My life as a professional Chiltonologist and grave-robbing ghoul by Ross Johnson

I missed the premiere of the Big Star documentary, Nothing Can Hurt Me, along with the live redux of Sister Lovers / Third featuring Jody Stephens and Chris Stamey at SXSW a few days back. I was slated to perform with Memphis band Cloudland Canyon, but a last minute hissy fit and health problems helped me to keep my pledge to never play that nightmarish event again.

However, I was interviewed for the film a couple of years ago after Alex Chilton died, and, according to some of those who saw the cut of the documentary shown in Austin, I was described generously as comedic relief. I hope I was not described onscreen as Alex’s friend in the movie because the truth is that we were ex-friends for the last several decades of his life for numerous personal and professional lapses on my part.

Since his death, I have done quite a few other film and print interviews re: the late Mr. Chilton for other films in production about him currently, plus magazine articles and even a full-length biography to be printed by a reputable New York publisher. And with each interview, I feel just a bit more sleazy and uneasy about repeating what are now becoming clichéd, formulaic answers to easily anticipated questions. Recently, my (ex-?)girlfriend called me a “grave-robbing ghoul” re: the interviews about Alex that I am shamelessly doing now (hence the headline above). And I can’t disagree with her much on that score.

Of course, I don’t have to say yes to every journalist or documentarian who requests an interview with me. I don’t have business cards printed up declaring myself a Chiltonologist (see above again), yet somehow people who were still on good terms with Alex keep referring journalists and filmmakers to my always-open door. The irony and arrogance of speaking for a dead man is not lost on my often less than subtle soul. I try to imagine what his reaction might be to me answering for him, and I can picture an image of Alex shaking his head slowly as he often did when expressing disgust and signaling that a conversation was over from his end.

The Alex Chilton who left Memphis in the winter of 1982 to relocate to New Orleans from all accounts pretty much disappeared from public and private view. Being all too comfortable with pretentious, overblown statements these days, I will simply say that I think moving there saved his life in more ways than one. By the early 1980s, Memphis had become a toxic psychological environment for him. Anyone who knew him here during that period could testify to the veracity of that remark. Moving to New Orleans and reinventing himself on several levels would seem to have been nothing but a positive thing for him.

I played the occasional live show and recording session with him after his move to NOLA, but our, uh, friendship and musical association were never the same for the aforementioned personal and professional reasons. For once, this blabbermouth won’t go into detail about them here, but let’s just say I did a very thorough job of losing his friendship all on my own.

During the course of a phone interview with England’s Uncut magazine a couple of weeks back, I found myself expressing regret over the loss of that friendship in a more emotional way than I had anticipated. Playing with Alex Chilton was simply and most assuredly the highlight of my prosaic (non)career in the business; there is no doubt that I am at best a very obscure footnote to his sublime talent. I knew him mostly as a guitarist during his tenure with Tav Falco’s Panther Burns, and his playing might have been sloppy at times, but it was always a pleasure to make music with him. His love of, and passion for, music always came through when he played or sang. (The statement written by his widow, Laura, and read at SXSW 2010 re: his love of music is a moving testament to his role as a music fan.) I am sure I have said this before during the course of recent interviews, but when we found a bar with a good jukebox, Alex always remarked that the “jukebox is my favorite instrument.”

That is the Alex Chilton I miss. I hope some of that passion of his came across in the recent screening in Austin and also in all my gasbag interviews, some of which may mercifully never appear in print or on screen. Alex, a genius? Probably. Certainly, I have never known anyone with better musical taste than him. His infallibly good musical sense was, I thought, the source of that genius. The man knew a good song when he heard one, and even better, how to play it and make it his own.

Alex Chilton Photo: Stephanie Chernikowski
Ross Johnson Photo: Don Perry

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