YouTube - Big Star - Thirteen (Lyrics)

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The late Alex Chilton, who died Wednesday at age 59 of an apparent heart attack, made definitive power pop with his band Big Star, and he proved his prodigious musicality with the jazz and R&B detours of his long, headstrong solo career. But he's destined to be remembered mostly as a personification -- the critically adored songwriter whose criminal lack of commercial success is considered a perverse badge of sainthood. In the apt words of Memphis writer Robert Gordon, Chilton was "known for being unknown."

The very name of his band, Big Star, became a bitterly ironic joke. After enjoying flash success as a teenager with the soulful Memphis band the Box Tops, whose two biggest hits, 'The Letter' (No. 1 US, 1967) and 'Cry Like a Baby' (No. 2 US, 1968), featured the 16-year-old singer's affected bellow, Chilton teamed up to form a new group with fellow Memphian Chris Bell.

Bell brought along the rhythm section from his previous group: bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens. The two frontmen consciously imagined themselves as successors to the Lennon-McCartney songwriting team, making Big Star a pioneer in a long, long line of indie-minded rock groups that emulate the Beatles' overpowering melodicism.

"Every cut could be a single," Billboard magazine gushed when Big Star's debut album, '#1 Record,' came out in 1972, and most reviews were similarly enthusiastic. But the band suffered the fate of so many cult artists before and since: The album fell victim to marketing indifference and limited availability as Stax, the parent company of the band's label, Ardent, entered a bumpy distribution deal with Columbia Records.

The band may have borrowed its name from a local supermarket chain, but Chilton and Bell undeniably felt confident in their ability to write songs together that would have widespread appeal. "We didn't think about doing live gigs," Chilton once told Gordon, as recounted in the author's alternative musical history of his hometown, 'It Came from Memphis.' "We thought we were the Beatles and weren't playing live anymore."

Bell, who had a history of depression, was hit hard by the failure of the first album; falling into substance abuse, he'd quit the group by the start of sessions for a second Big Star album. (His agonizing "lost" solo album, 'I Am the Cosmos,' helped kick-start the Big Star revival when it was released on CD in 1992.) The remaining threesome, however, still felt optimistic about their commercial prospects, naming the album 'Radio City.' But despite the inclusion of Big Star's most iconic song, the crystalline 'September Gurls,' Columbia took little interest in distributing the record, and it, too, flopped.

The careless handling of the band's early career gave Chilton all the ammunition he needed to become a hero of the underground. The final studio album of Big Star's first incarnation -- essentially a Chilton solo album with Stephens on drums, following Hummel's departure -- was deliciously bleak, with dispirited, atmospheric songs and Chilton barely mustering up the energy to sing "I hate it here,/Get me out of here." The album, alternately titled 'Third' and 'Sister Lovers,' was recorded in 1974 but remained unreleased until 1978.

By then, Chilton had completely turned his back on the music business. Dabbling on the outskirts of the punk movement, he met the Cramps at New York punk mecca CBGB and brought the band to Memphis to produce its first recordings. Chilton's first solo album, 'Like Flies on Sherbert,' prefigured the lo-fi anti-aesthetic of the early '90s with its poor sound quality, deliberate abrasiveness and slipshod covers of old country songs and KC and the Sunshine Band. After moving to New Orleans, he released sporadic, disparate solo albums for the next two decades on a variety of indie labels. When he recorded a collection of jazz standards, he called it 'Clichés.'

But even while Chilton was systematically disengaging himself, he was being crowned as an abiding inspiration to new generations of melody-enamored rock 'n' rollers. The members of R.E.M. often spoke of their reverence for Big Star; likewise, Teenage Fanclub. Cheap Trick covered the group's 'In the Street' after it became the theme of 'That '70s Show.' Most famously, the Replacements created a monument of sorts to the band's leader, envisioning a perfect world of perfect pop music in the song 'Alex Chilton': "Children by the millions sing for Alex Chilton ..."

"In my opinion, Alex was the most talented triple threat musician out of Memphis -- and that's saying a ton," said Replacements frontman Paul Westerberg. "His versatility at soulful singing, pop-rock songwriting, master of the folk idiom, and his delving into the avant garde, goes without equal. He was also a hell of a guitar player and a great guy."

In 1993, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, two members of another band of Big Star fanatics, the Posies, joined Chilton and Stephens for a celebrated Big Star reunion. Despite Chilton's disregard ("People say Big Star made some of the best rock 'n' roll albums ever," he told Mojo magazine last fall. "And I say they're wrong"), the revamped group continued to perform on and off right up to Chilton's death. They were scheduled to headline at SXSW this weekend.

As others have noted, Big Star deserves at least as much credit as the Velvet Underground for the idea that if a cult band sold a thousand records, everyone who bought one went on to start a band of their own. Interestingly, Chilton covered the Velvets' 'Femme Fatale' on Big Star 'Third.' He spent the rest of his career playing another kind of fatalist.