This remembrance of Alex Chilton, who passed away Wednesday at the age of 59, was sent in by John "Bucky" Wilkin, aka Ronny of the '60s Nashville surf-rock group Ronny and The Daytonas.
I first met Alex Chilton in 1987 when we were part of an oldies package tour called The Great American '60s Cruise. The headliner was Gary Lewis and his band the Playboys, who backed up the rest of us -- namely myself as Ronny and The Daytonas, Alex from The Box Tops, Dennis Yost of the Classics Four, and Sonny Geraci of Climax and the Outsiders.
We toured off and on for two years. It was a well-organized affair, each of us living in different cities and rendezvousing at the gig city. The promoter lived in Minneapolis, the tour manager in Indianapolis. Sonny and Gary flew in from Cleveland, Dennis from Florida, Alex from either Memphis or New Orleans and I from Nashville. The band drove their big truck overnight between cities. Our plane tickets arrived by FedEx the night before and somehow we all met up on time in City X. Nobody got hurt and everybody got paid. A miracle.
At the time, Alex was hot on the college charts, had a cut in a big Bangles album, and had enough money to rent his own car. The fun was to get to ride with Alex and not in the van with the rest of the road hogs. Alex would rent a Chrysler New Yorker, Lincoln Continental or some other pretentious and luxurious car. His attitude was, "If they're dumb enough to pay me all this money, I may as well enjoy it." We would drive slowly on the back roads between gig cities, stopping at roadside stands for honey, natural foods, local trinkets, souvenirs.
As it turned out, Alex and I had been label mates early on, he with The Box Tops on Amy and Ronny and the Daytonas on Mala, part of the small but powerful Bell Records organization out of New York City. Alex was 16 when he sang "The Letter," and I was 18 when I did "GTO." We had run around the same streets as teenagers and didn't know it until then.
Alex was a complex cat and represented different things to different people. I saw a man deep into the Delta blues, a very honest man -- someone who wore the brown leather boots of far-left Labor and sometimes made a joke of the music scene. I saw someone more like the William Burroughs of '60s Southern rock, hipper than just about anyone I knew, but with a dark and tortured side. He was short, wiry, and soft-spoken, but he let you know right away he could handle himself in a situation. He probably had a blade or a gun stashed away but never showed it.
He had given up drinking years before, but still smoked cigs and occasionally weed. Vietnam was the war we both related to, more on the level of the Buddhist priests who set themselves on fire in protest than as the American combat soldiers -- both of us somehow being able to avoid the draft.
I visited Alex once at his place in New Orleans, a block outside the Quarter, where he rode out Katrina. He let me stay in his old apartment on Barracks St., above a garage in a big older house. He was moving in with his girlfriend in one of those 200-year-old termite-infested French shotgun shacks a few blocks over on Prieure St. He was not a Luddite, but never got around to computers or the Internet. Maybe he was comfortable with the spirits he knew well, and didn't need to ghostbust in the name of something modern.
Alex did me the honor of recording a version of "GTO" for his Black List CD, which is still a popular download on iTunes. He sent me a live version he did in Amsterdam once. As with all his covers, like "Volare" and other old tunes, it was done a bit of tongue-in-cheek, and I never knew if he was sincere or slightly making fun with his parody. I took it as a friendship gesture.
We were never really close except for the times we spent on the road together. I always wanted to be better friends, admired the cat a lot, but the real friendship deal never came around on the guitar, as they say. Listening to some of his old cuts, I hear an in-your-face honesty and a fully realized personality that few artists achieve.