Jon Spencer – Jon Spencer Recalls Being ‘In Awe’ of Alex Chilton (PRESS, UK)

19 March 2010
Jon Spencer remembers Alex Chilton in an article from
“by James Sullivan

One of the defining elements of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion has always been the band’s wicked perspective on rock stardom. For the members of the veteran punk-soul trio, their reverence for the late Alex Chilton, who died at age 59 Wednesday, was wrapped in several layers of irony.

“We were huge fans, and we were thrilled to death to have him on tour with us,” frontman Jon Spencer, who learned of Chilton’s death in France where he’s touring with his side project Heavy Trash, tells Spinner. Chilton opened for the Blues Explosion for a few weeks of American shows a decade ago.

“He’d drive by himself, not with his rhythm section,” Spencer recalls. “He had a late-model ’70s sedan, a big ol’ car, with his amp and guitar in the trunk. He just made his own way, showed up and did his thing.”

It was just as Chilton did for the last 35 years of his life, after his youthful flirtation with the big time. Following teenage success with the Box Tops in the 1960s and the missed opportunities of the widely influential power-pop group Big Star in the early ’70s, Chilton spent the rest of his years making music — from fringe punk and lo-fi to lounge crooning, rockabilly and weird country — that felt fun, with little regard for commercial prospects.

“Not only was he an amazing guitar player and a beautiful singer and songwriter, but I think he did a lot of very personal, unique, idiosyncratic music,” says Spencer, noting that the members of Blues Explosion turned each other on to the Big Star records and Chilton’s deliberately sloppy solo debut, ‘Bach’s Bottom,’ when they were starting out.

Spencer was also a fan of Tav Falco’s Panther Burns, the surreal experiment that Chilton helped found, and admired his production work with the Cramps and the Gories.

“He was a smart guy, involved in a lot of different kinds of music,” Spencer says. “It ran the gamut from the incredibly beautiful stuff with Big Star to totally out-there. Even with Big Star, the ‘Third’ album goes way off the deep end. It wasn’t just about the sweet pop stuff.”

When Chilton toured with the Blues Explosion, he seemed content, says Spencer, whose band has a hits compilation, ‘Dirty Shirt Rock ‘n’ Roll,’ coming out at the end of the month, followed by expanded reissues of six albums.

“From the stories I’ve heard, there were some dark days for him,” Spencer says. “My impression was that was kind of in the past. He was a little more easygoing. He was certainly a little aloof, as well. We were in awe of him. We tried to give him space, but we also talked to him as much as we could.

“I guess he got burned pretty badly. He was totally ripped off as a kid in the Box Tops, in my understanding,” Spencer continues. “I think he really was quite hurt and crushed that Big Star didn’t pan out to be the big success it deserved to be. He was a great example of somebody who, in the face of all odds, kept going. He didn’t throw in the towel.”

A tribute for Chilton is set for Saturday at SXSW, featuring his Big Star bandmates, M. Ward, R.E.M.’s Mike Mills and more.”