“I Never Travel Far Without a Little Big Star,” the SXSW panel that just ended at the Austin Convention Center, was blurbed as follows on the festival’s website: “Celebrating last year’s phenomenal box set Keep Your Eye On The Sky, Big Star band members, friends and admirers gather for discussion and performance.” That sentence is still posted at SXSW.com, a testament to how Big Star frontman Alex Chilton’s death on Wednesday took everyone by surprise. And so today, instead of celebrating Keep an Eye on the Sky (which is indeed phenomenal), eight Chilton friends and Big Star experts shifted their focus to a 90-minute-plus wake of sorts for the late genius. I don’t think anyone would have blamed them for canceling the panel, but as a fan I’m glad they decided to go ahead with it despite the circumstances.
Moderated by journalist Bob Mehr, the panel began with an attempt to sum up the long, winding history of Alex Chilton’s career in show business. John Fry, founder of Memphis’ Ardent Studios (“the George Martin to Big Star’s Beatles,” in Mehr’s words), recalled meeting Chilton at a studio session for the Box Tops, the successful band he fronted in his youth. “My first memory of Alex is of a teenage kid…sitting over in a corner,” said Fry, who joined the panel by video link from Memphis. Andy Hummel, Big Star’s founding bassist, remembered watching a lunar module land on the surface of the moon on Chilton’s parents’ TV in the late ’60s. He, Fry, and Big Star drummer Jody Stephens spoke of the band’s genesis in Memphis around 1971 and the recording of the classic #1 Record. The dBs’ Chris Stamey, who would later befriend Chilton, thought back to his first time hearing that album’s “When My Baby’s Beside Me” on the radio in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “It was like I was floating,” Stamey said. “I figured this was going to take over the country.” Instead #1 Record and both of its excellent follow-ups were thwarted by a run of bad commercial luck.
Everyone who knew Alex Chilton, it became clear, had enough stories about him to fill several panels. Chilton was a complicated personality: “Alex was notorious for just showing up five minutes before a gig” and arguing with sound engineers, laughed Tommy Keene, who got to know Chilton as the opening act on a solo tour in the late ’80s. “Alex had…a lot of reputation that preceded him, and I think a lot of it was based on misunderstanding,” said the Posies’ Ken Stringfellow, who joined Big Star’s lineup when the band reunited in the early ’90s. His Posies/Big Star 2.0 bandmate Jon Auer agreed: “He could come off as laconic, or like he didn’t care. I don’t believe that. I think he cared quite a bit.” What started as an understandably somber discussion grew to include moments of levity as Chilton’s friends recalled his idiosyncratic ways.
Ultimately, though, Chilton’s loss is of course an irreducible tragedy. “We’ve been having entirely too much death around Memphis lately,” Fry sighed midway through the panel, mentioning the loss of Big Star/Chilton collaborator Jim Dickinson, Willie Mitchell, Jay Reatard, “and now this.” Amen.
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More on life and career of Alex Chilton from EW:
Alex Chilton’s music brings joy amid sadness at SXSW
Alex Chilton: An appreciation
Big Star drummer Jody Stephens says he is “just feeling numb” about Alex Chilton’s death
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