Searching For Alex Chilton, Part 1

A Big Star In My Life
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It was around 1980-81, I read in Trouser Press, (the go-to rag for “underground,” FM ,and college radio bands), that one of my childhood heroes, Alex Chilton, vocalist for The Boxtops, later in Big Star, had quit trying to make it on his own in NYC and had moved back home to Memphis. It just happened that my last week with my last band was playing in the not too distant Corinth, MS.  I let my fingers do the walking and called every Chilton in the Memphis phone directory and, lo and behold, had great conversations with Alex’s mom and his sister Cecilia. Cecilia even came to hear our band play at the luxurious Corinth Holiday Inn (note sarcasm).

Asking about Alex, she told me that he was in New Orleans. “Playing music?” I asked. “No, he’s washing dishes at the Marie Antoinette Hotel” she replied. I was floored that someone as talented as Alex Chilton could be doing such mundane work. I decided on the spot that when my gig with this band was over, I was going to New Orleans to find him. Cecelia gave me his number in the kitchen of the hotel but told me not to call until after 11:00 as he was working the midnight shift. Alex did not have a phone in his apartment. I sat on the number for a few days just staring at it or half dialing and hanging up. I should explain. This does tie-in to my theme of knowing what is success and what is a bomb. Alex was one of those guys that with the right band and set of songs, could obliterate the flailing post-punk/ new wave era.

Back to my story...

In the December issue of Trouser Press, a listing of artist’s birthdays had Alex on top (“…December boys got it bad…”). I took that as a sign, now or never.

I picked up the phone, dialed and heard it start to ring.  Some guy with a Spanish accent picks up the phone and says, “Kitchen, whatchoo want?” I came within a millisecond to slamming down the phone. Thank God I didn’t or the rest of my life would have been a much different path. I asked for Alex and the guy yells out really loud, “Alex, phone for choo.” A few seconds that seemed like hours later a slightly effeminate voice answers, “Hello?”

“Hi Alex, my name is Dan Griffin and I got your number from your sister and I just wanted to introduce myself and talk a little if you had time.”

I know my hands had to be shaking and my voice quivering but had instant relief when, in a very friendly tone, he said, “Sure but now is not a good time, can you call back in a couple of hours?” Needless to say, I eagerly said “sure” even though that would be 3:00 AM and late even for me. I sat and played my guitar and nervously looked at the photos on the Boxtops and Big Star LPs in my collection.

To my surprise, when I called back at 3:00, he answered the phone and I asked, “Hey Alex, is this a bad time to talk?” “Nah, I’m up all night anyway,” he replied. I could hear him pull up a chair and light a cigarette so, I figured, I’m in!

He jumped right into the conversation and made a sarcastic comment about me meeting his sister. It would be a few years later before I learned of the strange dichotomy of the Chilton family. I asked him about his music and had he really given it up. He made some remarks about not being into the current New York scene and getting his thoughts together. I asked if he was playing music around New Orleans and he said, “Nah, I work here at night and trim trees in the daytime.” He told me that he didn’t even own a guitar anymore. He sold it to get the deposit on his apartment. When I asked why he decided to stay in New Orleans rather than living in Memphis close to friends and family, he said, “I drove my shitty car down here for Mardi Gras and it broke down so I just stayed.”

Once or twice a week for the next couple of months I would make the 3:00 AM call and we would talk for a half hour or longer. Strange thing then, we hardly talked about music, especially his music. He wanted to talk about books he had read recently or a film he happen to catch at one of the art houses. Luckily, we had traded mailing addresses, (his changed a couple more times during our phone friendship), because one night I called and the Spanish guy picked up again and when I asked for Alex he let go a line of expletives mixing English and Spanish so I got the idea Alex was fired. Instead of hanging up or him hanging up on me, he proceeded to tell me why he fired Alex.

The next day, I wrote a letter and prayed that the latest address was still good. I told him to call me collect when he got the letter and to my surprise, he did. I had sent him the Muscle Shoals recordings of my late band but he never acknowleged it so I figured he made the Oswald face when he heard it or didn’t have anything to play it on. I never found out which was true.

I took a brave step and told him I would love to take a few days, drive down and hang out since he now had his evenings free. He said, “Well, my place is pretty small.” When I told him I would get my own hotel room, he kindly said, “Sure, come on down.”

We made plans on what day I would take the seven-hour drive from North Alabama to New Orleans. He called back a couple of days later and told me he had reserved a room in a hotel near his apartment and cheerfully told me it was at a place called The Columns where the movie Pretty Baby was filmed. I had not seen the movie but could not help having seen those shots of a 12 year-old Brooke Shields dressed as a prostitute being photographed by Keith Carradine. I had visions of a run down dive with these lost Tennessee Williams characters coming in and out at all hours of the night. I had led a pretty sheltered life before then but I knew I was about to embark on my first solo adventure. Imagine my surprise when I went to check in and it was a stately Civil War-era mansion-style dwelling. He must have had the impression I had lots of money because it was $125.00 a night for a small room. Remember, this was 1981 and I had just quite the only income-generating job I had. It was still early in the afternoon so I decided to pick up Alex and worry about accommodations later.

When I got to the address he had given me, it was an old dilapidated house slightly akin to the one in The Addams Family and must have been divided into boarding rooms during prohibition. As I walked up to the door, a pretty middle-aged lady walked out and I asked if Alex lived there. She directed me to the top floor and told me which door to knock. I had gotten over my nervousness about meeting him due to the long late night conversations we had had about many subjects and I knew I really liked him as a person instead of a rock god. I knocked on the door and a small-rail thin guy with sunken cheeks opens the door and we meet for the first time. I was not ready for the sight of his one room apartment, no bigger than a walk-in closet with a mattress on the floor. He had a pile of clothes in one corner and there was a stack of blues and jazz records and a pile of books and nothing else but scraps of paper strewn around the room.

Alex welcomed me in and we picked up a conversation just like we had on the phone. I asked him if he had had lunch yet and he told me no, but he had to wait for someone who was dropping by shortly. I immediately started hearing the Velvet Underground’s “Waitin’ For My Man” in my brain. He was not waiting for drugs, I am sure he couldn’t afford them at the time. He was waiting for a social worker to come by to check him for social security disability. On what grounds he had applied I never asked and he never told but a woman knocked on the door and Alex greeted her like he had met her before. She was going to give him a physical exam as well as ask a lot of questions so I told him I would leave and pick him up in an hour or so. He insisted I stay so I sat on the mattress while he gave he all the information she needed. It was then that I learned he had a son which never in the intervening years was anything ever mentioned among friends or press until his obituary in the New York Times...

to be continued...