We’re currently working on the manuscript of Bruce Eaton’s 33 1/3 book about Big Star, which will be publishing in the next couple of months. As well as some wonderful, never-seen-before photos, the book is a treasure trove of original interviews with surviving band members and several others who were there, at Ardent, while the album was being made. Here’s a brief extract from near the start of the book.
Alex Chilton’s reluctant to non-existent relationship with the rock press over the past thirty years can make a noted curmudgeon like Van Morrison seem downright friendly and accessible. In a notable brush-off to writer Barney Hoskyns for a 2004 MOJO article he explained “A lot of people do their best and still completely misunderstand everything about me, and I’ve just completely had it with co-operating with it or playing along with it in any sense whatsoever.”
With that quote rattling around in my head, I headed to Philadelphia one bright October morning in 2007 to meet with Alex regarding the possibility of an interview for this book. He agreed to at least listen to what I had in mind – a focus on the music – and give it some consideration. I agreed to leave my tape recorder home. After lunch at and some general catching up, we took an extended walk around the South Street neighborhood, stopping along the way at various shops and (Alex bought a beautiful vintage classical guitar for $150 – quite the deal). Somewhere along the way, he offered, “Well, if you want to know the story of Big Star, you have to go back about 300 years…” and then started to tell the story from his point of view. I tried to take it all in – trying to hold onto each little detail while two more came right at me. When he finished, I told him “If I’d had a recorder on, we’d be half done by now.” At the end of the day, Alex agreed to talk on the record. We met again in Philidelphia two months later at his girlfriend’s apartment. Sitting at a small table, he talked about his life before Big Star, music, and the album that for all its acclaim, he still has decidedly mixed feelings about.
As Chilton sees it, the Radio City story doesn’t begin with his joining Big Star or even meeting Chris Bell as a young teen. If you really want to understand Big Star from his perspective, you have to go to back the arrival of John Chilton of Canterbury, England on the shores of Virginia in 1660 – three hundred years before John Lennon met Paul McCartney and started sowing the seeds for the British Invasion that would ultimately lead to Big Star. Purchasing a tract of land on what is now known as Curryoman Bay off the Potomac River, John Chilton built an estate named Currioman just down the road from the eventual birthplaces of George Washington and Robert E. Lee. The Chilton family prospered for generations in Virginia. You can still drive down Chiltons Road and visit family graves. Born in 1816, John Marshall Chilton, the great-grandson of John Chilton, grew up in Virginia until making his way to Mississippi in 1840. It’s likely that he came by way of New Orleans – his younger wife Sally was from the Crescent City – and ultimately settled in Vicksburg, Mississippi, some 250 miles downriver from Memphis.
Alex Chilton: That’s how my branch of the Chiltons got to Mississippi and they stayed there until three years before I was born. John Marshall Chilton, my great-great-grandfather was a lawyer and wrote a history of colonial Mississippi territory that is pretty good reading. He died in 1859 at the age of 43 but left a lot of children. My great-grandfather had been born in 1853. His name was Harrison Randolph Chilton. I guess that some of the Chiltons fought in the siege of Vicksburg but they seemed to have moved inland sometime around the 1860s to around Clinton, Mississippi. By the 1870s they were in Clinton and stayed around there.
My great-grandfather moved over to a river county. He tried having a big plantation over there but it washed away in a big flood and ended up being sheriff in Isiqueena County, which is the end of the world. If you ever end up going there you’ll know exactly what I mean. It’s way, way out there – the poorest place I’ve ever been in my life. I’ve read a statistic that around the turn of the 20th century, when he was still sheriff, the ratio of blacks to white was nineteen blacks to one white in the height of the Jim Crow era. My grandfather grew up there in the town of Meyersville. My father [Sid Chilton] grew up over there in eastern Mississippi around Starkville and stayed in Mississippi until the war – he was in the Navy during the war.