Why Should I Care?: Alternative (Male, White) Southernness and Mortality
When I posted last week’s long-overdue news item, I was thinking of writing specifically about only two musicians—with a sincere, but passing acknowledgement of a few others. After all, given some of my musical predilections, many of you might suspect that I was profoundly affected by the passing of singer Teddy Pendergrass, producer Willie Mitchell, songwriter/performer Lhasa de Sela and drummer Ed Thigpen, among others.
Still, given the news I received Wednesday evening about the death of a performer whose work has been inspirational to a number of other musicians, I couldn’t help but make some personal connections between three of the musicians I haven’t yet named. I became acquainted with their respective work at different points in my life and, as a result, perhaps appreciated them in ways that said more about where I was at those times than about what they specifically accomplished. I don’t really think that’s the whole story, though. That is, I’m not the only person who found something profound in their work that wasn’t attributable simply to my personal biography (or their individual ones).
Alex Chilton is in some ways a prime example. While I was sad upon learning of his death early in the evening of 17 March, his music has been with me longer than that of the other two performers I’ll discuss shortly. Interestingly, my first knowing encounters with his music came in the mid-1980s, when a number of musicians who first found favor on college- and independent rock stations started covering songs first recorded by Chilton’s second major group (after the Box Tops), Big Star: e.g., This Mortal Coil doing “Kanga Roo” and “Holocaust” on 1984’s It’ll End in Tears and the Bangles doing “September Gurls” on Different Light (1986). Around the same time, many DJs at those stations started programming more material by Big Star. Thanks in part to their enthusiasm, by the latter half of the 1980s, Alex Chilton, while far from being a household name, was someone whose name garnered knowing nods in certain songwriting circles. Enough knowing nods, that is, for Paul Westerberg, Tommy Stinson and Chris Mars of the Replacements to write a song bearing his name (on the album Pleased to Meet Me from 1987) and having a chorus that read in part: “Children by the million / Sing for Alex Chilton / When he comes round / They sing ‘I’m in love. What’s that song?” While some commentators have heard the song as a straight-up tribute, I hear a certain skepticism and weariness in it. Chilton was great, the argument might go, but not just because his name was on the lips of “the cool kids.” Indeed, those people not knowledgeable about or specifically attuned to what other musicians heard in his work might be forgiven for not recognizing or, more accurately, hearing the traces Chilton has left on the rock and pop landscape. To be sure, there are elements of his calculated looseness in Westerberg’s work and signs of his inspiration in the work of REM as well as those performers who learned from Big Star as well as the work Chilton did with the Panther Burns and afterwards. (As a sidenote, a reworked version of one of his Big Star tunes was the theme song for the Fox series That 70s Show.) And he was, as he demonstrated over and over again, a consummate songwriter. How many other composers could make a terrible rhyme (“party” and “flirty” in “Kanga Roo”) sound clever rather than cloying? Even Irving Berlin and Cole Porter’s near- (or not so near-) rhymes are more likely to induce groans. Still, if there’s a song that makes me think fondly about Chilton and sums up what I find so compelling in his work, it has to be “Big Black Car” from the album Third/Sister Lovers. Sonically and lyrically, one might say the song is concerned, alternately and simultaneously, with strength and fragility: with a sense of a confidence and invulnerability that is beset at every moment with doubt and ambiguity. And, in the end, it’s about continuing to move despite the uncertainty. Sigh.
