This will all relate to the music soon, I promise.
I met a boy my first few months of college who was fascinating and confident and a rockstar kind of guy, smelling of patchouli and incense and pot and I told him straight off: you will want to marry me someday. I was a kid. Then again, so was he. But I was a kid with foresight. I chased that boy 3 years later not knowing at all that he was committed, nay, living with someone (and as strident as I was in my pursuit, I will forever feel bad to Traci about that, and I barely knew her, but karma can kick you in the ass, even years later, and yes, Traci, touche it was). This boy was in a band. This band was amazing. Was the soundtrack to the last year of my fantastical college year of working way too hard, writing into the wee hours, smoking a lot of pot and drinking a lot of espresso and feeling very full of my own poetry and potential. I have previously written about this boy. The boy is not the point here. The music is. I remember the music clearly: I think one writer called them the Indigo Boys, which was so unfair. They were acid dropping potheads with high IQs who played on the edge of their lives as if this was all they had. Matt wrote languagelooping lyrics ontop of melodic grunge, pre-grunge. They had long greasy hair and all lived together in a house they'd named and threw parties in and created a marketing brand without commercial instincts. Just a bunch of boys who wanted to live their own Woodstock. Or Big Pink. I was a girl in love, with admittedly naive taste in rock music. Well versed in opera and jazz and classical and broadway melodies and folk, but with no real backbone in the conversation of the Family Tree of REM, which hung on their fridge. I was in love. Love makes you listen. I was an artist. I see that now, but an artist without a medium. I was in search of my medium, my voice, throwing shit at the wall to see what stuck whether it was poetry or plays, baking bread at 6am or singing jazz, to running away to NYC to study acting just to find something that was all mine.
But I remember this gig. Matt out in front of the big rock noise, strumming his Takamine (I think it was red...). "I'm in love with a girl...." He sang it to me. I'm sure he didn't, but I knew he did.
I remember the nights in his room, which became our room once said girlfriend left (oooh, feels awful admitting that, but I was young, he was young, she was young, I'm sure we are all happy and better off now), headphones on, listening to music. Big Star. Alex Chilton. I remember the conversations where Matt would dismiss someone with a condescending sweep of rock history, "You don't know who Alex Chilton is?" I took that on myself later. The world was divided by that. Were you on board with Big Star or not? Did you recognize the seminal genius of this melodic music, the swirling madness of the 3rd record, so spare and difficult. Did you get it?
We broke up. Years later I was the girl with the guitar. A folkie. Devouring Dylan and Cohen and the Texas 3-named troubadours. But I still had my Pixies, Lemonheads, Smiths, Big Star, Replacement records. That band of boys in the woods grew up, got married one by one, had babies, did music or didn't. I did music. I threw myself body and soul into the music. Chose to not have the happy domestic life. Chose the melody. Found a like-minded guitar god who got what I did and collaborated with him. He shaped me while I was figuring out how to write for a band. We put the band together. He produced me. Took me under his wing. Said, "We should cover a Big Star song" and on long drives to gigs, the #1 Record/Radio City was the disc we played as our soundtrack. I never did learn that cover.
Last year, I was playing in Memphis for the Folk Alliance Conference and was invited to perform a small acoustic set at Ardent Studios. I was told someone would pick me up. That someone was Jody Stephens, drummer for Big Star (and studio manager for Ardent). He was kind and really interested in the whole folk alliance thing. At one point he said, "oh I was in this band..." as if, and I can't really tell for sure, he thought perhaps because I was a folkie, I might not know and I had to interrupt him and say, "yeah Big Star. Huge fan. Total honor to meet you." And I thought of Matt and the college band. Turns out Jody, as much of a rock star in my eyes, a totally nice, down to earth human being (many are) and we just hit it off, about music and whatever and I felt like I'd met someone real, someone who just so happened to be in a seminal and fucking ridiculously cool rock band that influenced most of the boys who taught me to play guitar and write songs.
