floating: big star moments with alex chilton

That’s my motto. In and out of the Portland dance scene for the last eighty odd years, the Crystal is a perfect match for the happy bop of Alex Chilton and Big Star’s music. Not so much for their danceability, but for the history. The Crystal Ballroom has a lot of history. So does Alex Chilton…”

 

by john brown

 

 

You float. Somewhere between the ceiling and the floor at the Crystal Ballroom there is a distance that cannot be measured accurately. Precisely. It’s out of the question. It’s like pi — an odd happy number that could occupy the artificial and organic minds for a millennium or more. A dot and infinite digits. McMenamin brothers, better not to put it on the Web site. It’ll crash. Loose change follows its own orbit. The laws of gravity bend and bow inertia of thirst and a desire for music. For a back beat. I want to rent this place. A private party. Just for a few hours, so I can run. Run in my best pair of tube socks and slide. Slide like Tom Cruise only dreams he could. I’d be wearing pants. Probably. It might be humiliating for Alex Chilton to play a gig like this but I’m sure he’d be pleased to hear that his and Big Star’s music was blasting out the P.A. system for such an affair. The swirling sounds of September Gurls, Bangkok, Can’t Seem To, chasing some guy around a big bouncy dance floor in his socks. From the stage, or the security video at the hearing, Alex could see that the man’s demons were cowering beneath the drip tray for the Hammerhead tap. Yes, my happy thought for the day. You see, the floor at the Crystal Ballroom is on ball bearings. Let the floor do the work. That’s my motto. In and out of the Portland dance scene for the last eighty odd years, the Crystal is a perfect match for the happy bop of Alex Chilton and Big Star’s music. Not so much for their danceability, but for the history. The Crystal Ballroom has a lot of history. So does Alex Chilton.

Alex who?

For the real Alex Chilton and Big Star fans his name pursues not just memories, but a stream of consciousness including Alex’s history along with their own; where and what they were doing last when the Boxtops big hit The letter was blasting out over the AM radio. You remember, dont you? That gritty, ageless voice (17 at the time) of

“[Am] Give me a ticket for an [F] aeroplane
[Am7] aint got time to take the[D7] fastest train
[Am] lonely days are gone, [F] Im a going home,
My [E7] baby just wrote me a [Am] letter.”

A-HA! Now do you know whom Im talking about? Well yeah, sort of. I loved that song. That was Alex Chilton? Anxious to prove the extent of their loyalty, contemporaries recount Alex’s years of self imposed exile, studio frustrations and mostly unknown triumphs and then, when even the fairly literate rock and rollers still wear that vague expression, the fans jump into their varying lists of those artists whom Mr. Chilton has influenced. (Strangely, right now I’ve got Jeff Buckley loaded in my changer along with three Big Star albums and the Replacement’s Pleased To Meet Me, and damned if Mr. Buckley doesn’t sound like he was a fan.) For many, the Replacements top the list because of their song, one of their biggest hits, the aptly titled Alex Chilton. More knowing nods sure, but damn, that vague expression. It’s still there. Isnt it? Come on…

“Children by the millions
wait for Alex Chilton
when he comes around
Sayin’ Im in love with that song
Sayin’ Im in love with that song.”

Yeah. Remember? Oh well. Ironically, and absolutely fitting in Chilton’s case, the Replacements song is another one of those familiar tunes that is hard to identify with any particular time, person or place. Timeless, definitely, but typical of Chilton’s lack of notoriety.

Anyway, what do I know about Alex Chilton? When he, backed by the remaining two Posies launched into a burning rendition of In the Street the theme song adopted by That 70s Show, I knowingly bopped along, but incorrectly answered my son, confidently I must add, that yes, this was just a cover! Yeah, what do I know, Had I done my homework a little more thoroughly, I would have recognized that as a Chilton\Chris Bell song from the summer of 1972 and their album #1 Record. That song, along with a good many other fine examples of pure pop inspiration (Thirteen, September Gurls, Motel Blues, She’s a Mover) all seemed familiar but alas from when and where, from what era, scene or genre? It’s hard to place. That little truth is the unfortunate reality for one of pop music’s most influential and lasting icons. Listening to him and watching the knowing faces of the fans in attendance, its impossible not to hear and see the familiarity that this pop legend breeds. The novelty of that floor causes people to look over their shoulders, smiling of course, but you want to share this. You look over your shoulder half wondering where its all coming from; the music , the movement. You want to make sure everyone’s getting it. A kind of are you in on this look. Sadly, there were few, only about 400 in attendance there to see it.

For our favorite artists we wish them success but not too much. A sell out crowd would have been nice as long as you could still easily get cheap tickets. Air play? That be cool as long as certain stations dont get a hold of them and then kill it with overplay. Ah fuck it, that kind of success gets complicated. Let’s face it, would we wish all that on anybody? Success for these Big Stars, for the Alex Chiltons of the world, I would hope, comes from all those knowing smiles and joy created in that infinite space between the floor and the ceiling. At the Crystal Ballroom, in Portland Oregon and in the thousands and thousands of other rock and roll spaces we make for ourselves in the world. So let’s just pass the good stuff around among our friends and to all that have an appreciation for those singular and timeless voices that inspire us. If you make a trip to the Crystal, bend your knees and let the floor do the work.

 

Originally published:
Issue Five
January 2001

 

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