Thursday, March 18, 2010

Alex Chilton: Remembrances Plus a 1977 Interview

Opening text, and photos © Robert Barry Francos, 2010
Interview from Big Star Magazine, by Bernie Kugel, 1977

I was introduced to Alex Chilton through Bernie Kugel, who was a big enough fan to name his own fanzine Big Star. Bernie wrangled an interview in June 1977 with Chilton and Stamey in Chris’ apartment on corner of Bleecker St. and Mercer St. I’m sure it was because of the name of his mag. This was right after Chilton had split with Big Star. Bernie came down from Buffalo for this, and I remember taking a lot of photos with my month-old 35mm. I picked the best shots, all of which Chilton later said he hated. These photos have not been scanned as of yet. The interview follows my comments.

The first time I saw Chilton play was later in ’77, at one of his infamous Village Gate appearances, with the underrated Chris Stamey backing him. I was sort of fascinated by the way he took his cigarette and put it into the neck of the guitar while he was playing, to keep his fingers free (later I would see Johnny Thunders do the same). The show felt more like a rehearsal than an actual show, with Chilton stopping songs, changing key or tempo, and starting it from the beginning once again. It felt like being a fly on the wall, and somehow magical. Their drummer was new, and I distinctly remember Chilton often yelling at him to either slow down, speed up, or keep tempo; I doubt he lasted past the show. This was also the night I met the then-Marbles (“Red Lights”) manager and New York Rocker founder, the late Alan Betrock. I went with Bernie that night.

Another time I saw him was at Max’s Kansas City, during the late ‘70s. I don’t have any photos of that, but it was a great show, that I attended with Bernie’s college roommate (and then-bassist for the Good), Steve Lum, and their friend, Janet. Chilton seemed comfortable on stage, but I don’t remember who backed him up. What I do recall, and I am digressing here, is tormenting this poor kid who sat across from us at the communal table. The teen was obviously waiting for someone and even more obviously bored. He sat down as the show began, and so had no idea we all knew each other. By the denim jacket he wore, I made some taste assumptions. When Chilton left, I said to the kid, “So, what did you think?” He shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “Meh.” I said, “Well, it coulda been worse…it coulda been Led Zeppelin.” He grew pale, eyes wide and jaw slack, and said, “You don’t like Zeppelin?” like his whole world was being questioned. I said, “Naw.” He looked at Steve, again, not knowing we knew each other, and Steve made a “yuck” face. Looking at Janet next, she gave a thumb down. At this point, if he would have said he liked the Ramones, one of my personal faves, of course, I would have done a Peter and denied them, just for the reaction. Then I started mentioning any band I could think of that I presumed he would have liked, and made disparaging comments, about the likes of Kansas, America, Yes, and the like. Luckily, these are bands I’m not impressed with anyway, so it was not hard. He walked – nay, stumbled – away, and we all had a good laugh, and waited for the second set, which did not disappoint.

In 1981, I was driving through Greensboro, North Carolina, while visiting my pal Nancy Neon Foster, and saw my very first Big Star supermarket, for which the band is named.

The last time I saw him play was at Irving Plaza, in the mid-‘80s. With Human Switchboard opening, Chilton breezed through his more bluesy numbers, with Bernie Worrell jumping on stage to join him on keyboards. That was another fun night. – RBF, 2010

Alex Chilton: “A Self-Made Man…”
By Bernard Kugel, Big Star Magazine, 1977

What do ya do when ya have something like fifty handwritten pages on somebody and ya can’t possibly fit it all into one issue? Well, how about if you print some of the most interesting parts of the interview you did and save the other stuff for some later date??? That sounds O.K… so here’s a little of what the kid who sang “The Letter” and who wrote “September Gurls” and was in a little Memphis group named Big Star had to say one June 1977 night in New York.

Bernard: Do you have a favorite Box Tops song?
Alex: “The Letter” I guess is my favorite Box Tops song.

Bernard: Do you have a favorite songs off Radio City?
Alex: Mmm… I don’t know… I like “She’s a Mover” a lot.

Bernard: A favorite song off #1 Record?
Alex: “In the Street.”

Bernard: Fave song offa the 3rd album?
Alex: “Kanga Roo.”

Bernard: I really like “Nighttime off that album…
Alex: Yeah, we do that now.

Bernard: What are some of the songs you’ve written recently?
Alex: I haven’t written many things lately. Like the last time I saw you (Feb. ’76) I had a lot of new songs written. I haven’t really written anything since then. Since I’ve been in N.Y., I’ve written “Fishy” and “Shakin’ the World”; I rattled them off in one day, so we’d have something to do on stage. But just living has been so distracting… I still haven’t got a place to live even.

Bernard: You think your current band’s better than previous bands you’ve been in (current band consists of Alex on vocals and guitar, of course; Ex-Sneaker Chris Stamey, bass, backup vocals; Fran Kowalski, keyboard, backup vocals; and Lloyd Fonoroff on drums)?
Alex: Yeah, it’s the best group yet.

Bernard: What do you think about being a cult figure and Big Star albums going for lots and lots of money?
Alex: It don’t pay no bills. I don’t know. People recognize me on the street all the time in New York.

Bernard: Have you seen any New York bands?
Alex: Yeah, I’ve seen I guess all of them.

Bernard: Do you like any of the ones you’ve seen?
Alex: Not really… yeah, I like the Ramones. I think they’re good and I like their records, but not really live so much. I haven’t heard Blondie’s album; I heard them live, they were really bad. I haven’t heard Television live but I don’t think their album’s that good.

Bernard: What special stuff have you been listening to lately?
Alex: Colin Blunstone.

Bernard: What did ya think of the Sneakers’ EP?
Alex: It was god.

