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My Rival - Alex Chilton Remembered

Joe Ambrose fondly remembers Alex Chilton

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by Joe Ambrose, Literary Editor for outsideleft.com
originally published: March, 2010
Tom Waits said Chilton was "the Thelonius Monk of the rhythm guitar."
by Joe Ambrose, Literary Editor for outsideleft.com
originally published: March, 2010
Tom Waits said Chilton was "the Thelonius Monk of the rhythm guitar."

 When I met the writer Stanley Booth I asked him if he knew Alex Chilton. 'Alex Chilton?' said the author of The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, 'I know Alex Chilton so well that he is barred from my home.'

Chilton was part of a cabal of Memphis intellectuals and creatives which included shootist photographer William Eccleston, Stanley Booth, music producer Jim Dickinson, and talented gentleman Tav Falco. Dickinson, who died a while back, helped Chilton undertake his second transformation. He emerged from that Dickinson engagement as a high priest of junkie chic whose performances and original songs could really put the screws to you. Tunes like My Rival, September Gurls, No Sex, and Hey! Little Child were on my turntable. Panther Burns were happening. Like Flies on Sherbet and Live in London were the best kind of music doing the rounds.

Later on things lost that crystalline focus.

Early 80s Dublin was in thrall to noisy gems created by the likes of Chilton, The Cramps, and The Gun Club. All that stuff was terminally hip on the art school scene. It was a junkie time in Dublin, a poor time, a vicious time. We were killing time and one another. The man who brought the urgency of Chilton to my attention was Eamon Carr of Horslips who had the best record collection I'd ever heard. He said that when Horslips hung up their shoes in 1980 three of their five members considered going to Memphis with a view to forming a band with Chilton. Carr subsequently championed, amid controversy and backbiting, a variety of Dublin bands like The Golden Horde, The Baby Snakes, and The Stars of Heaven. These bands, with art school backgrounds or connections, derived chunks of their complex integrity or mythology from Chilton's zeitgeisty stance. The same thing was happening all over the world with outfits like REM or Green on Red championing the zany and rapturous Chilton dance stance.

He must have gotten a fat cheque when The Bangles covered September Gurls...

An obituary in London's Guardian suggested that his solo post-Big Star work was second rate. I don't agree with this. I find Big Star's output to be Byrds-like (as opposed to being original) and sprinkled with substandard songs.

Tom Waits said Chilton was "the Thelonius Monk of the rhythm guitar." Chuck Prophet said he played the kind of music which "saves souls, makes kids buy guitars, and makes you move. Really move." Tav Falco wrote, "What matters is that those whom he touched, were touched immutably. His legacy is of the mind, of the soul, of earthly pleasure, and of just and lost causes. He left us that redeeming spark of wit and flame to keep us going when we were hovering down in the foxhole of doubt and uncertainty and dodging the adverse missives of Lady Luck...comforted in thinking that Alex would have liked that, or he would have appreciated this, or he would have been elated by this or that, or let's do it the way Alex does it. His opinion, his tastes, his love is what matters in the end."

My favorite Chilton song is My Rival.

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Joe Ambrose
Literary Editor

Joe Ambrose has written 14 books, including Chelsea Hotel Manhattan and The Fenian Reader. Joe is currently working on his next book, Look at Us Now - The Life and Death of Muammar Ghadaffi, which is an expanded version of a story first published in the anthology CUT UP! Visit Joe's website for all the latest info: JoeAmbrose.co.uk.

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