September's Girl

Big Star and the Big Uneasy.

By Jonathan Valania
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Sep. 21, 2005

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It's roughly five years ago and I'm heading over to Alex Chilton's house, a charming Creole cottage of Civil War vintage he's in the midst of restoring. Chilton is a forbidding totem of American music with a formidable pedigree: white soul prodigy; guiding light of Big Star; progenitor of power-pop purity, pill-addled punk and swampy garage blooze; indie's aging princeling of white failure. He's a musician's musician, and each entry on his resume has spun off countless imitators and innovators.

He got his house for a song, he tells me, because it's located in one of the Big Easy's more depleted neighborhoods. He'd warned me in advance that cab drivers were reluctant to venture there during the day and wouldn't even consider it after dark.

As the cab slows at a stop sign, two men in tracksuits approach and the driver waves them off, slamming the locks down and rolling up the windows. I see the suspicion in his eyes as he shoots daggers at me in the rearview mirror. What business would a white boy have here other than scoring drugs?

"Why are you going here?" he demands.

"I'm going to visit Alex Chilton. Do you know of him?"

The cabbie ignores me. As the sun dips below the skyline, I begin to wonder how I'm going to get back to my hotel.

"Will you come back and get me later on?" I ask.

"Hell no!"

When we finally get to Chilton's house, it looks like a beached tugboat in the weeds. Bars cover the doors and windows. Once inside I tell Chilton about the cabbie's uneasiness.

"Well, one of them did get shot down the street a month ago," he says straight-faced, before turning indignant, adding, "But it's broad daylight! What a pussy!"

Chilton is the only white person in the neighborhood, he confirms, though that could soon change. A Caucasian couple is looking to buy the place across the street.

"There goes the neighborhood," he deadpans. "I've always lived in black neighborhoods. I've always related to black people more than white people. If I lived in a white neighborhood, all my neighbors would be washing their BMWs and tending to the garden, and I can't really relate to that."

Chilton said something else to me that day that would become evident in the wake of the recent flood and the diaspora that followed: "In the South they don't care how close the black man gets as long as he doesn't get too big. In the North they don't care how big the black man gets as long as he doesn't get too close."

Next week sees the release of In Space by a reconstituted Big Star, effectively ending a 27-year hiatus and a looming power-pop legend that has grown in that time. In Space doesn't really work as a Big Star record, with only a few tracks even remotely connected to #1 Record or Radio City in texture and tenor. But with its giddy forays into white soul, sock-hop bop, surf rock and jazzy splatter, it's a pretty darn good Alex Chilton record.

Chilton stayed home to ride out Katrina and wound up trapped in his house for a week. The water came up only to his front step, but evacuation was deemed too risky for even this fearless straddler of racial boundaries as New Orleans devolved into a sunken pirate ship. Fortunately, a rescue boat finally spotted the white sheet he'd hung out his window, and Chilton was delivered from evil.

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