Bernard: What do you think of Dwight Twilley?
Alex: It’s alright. It sounds kid of empty though in a funny sort of way. It’s like they’re in a big echo chamber, two or three of them, and they can’t really play that good ‘cause they’re in the echo chamber all the time. Something’s weird about that record, but no, I haven’t heard it all. Let’s see, a record I’ve liked… The Ramones. You know every time I see a record player and a Ramones album, I play “Oh, Oh, I Love Her So” and “Kill that Girl,” and California Sun,” in that order.

Bernard: Do you have any idea of the songs on an upcoming album? Would you be redoing “September Gurls” or would it be new stuff, or…
Alex: I don’t know. There’s about half an album of new stuff or maybe a little bit more right now… but I haven’t really be writing ‘cause there’s not really an outlet and I guess if I wrote some good songs some of them would do it [get them signed, I think – BK]. But I don’t write unless there’s a real tangible, commercial purpose for the song.

Bernard: What happened to the two girls you were singing with for a while in Memphis?
Alex: Yeah, well, that just kinda went down the drain. We didn’t record or anything…

Bernard: What drove you to put songs like “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” [The Seeds, Beach Boys, respectively – RBF, 2010] in your current repertoire?
Alex: Lack of really good stage material for one thing. I think those are good songs and they just fitted into the sets and they were something everyone in the audience would know about even if they hadn’t heard anything I’d ever done. And it was such an odd idea to do “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” with three pieces that it always went off in the right way. The vice was nice, and it was like a novelty and we actually did it well. Now we do it with all those harmonies... now it sounds just like the Beach Boys.

Bernard: Would you think of putting “Wouldn’t It” and “Can’t Seem” on an album?
Alex: “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine,“ I was thinking about doing for an Ork single. I probably wouldn’t do “Wouldn’t…” but I’d try it. But “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine” is a good song to record ‘cause it’s not as big as it could have been and we do it really well.

Bernard: Do you know what the other guys from Big Star are doing now?
Alex: Yeah, Chris (Bell) is managing a hamburger joint that his dad owns a chain of and wants to turn into the next McDonald’s. He goes around the store with all his Jesus doctrine; it’s pretty weird [Bell died December 27, 1978 at the age of 27, in a car accident – RBF, 2010]. I don’t know what Jody’s (Stephens) doing, maybe still living with his mother, working somewhere, some incredibly miserable job [He currently works at Ardent Studios – RBF, 2010].

Bernard: What about John Lightman (who became bass player after Andy Hummel left)
Alex: I don’t’ know what he’s doing – I think he’s working in a bowling alley and going to school, and waiting for his trust fund to come in
[We somehow forgot about Andy Hummel, but I remember Alex telling me what he was doing in ’76, and while I can’t recall what Alex said Chris was doin’, I don’t think it was really very different than what the other guys are doing now. – BK]

Bernard: Would you like to see the Big Star albums reissued someday?
Alex: Yeah… or maybe a Greatest Hits. You know, I think it would be a neat compilation… I don’t expect I’ll ever make any money from them whatever happens, but I would feel honored if they’d be re-released someday by some record company catering to the collectors of this world.

Bernard: Do you think if “September Gurls” was put out again it might possibly be a hit single someday?
Alex: Yeah. But there might be better singles, like I have a recording in the can of “Oh, My Soul” that’s a lot better than the one that’s on the album with different musicians that I did when I quite the band after the first album came out. It’s real hot; that’s probably a hit song, too. It’s got a twelve-string on it.

Bernard: If someone gave you a million dollars and said you could do what you want with it, would you not make music ‘cause financially you wouldn’t have to, or do you think you would?
Alex: I’d make a lot of music. Make a lot more music; make films, interview people…

Bernard: Is there anything you like about New York?
Alex: Yeah, you know, it’s like real easy to run though New York, skim it, get all the glimpses you want. Everybody loves me here, it’s incredible. In Memphis, everybody thinks I’m a jerk. Come up there, get respect, girls wanna sleep with me.

Bernard: What did you think of the Dudes when you met them last year?
Alex: Not much, really.

Bernard: You wouldn’t think of doing anything with them?
Alex: Oh, yeah, but I would let him [Bob Segarini, of the Dudes, I believe – B.K.] control me… I just think I know more than he does.

Bernard: Did you hear about the big super-session plans for you and Segarini, Wally Bryson, and (Nils) Lofgren?
Alex: Yeah, I was prepared to do that because I just figured once we get into a recording studio you do what you could do and everybody does what they can do, and what I can do is… it all [laughs]… but I was prepared to do that.

Bernard: Why did the deal with DJM / Amherst [the record co. who last year brought Alex to Buffalo, introduced him to the Dues in Toronto, and had these super-session plans for Chilton] fall through?
Alex: They never called me back. I went home and never heard from them again, which was OK. You know, I don’t know what was in their heads. I don’t’ know what they thought after they met me [laughs]

Bernard: Were there a lot of fights within Big Star?
Alex: Chris Bell had a lot of them, but I couldn’t ever tell who he was having them with…

Bernard: When you stared out playing in Overton Square in Memphis with Big Star, were you playing songs that weren’t on the album?
Alex: We were doing a few things like Todd Rundgren’s “Slut” and the Kinks’ “Come On New,” and some more covers.

Bernard: What do you think of the whole “new-wave” thing and people releasing their own records?
Alex: It’s a step in the right direction…

Bernard: What would you like written on your grave?
Alex: “A Self Made Man” sounds best to me.


  1. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  2. Alex meant a lot more to people than I believe even he knew. It was a pleasure reliving those moments, and I'm espeically grateful for Bernie permitting me to reprint that 1977 interview.