A little more than a week ago, the news came from varied media outlets that songwriter, singer, multi-instrumentalist and producer Mark Linkous had taken his own life in Knoxville, Tennessee. Like Chilton, Linkous was a performer whose work was well-known only in limited circles. I’ve pointed out to at least a few people over the years that there’s an odd party/jam session scene in the film Laurel Canyon (2002) that features Linkous and Daniel Lanois performing; I’ve often wondered how many people noticed or could have noticed/cared to notice who they were. That scene is probably about as close as Linkous came to being famous, beyond the story of an overdose in London in 1996, though the lack of wide recognition is no reflection on the quality of his work. The four full-length recordings he released under the name Sparklehorse were among the most fully realized rock productions I’ve heard. Each of them is an inventive, constantly developing project, bringing the romance and darkness of the (white) American South—more on that momentarily—together with the sensibilities of a producer in whose work low-fidelity production registered more as a intentional strategy than as an unknowing or ironic one. That is, rather than fetishize low-fi, independent production, Linkous, as someone singed to a major label (Capitol), seemed to recognize what a good thing he had. And while I’m certain there are people for whom his music won’t register as it does for me, I absolutely love that he owned and appreciated where he was and what he could do as a result and did so unapologetically.
While there are too many layers of craft and signification to unpack here, take a listen, nonetheless to “Gold Day” from It’s a Wonderful Life, still my favorite of the Sparklehorse releases. I remember hearing that track for the first time and imagining myself simultaneously on a porch in Louisiana absorbing the wisdom of a much-older relative in the early 1970s and listening with a turn-of-the-millennium amateur producer/engineer’s ears. In both senses, my horizons expanded. It’s too bad the putative impetus for the muted but sunny optimism of the lyrics—“In silver piles of smiles / May all your days be gold, my child”—couldn’t have succored Linkous in his final, darkest moments. Depression, however, is far from a simple thing, especially for those who have, mostly for worse, to live with it.
That last sentence resonates perhaps most bitterly when one considers the life and work of guitarist/songwriter Vic Chesnutt. So much of his story—like that of Linkous or, to a lesser degree, Chilton—seems a prime way to prop up a tired rock/artistic cliché about suffering and greatness. While the myth is useless in and of itself, it particularly devalues the work that Chesnutt did in his life. Indeed, so much of his career since the accident that almost killed him in 1983 has been an exploration of possibility, a celebration of what someone miraculously still here might do. That’s not to say that his work has been of the “Walking on Sunshine” variety. Instead, the very doing of it—the playing despite limited mobility, the going-on when so much seemed bleak and unredeemable—was something to behold. As was the case with both Chilton and Linkous, Chesnutt was a musician’s musician, championed by Michael Stipe of REM and many other performers over the years. For evidence of why, you need only listen to, well, anything he recorded. Since that might be too much to start with, though, try some of the later work (co-arranged by Guy Picciotto), like “Splendid” or the cover of “Fodder on Her Wings” from North Star Deserter. Or, more poignantly, try “I’ve Flirted with You All My Life” (click here for listening options) from his last-released disc At the Cut. As Chesnutt said in an interview with Terry Gross on WHYY/NPR’s Fresh Air in December 2009 (starting around the 11:05 mark), this song is about a break up, about death—despite Chesnutt’s attempts to kill himself, even before his accident—not taking. As hopeful as he sounded in the interview (which started with the playing of his song “Coward”), as much as it seemed that the song was an indication that he might have turned a corner, it was nothing short of a surprise when I learned, amidst the news of a failed bombing attempt on a Northwest Airlines flight, that Chesnutt had killed himself on Christmas Day, only a few weeks after his appearance on Gross’s show.
At this moment, frankly, I don’t know what to write. For different reasons and in different ways, each of these musicians’ deaths have felt like hard kicks to the gut. Their effect on me, of course, is not at all comparable to what they experienced in the years or moments leading to their demises, but they hurt nonetheless. They are a reminder that life cannot, despite our machinations, technologies or desires, be controlled, manipulated or extended, that so much of what is beautiful and affirming lies not in the what-will-be but in the what-is and what-has-been. Reflecting on these musicians as men from the South who were in many ways different from one another and from me, I cannot help but be struck but how much they and I have in common. Some might see them (and perhaps me) as refugees. Really, though, they were just trying to say who they were, what they loved. That they did so in ways that as much transcended as betrayed their cirumstances and privileges has to be part of how we understand them.That they all both feed and problematize a notion of tragedy inherent in some conceptions of the American South is also part of the story. In the end, though, it’s just a part.