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Music Lesson 

At Noise Pop, Alex Chilton proves you can be a fucked-up rock star and survive

Wednesday, Mar 13 2002
Big stars "I think Alex Chilton's got a thing for 12-year-olds," a guy next to me mumbled during the recent Big Star "reunion" show at the Fillmore. The claim seemed plausible, considering the way Chilton led his pals -- original drummer Jody Stephens and Posies guitarist Jon Auer and bassist Ken Stringfellow -- through a lustful ode to preteen "Patty Girl" (written by Gary & the Hornets, an obscure band from the '60s), followed by a less-than-PC Todd Rundgren tune called "Slut." When it came time to sing the classic "Thirteen," Chilton's advanced age and vehement vocal style moved the tune's youthful ennui in a far creepier direction.

Chilton's never been one to shy away from pissing on (or pissing off) his audience. After a show in Japan in 1995, when the assembled Big Star fans were howling for an encore, Chilton told his bandmates, "Fuck 'em. Elvis never did encores." For a gig at the Noe Valley Ministry in the mid-'90s, he eschewed his own tunes for horrible versions of jazz standards -- played with a big, lopsided grin on his face. There's even an infamous bootleg of a solo performance he gave in the '70s during which he was allegedly off his nut on angel dust, a drug that even hedonistic rock stars usually avoid. (For the record, the album sounds pretty amazing in an incomprehensible way -- like some Japanese improv artist playing his guitar with his feet.)

Given the shenanigans he could've pulled and the foursome's lack of practice, Chilton gave a rather professional show at Noise Pop. I got the feeling that some people were disappointed that he looked and sounded so good, as if they were hoping for a breakdown -- some folks think mental spasms are more honest and real than concerted effort.

Of all the scenesters in attendance at the Big Star show -- Red House Painter Mark Kozelek, the Papercuts, half the buyers at Amoeba, and nearly every band that's played "The Monday Night Hoot" for singer/songwriters at Du Nord -- the most unsurprising was an out-of-towner, Ryan Adams. Scheduled to play the Warfield the next night, Adams arrived early enough to catch Chilton, perhaps hoping to take notes on how to be a fucked-up rock star and survive.

Since the breakthrough of his altcountry act Whiskeytown, Adams has been as fiery and unstable as a comet -- and seemingly destined to blaze out just as completely. Following Whiskeytown's 1997 sophomore effort, Stranger's Almanac, Adams put out two solo albums and a record with Whiskeytown, penned an unpublished novel, recorded bushels of as-yet-unreleased songs, hooked up with classy ladies Winona Ryder and Alanis Morissette, dueted with fame-whore Elton John, and earned a reputation for rampant unpredictability during live shows. Online chat rooms overflow with tales of his excesses, describing concerts at which he's so wasted he can't remember half his lyrics or seems more interested in doing lines of coke off the edge of the stage.

One look at the man who stumbled up to the bar at the Fillmore told me that this lad could use a friendly reminder from the California Highway Patrol to slow down. Adams used to cut a svelte, lanky figure; now he's puffy-faced and sweaty, as if he's taken too many trips to the powder room. With his jean jacket, cockeyed cap, and smeared eye makeup, he seemed to be going for the look New York Dolls leader David Johansen gave up in 1979. All told, Adams appeared ready to pass out -- and the Big Star set hadn't even started yet.

According to several reports, Adams gave a terrific performance the next night. He played for over 2 1/2 hours, and his nine-number encore left the sold-out house enraptured. Adams often has that effect on audiences, who revere him as a cross between Hank Williams and Bruce Springsteen, with some Bob Dylan thrown in (a combination more than a few critics compare to John Mellencamp, and not in a good way). But, with each of his albums, Adams leaves more of his country roots behind, reaching further into the lexicon of classic rock, as if he's hoping he can be everything to everyone. Like Van Morrison? Here's a raw vocal performance for you. Dig Elton John? Got a piano ballad right there. Partial to the Rolling Stones' early '70s material? Here's a raunchy country blues tune at the ready. I wouldn't be surprised to hear some serious Big Star harmonies and crunchy power-pop guitar on his next record. Hopefully, Adams was paying attention to Chilton's performance at the Noise Pop show, which seemed to suggest that Neil Young was wrong when he said it's better to burn out than it is to fade away.

The new feminism Sunday night at the Great American Music Hall, an inebriated lass was heard struggling with her lust for riot grrl icon and Le Tigre lead singer Kathleen Hanna: "I love Kathleen! I want her. I want to rape her. No, no, I don't -- that's bad."

About The Author

Dan Strachota


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