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Alex Chilton, legend to many, dies suddenly

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

Gimme a ticket for an airplane. Ain’t got time to take a fast train. Lonely days are gone; I’m a comin’ home. My baby just wrote me a letter .” You know the song. You can hear the voice. It was Alex Chilton, a legendary inspiration for countless garage rock pioneers — perhaps most notably, the Replacements — who died of a heart attack this week at a hospital in New Orleans at only 59.

Alex Chilton (Wikipedia photo)

No one saw it coming. Chilton and his legendary power-pop band, Big Star, were booked to play the legendary Austin club Antones this Saturday as part of the prestigious South By Southwest Festival.

“When I think about the good love you gave me, I cry like a baby.”

Familiar tunes. Just not a household name.

“I wouldn’t want to be like Bruce Springsteen. I don’t need that much money and wouldn’t want to have 20 bodyguards following me,” young Wilton Alexander Chilton told an AP writer nearly 25 years ago. “If I did become really popular, the critics probably wouldn’t like me all that much. They like to root for the underdog.”

You still couldn’t have found a bigger cult hero, apart from Nick Drake. Big Star’s three LPs all earned spots on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list.

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Although he made his commercial name with the Box Tops, Chilton helmed Big Star, an enormous influence on the major independent acts of the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Just last year, Rhino Records released a box set celebrating Big Star’s entire catalog, “Keep an Eye on the Sky.”

Chilton — who would have turned 60 this coming December — began his musical career as a teen member of the Box Tops before returning to his native Memphis 40 years ago to form Big Star with guitarist/co-songwriter Chris Bell (who died in 1978), drummer Jody Stephens and bassist Andy Hummel. Blending power pop with the sound of the Beatles and the Beach Boys, Big Star somehow couldn’t snag the general public.

Rock critics and inspiring musicians, on the other hand, were spellbound.

If there’s a funeral, the turnout will be a who’s who of indie rock. Besides Paul Westerberg, artists such as Beck, the members of Wilco, R.E.M. and Yo La Tengo have worshipped Chilton. “Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes ’round,” Westerberg sang on the Replacements’ “Please to Meet Me” album. “They sing, ‘I’m in love / What’s that song? / I’m in love with that song.’”

I’m loathe to mention it, but if you still don’t know — or care — who this musical giant was, think of the theme song from “That 70s Show.”

Yep: An Alex Chilton tune.

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