alex chilton, 1950-2010

alex chilton in 2004. ap photo by jack punkett.

alex chilton in 2004. associated press photo by jack punkett.

“Don’t be a drag, baby, on my rockin’ good time.”

Such was the brush off Alex Chilton gave us under a pseudo-juke joint groove on 1987’s High Priest. I played that album into the ground when it came out. It served as my grand introduction to the mischevious artistic spirit this wicked pop songsmith could summon on his own.

Sure, I knew Chilton through the brooding late ‘60s pop he created with the Box Tops and the more off-center rock ‘n’ roll he summoned with Big Star in the ‘70s. But High Priest was a work of pop-rock art, a document that simultaneously embraced and absolved itself of rock celebrity status – a trait that would come to define Chilton’s music from that point on.

Chilton, who died unexpectedly at age 59 of an apparent heart attack on Wednesday, couldn’t have been a more unintentionally subversive figure in rock ‘n’ roll. When The Replacements literally sang his praises in a world class rock anthem aptly titled Alex Chilton the same year High Priest hit stores, Chilton seemed to be favoring the shadows over the spotlight. His was indie before indie was co-opted as a vague and ultimately commercial label for modern pop. And yet, his entire career shunned expectation.

The Box Tops aimed low and hit big with The Letter, which became a pop radio staple in 1967 when Chilton was only 16. Big Star aimed big and, for a time, crashed. But the latter band’s first three ‘70s albums rightly became cultish classics and galvanized an entire alternative music generation long after they were dismissed as commercial failures.

Of those records, 1978’s Third was my favorite. It was gloriously meshed Chilton’s askew pop view with covers of The Velvet Underground’s Femme Fatale and, on its 1992 CD reissue edition, The Kinks’ Till the End of the Day. Chilton dusted off both tunes when he turned up in New Jersey as a performance guest at one of Yo La Tengo’s famed Hanukah concerts in 2007.

In the years that followed, Chilton’s music resurfaced with unexpected frequency. In the Street, a joyous rocker from Big Star’s 1972 debut album, #1 Record, served as the theme to the Fox series That ‘70s Show. As recently as last month, West Coast rock and pop stylist Chuck Prophet served up a punkish 1977 Chilton tune called Bangkok as an encore at a wildfire Lexington concert at Cosmic Charlie’s.

Everyone that knew his music had a favorite Chilton record. Mine will always be High Priest. It was the brassy, contrary confession of one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most reluctant big stars.

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