The news of Alex Chilton’s death has hit us hard. It was 9 years ago, on a cold January morning in 2001, when I first got a call to play a string of dates in Canada with The Box Tops. I met Alex that morning at the airport in Minneapolis, where we all met for the connecting flight to Winnipeg. I learned the Box Tops songs that day on the airplanes, writing out charts while listening to a Walkman.
I spent the last nine years as a part-time Box Top. We never rehearsed. Ever. I learned a few new songs over the years at various soundchecks. I got to know Alex pretty well, and always looked forward to seeing him and hearing his take on various issues going on in the world. He was aware of everything going on around him, and usually had a copy of the New Yorker tucked under his arm. Was a huge fan of contemporary art and spent a lot of his time while traveling hanging out in museums.
I came to expect the unexpected whenever I was around Alex. One day he would bring up Graham Greene, another day it might be politics or food or classical music. Erudite and very liberal with a quick mind, he carried himself through this world floating on his own cynical nonchalance. He was never one to shy away from an opinion. And I always valued his opinions. The son of a Memphis judge, Alex was a self-educated man his whole life after quitting school to go on the road with The Box Tops at age 16. I once caught him playing Bach on my piano while we were screwing around during a soundcheck. He had memorized some pieces and was slowly working them out. A few months later I heard him playing a different Bach piece on a guitar in a dressing room. It got me thinking about improving my own playing, and so way back in 2001 I started seriously working on Bach’s music. Slowly learning the fingering, then memorizing one piece after another in the two books of the Well Tempered Clavier. Nine years later I’m still at it but almost through. I credit Alex for, among many other things, leading me to J.S.Bach.
Alex was bright, perceptive, cynical, opinionated, quick-witted and friendly; and he was equipped with a BS detector shield that people sometimes mistook for callousness or even meanness. He was not mean. But he was fiercely unlike anyone you’ve ever met. He unashamedly lived rock and roll.
Today, it seems an era has come to an end. Very, very sad.