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SXSW Grieves Alex Chilton's Passing
AUSTIN, Texas -- The site of the annual South By Southwest Music + Media Conference took this week's death of musician Alex Chilton harder than most locales.
A music intensive city by nature, Austin holds a reverence for Chilton and his band, Big Star, as well as his production work for bands such as the Cramps and Detroit's Gories. While most of the world knew Chilton -- who passed away Wednesday in New Orleans from a heart attack at age 59 -- for "The Letter," his 1967 hit with the Box Tops, Austin and the thousands of music crazies attending SXSW revered the Memphis-born musician as an icon and an influence.
And the fact that he was due to perform with Big Star at this year's conference only heightened the sense of loss.
The show will go on, however, on Saturday (March 20), but its tenor has changed. It will now be a tribute to Chilton, as well as a fundraiser for his family, with Big Star co-founder Jody Stephens and current members Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies acting as a "house band" for a growing guest list that currently includes M. Ward, R.E.M.'s Mike Mills, Chris Stamey, John Doe and Chuck Prophet, with more being added seemingly every minute.
A panel discussion about Big Star's history and influence will also continue as planned on Saturday afternoon.
"Y'know, it's a way of including people and sharing thoughts and feelings," Stephens said on Thursday. "Music's about that. It's not about excluding people. There are a lot of folks here in Austin at the moment that kind of share those thoughts and feelings; what a great way to remember Alex through stories in the panel, and that evening through music.
"It'll be just a cool way for us to all share that music Alex was part of. Certainly where Alex and I connected over the years was through music, either in the studio or on stage, so I think that's a great way for us all to tip our hats to Alex and celebrate his life.
Stephens said he's also grateful for the outporing of support that's greeted Chilton's death. "I'm grateful people care and are interested. There are 50 million bands out there and it's always hard to get attention because there's so much competition. So I'm always greatful when people are interested in Big Star and are talking about it."
"I ran into somebody who said, 'Y'know, I've seen three bands play today, and each one of them played a Big Star song. I thought, wow, what a wonderful way to remember someone."
Cheap Trick was among those paying tribute to Chilton on Thursday. During a taping of an "Austin City Limit" for October airing, the group played a three-song salute to Chilton, whose Big Star song "In the Street" was the basis for the group's theme song for TV's "That '70s Show." After guitarist Rick Nielsen noted that "a good friend of ours passed away," the group fused "The Latest's" "Sleep Forever" with "Heaven Tonight" before playing "That '70s Song."
At La Zona Rosa, Ray Davies told the crowd about how Chilton had come to his aid after the Kinks leader was shot in January of 2004 in New Orleans.
"He would come over and lend me a guitar," Davies recalled. "He became my friend...He helped me a lot." Then, adding that "I didn't know his band (Big Star) had covered this song, he performed the Kinks' "Till the End of the Day" and dedicated it to Chilton.
At a listening party for Stone Temple Pilots' new album, frontman Scott Weiland recalled using a song from Big Stars' "Third/Sister Lovers" album as a lullabye for his son, Noah. "I think (Chilton) wrote some of the most beautiful songs," Weiland said. "He was real special to me." Weiland said the song also influenced "A Song For Sleeping" from STP's "Shangri-La Dee Da" album in 2001.
The BoDeans' Kurt Neumann recalled opening for Big Star the last time the group performed at SXSW was "one of those things we were doing because it was Big Star. There was a lot of excitement that they were together and playing. We felt lucky to be on that gig." His BoDeans partner Sam Llanas said the group also did some dates with Chilton during 1987 in Europe, although they didn't get to spend much time together. "He's one of those guys that inspired so many young musicians," Llanas noted. "Between him and the Velvet Underground, they're probably responsible for thousands of groups out there. And 'September Gurls' is a classic pop song you can't deny."
At an afternoon party for his record label, John Hiatt spoke about "all the people hurting in Memphis" and played his "Tennessee Plates" in tribute. Afterward Hiatt said he did not know Chilton but had great respect for him as a musician. "I'm a big fan of his singing, just the sound of his voice," Hiatt said after his performance at the New West Records party. "He certainly cut some great records, definitely an innovator."
The Memphis Music Foundation booth at the SXSW trade show in the Austin Convenstion Center was busy on Thursday morning with well-wishers and those curious about what would happen to the Big Star programming scheduled for Saturday. Whiteboards bearing the legend "RIP Alex Chilton" featured updates about the status of the Big Star show and panel discussion, while artists playing at the booth all dedicatd their performances to Chilton; the Foundation's Thursday night showcase was also held in his honor.
"Everyone's in shock," said Foundation president Dean Deyo. "It hits here a little more because Alex was on his way here to perform. It's devestating. Memphis has a huge musical legacy, and Alex was such a big part of it. This is a huge loss"
Singer-songwriter Radney Foster said that without Chilton there would have been no Foster & Lloyd, his duo with fellow singer-songwriter Bill Lloyd. "The Box Tops were one of my favorite bands growing up; (Chilton) sounded like a 45-year-old black man when he was 16," Foster says. "And Big Star was a huge influence on Bill. He introduced me to them and it had a profound influence on what Foster & Lloyd sounded like. It was a roller coaster ride of a career, but there was a lot of stuff that deserved attention."
Dave Faulkner of Hoodoo Gurus added that Chilton's contributions were "more than just what he did himself. As much as he was celebrated for his songwriting, he mentored and produced so many other bands. Somebody lke the Cramps were just titans of music and Alex was instrumental in presenting their vision. He was hugely influential on generations of music."
Stephens said Chilton's funeral arrangements are incomplete and being overseen by his sister, Celia. As for Big Star continuing in any capacity without Chilton, Stephens said, "I can't imagine that, to tell you the truth. Alex was the heart of it. Maybe Jon and Ken and I can do something together, but now's not the time to think about it."
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