing up equipment. Chilton was sitting on a bench, and we walked up to him. Ginette started talking.
Chilton was laconic in speech and languid in motion, very Southern, very unlike our own DC mile-a-minute pacing. His face was acne-scarred and pockmarked. He was happy to talk to Ginette. That was no surprise, it occurred to me quickly. Most guys I knew wanted to talk to Ginette. She was half European (Swiss, I think) and half South American (Brazilian, I think, but this many years later that’s just a guess). She was a guitarist who knew a lot about music and who could talk about books and politics and who liked a good party. She was small and shapely and had constantly curious eyes that seemed always to be asking everyone, “Just who are you?”
The absent part of all this is that I don’t remember much of what we talked about. It wasn’t that memorable. Almost everybody had cleared out by the time Ginette said, “Want to get stoned with us?”
Chilton did indeed want to get stoned with Ginette, and if I was part of the bargain, that was okay.
The pot, however, was back in Ginette’s room at our group house. We had gone to the show on the Metro but it was closed by then. Chilton offered to drive us home.
And boy did he ever have an old, shitty fake-wood-paneled station wagon. He had been driving it on tour but said he didn’t expect it would last long. In the car, we talked about places he had been eating on the tour and how dull the traveling had been. He talked a bit about how at 17 in 1967 he had gotten rich from the Box Tops’ “The Letter” but was out of money by 1970.
And that’s how I ended up at my own house, spending as few hours drinking beer and smoking pot with Alex Chilton.
I don’t remember much about the conversation there either; places he had traveled, guitar equipment, musicians he knew. What has stuck with me is not anything he said but who he was; a relaxed, vaguely grim guy in a flannel shirt, jeans, and boots, who liked to play music but had gotten tired of touring, who had car trouble and was often bored and was happy to drink and smoke dope with strangers a dozen years younger. An unremarkable, cynical man in his mid-thirties who had been the driving genius behind three of the best albums in rock and roll history. Those albums were out of print and he had just played a show for twenty people.
I ought to have found the situation depressing, but I didn’t. Someone could do something artistically essential yet still be wandering around in the evening looking for whatever was happening, like I was. As if being an artist or musician or writer wasn’t this glamorous other thing for special people but was something anybody—even me—could do. I didn’t mind the idea that you could do something great and it wouldn’t change much about the way you lived.
Chilton left eventually, and I went to bed. Except that he was Alex Chilton and had taught me, indirectly, a crucial lesson about what it meant to be an artist, there was nothing about the evening any different than many nights I went to shows and ended up with people at my house. The fact that the evening was so perversely ordinary has remained for me its main fascination.