Classic Rock 210 features the story of Alex Chilton’s Big Star, one of the archetypal underground bands. In this previously unpublished interview, recorded in the week following Chilton’s death in 2010, The Posies’ Ken Stringfellow — whose own band were heavily influenced by Big Star, and who joined the reformed group in 1993 — remembers his old boss.
Having worked with him in the reformed Big Star, what was your take on Alex Chilton?
In his later life, Alex spent a lot of time living in contrast to the reputation that he either earned or didn’t. I didn’t know him back in the years which were supposed to be his ‘difficult’ ones. I found him to be all of the things that people said he wasn’t back in those days: very affable, charming, professional, consistent and reliable. Alex admitted that he went through a drinking and drugging period that was pretty pronounced, and it was clear to me that he was making sure to at least go on a different track, if not actually make amends. He was aware that he’d probably burned a few bridges and wasn’t interested in burning any more. He was very clear about what he would and wouldn’t do when I knew him.
When did you first hear Big Star?
When The Posies began, three of the four of us worked in record stores. And the older employees told us that ‘hey, Big Star is something you need to discover – right now’. So listening to them for the first time was a pretty profound eureka moment. I wondered how this music could be languishing outside of the consciousness of the mainstream. It had everything in place. The bass player in The Posies brought home a German import CD of the first two Big Star albums. The audio was so pristine and such an amazing recording achievement. That was another mystery: How could this music not have worked? And that changed everything for me from there.
The reformed Big Star in 1995. L-R Jon Auer (The Posies), Alex Chilton, Jody Stephens, Ken Stringfellow (The Posies)
What about finally meeting Alex and working with him?
We met Alex on the first day of rehearsals for the reunion show in Seattle [in 1993], after we’d gotten to know [Big Star drummer] Jody Stephens quite well. He was more reserved then, but I had a feeling his charm was always in reserve and you had to get to know him a little bit. As many a band will do when they get back together, at the beginning they went back to where they’d left off. And Jody didn’t come with the same intellectual credentials that Alex did. Alex was very disciplined intellectually and widely read, whereas Jody wasn’t able to remember the subtleties of Dostoyevsky’s middle period! And when Alex was trying to define himself as an adult back in the ‘70s, that probably rankled him to some degree.
But I think that playing with Jody and Jon and myself had an influence on Alex’s development and the relationship between Alex and Jody. As far as being an influence on me, Alex was just very inspiring. When I first met him, he was different to all my musical contemporaries. He had his eyes on a much wider vista of things to think about. He was influential not only on my music, but also on my whole way of thinking. And I didn’t know a lot of people like that.
What about Alex’s wider influence on the musical world?
Like many of the great artists, Alex became symbolic of the things that probably weren’t part of his intention, but were certainly part of his result. In the heyday of Alex’s first career with the Box Tops, critically-acclaimed albums by people like Hendrix and The Doors would invariably sell a lot. They were pop stars who were also part of an artistic movement. And people didn’t start to derail that idea until later.
**Do you have one abiding memory of Alex? **
When I think of Alex, I think of his laid-back attitude. I took over as Big Star tour manager at one point, having seen a few people go completely crazy on the job. But he was never less than charming and professional. But maybe he just liked me and accepted me and Jon. That’s the Alex I knew, always cool with everything.