I went to Austin this year on a whim. I wasn't scheduled for a regular showcase at SXSW. In fact, I was to be in the midwest on 2 dates, one of which was cancelled, making it impossible for me to afford the one-off. We cancelled. I hitched a ride to Austin with a friend, got a free place to crash, figured I'd eat street tacos and see music and just be in the swim of it, see what happens. I love live music, so I figured I'd spend 4 days listening to music and being in my bliss. Big Star was playing. I knew I'd be there. Wednesday night I was standing outside my hotel and saw Jody walk down my sidewalk and stopped him with a hug hello and he just looked at me blankly. "Alex died today." Everything changed. What do you say? "I'm so sorry for your loss" sounds lame. I just stammered, unbelieving. Its not like I'd ever met Chilton. He was, and will remain now, a black and white photo on the sleeve of the vinyl, a rockstar stopped in time. An icon. Not a living breathing bleeding crying hurting agonizing loving living human. But this was my new friend and this was his long long long time friend and the show would not go on now. Not any of it. Not the show. Not the music. Not the life. And it hit me as if it was someone I knew and as I left Jody, I dialed Jim's number and left what I'm sure was a swirling dialogue of tequila-hazed information. I tried to find Matt's number. Didn't have it. Facebooked him. Which sounds so lame. But I was trying to reach these people who gave me this music to say, "hey. I'm sorry for YOUR loss."
The next day I got a call and was invited to participate in the tribute concert to Big Star. I have to say, initially I thought it was a prank. I was completely shocked. But I loved the music, someone wanted me there, and I knew a song I thought I could offer in the emotional celebration. I thought of The Vestrymen singing "Kangaroo". I thought of the melodies that were out of time, out of synch with what was out there on the radio at the time. His voice, ethereal and ghostly, pitch-perfect lunacy and dagger to your heart dead on. I listened to "Holocaust" about 10 times on Thursday, shivering on the inside of my skin. I'm not sure if I can wrap my thoughts yet around what that was like--that concert. It was a haze, a whirlwind, I felt in my body and out of it all at once. I felt starstruck and startled, stared at and starry-eyed, the flash of the photographers blinded me and my heart beat fast in my chest for a grief I didn't necessarily personally feel but I could feel it in the room and it was like a river that flowed above the heads of the crowd that I could dip my finger into. And the grief for me was more directly about the music not the man but I was with people who were grieving a man, a collaborator, a friend, tears streaming and I wanted to just, as they say in meditation, Hold the Space. I didn't know what I was doing there. But I would do my part in Holding the Space. Backstage, Sondre Lerche looked stunned but graceful. Mike Mills was trying to keep it light. Stamey was speechless. Quiet and internal. I felt most connected to M. Ward as we both seemed to feel just graciously stunned to be there, but didn't know Chilton personally so we left the air to breathe amongst those who were personal friends. There was a definite air of reverence and joy, shelved grief and distortion, both internal and external. I've never been so proud to be a part of a show. Evan Dando, disoriented and dizzy, saying "fuck" before he started his song. The empty center microphone, unplanned but poetic.
As I stepped onstage though, and my name was called, and the previously cheering crowd for all the "names" had a kind of stuttering applause, like "who IS this?", I brought onstage with me in my heart Jim and Matt and Timo and Chris and Traci (who I never really knew anyway but I'm guessing was much more of an early BS fan that I was...she was cool enough probably to find them herself without the need of a rocker boyfriend to point the way) and Jody and Robert and Holly and people I know who knew him, the town of Memphis that I'm growing to really love, Ardent where it all began, and this state I've adopted as home. It was rough, it was underrehearsed, it was quick and brief and was finished right as soon as it began. Just like many things. Imperfect but filled with heart. It was the best kind of Tribute. And for me, it was a tribute to the people who got me there.
Put yourself in the river and see what happens. Chilton was an artist. A troubled artist, but an artist. I would much rather have been watching him from the audience than singing his song from the stage.