Editor's Note: Part 1 of 'Searching For Alex Chilton' was previously published on Blinded By Sound and can be read here.
I was stunned that such a talented and influential artist, seemingly from a great family, would be living in such squalor. I surmised he must have chosen that anonymous life over the inane world of rock music. He had sold millions of records as a teen in The Boxtops and never made a dime, then, after a few months hanging out with Dennis Wilson and Charles Manson, retreated to Memphis to make three of the most amazing American records by any rock band- two with old friend Chris Bell, who died in a car crash after making a great solo record that remained unreleased for 14 years. All three sold a combined total of around 100,000.
I had been looking through his stack of records as he finished up with the social worker and out of all the old jazz and blues records there was only one of his – the recently released Live In London LP that looked unplayed. Of course, he didn’t have anything to play them on. He said, “That’s pretty good, do you want it?” I said, “It’s your only copy.” “I can get more,” he replied. I also noticed a package I had sent to him weeks ago that remained unopened.
Alex seemed uncharacteristically cheerful and wanted to show me around the city after taking me to his favorite restaurant, the name and location escapes me all these years on. As we walked to my car, a small blue boxy Dodge Omni that took me on many memorable miles, he asked, “Can I drive?” Of course, I was not going to refuse and I think he may be the only person I have ever allowed to smoke in any of my vehicles. He made a comment as we got inside that I will never forget.
“I love to drive other people’s cars.” He said it so snidely that I became a little nervous.
That would be one of the first mind games he enjoyed playing with me, and many others, over the next couple of decades.
The place, a Southern-style meat and three, was packed and the food was great. Alex was really chatty but not about music. I recall him talking about New Orleans history and wanting to drive out to Placimine’s Parrish to show me when he trimmed trees. All of a sudden, Alex puts down his fork and says, “Oh, my God.”
“What, what?” I was afraid a sniper had walked into the place.
“That’s Cosimo Matassa sitting over there!”
“Cosimo Matassa, he produced Fats Domino!”
Little did I know at the time but I witnessed a musical hero being floored by being in the presence of his own musical hero. He didn’t want to approach him and Alex actually seemed nervous to be eating in the old man’s presence.
After leaving the place, we drove out to the country and he was still chatty. I never brought up The Boxtops or Big Star but I asked him about some guys I had read about in Trouser Press that had driven from Winston-Salem, NC to Memphis to track him down as well as his old partner, Chris Bell. He acknowledged that he knew Mitch Easter, Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey but that was the extent of the conversation. After the many phone conversations and spending a couple hours with him, I could tell when I was traipsing on uncomfortable territory so I refrained from asking any more questions about music for a while.
I came prepared with an acoustic guitar and bass but never brought them out or even up in the conversations. We spent the day driving around with him pointing out oddball trivia that, looking back, had to have been fascinating but all I heard was him talking. The only thing I asked him about his life or career that he answered with a straight answer was the rumor about Dennis Wilson and Charles Manson. He said, “Yeah, I left when it started to seem a little weird.”
He asked me if I wanted to go to a great record store. Of course, I agreed. I asked him if they had any of his records and he said, “Probably.” The only one in the “C’s” was Bach’s Bottom which an expanded German version of his independently released EP, The Singer Not the Song. I bought it and picked up a couple of blues records he found for himself. Luckily, I had planned on buying his meals and any other costs on the trip. We talked about the record and he made a comment about the producer, Jon Tiven. He said, “That’s the only guy I…” and made a fist. I got the message that he felt ripped off yet again. I think Tiven probably had Alex’s best interests in mind but the record is sort of a rip off with drunken outtakes – but one of my, and many others, favorites to this day. I talked to Tiven shortly after my trip and he said he had many hours of stuff with Alex and if I wanted to pay for having the multi-tracks transferred he would give me copies. I didn’t have the money but, holy shit! I should have taken out a loan! He gave me several numbers of musicians who had played on the record whom, I learned later, had grown up with Alex and should have called just to learn more about the mystery man but chose to respect his privacy.
Alex continued to show me around the city and the countryside around New Orleans pointing out all the places where he trimmed tree limbs and even stopped off at a place to confirm that he had a job later in the week. I never asked him about having his own car but he had to have gotten out there somehow. Maybe he really did enjoy driving other people’s cars. As we got back into the city it was getting dark, he said he had to get up early to get to his job, and I figured we had learned just about enough of each other as we wanted so I told him I thought I would head back to Alabama.
We said goodbye in front of his dilapidated apartment house and he gave me a number to reach him and we agreed to stay in touch. We did keep in touch, he got his own phone, and for the next few months I think I started pressuring him to get back to playing music at a time when he was not ready. I went back to Alabama and put together a band that learned every Big Star and Chilton song and tried to convince him to come up and start over. One of the last things he said in our conversations was,
“I want to stay where I feel safe.”
To be continued…