St. Patrick’s Day and at about 8:30 I go online and check my favorite music blog to see what cool old records have been posted to download for free and there’s a post, barely ten minutes old, that tells me that Alex Chilton is dead and Jody Stephens has confirmed it.
Earlier that evening, I had been reading Plato’s Phaedo and in it Socrates (on the day of his own execution) goes on and on about how knowledge is nothing more or less than simple recollection and that how when one sees something as simple as a familiar garment or a lyre, one instantly knows not only that object but also the person that they know who regularly uses it. Thus knowledge of a cloak is also of a kind with knowledge of a person.
Likewise, the first thing that sprang to my mind after reading of Chilton’s death was a parade of familiar sounds. It started with the strings of ‘Take Care’ and soon made way for the line “you better not leave me here” from ‘Daisy Glaze’ and then the hook from ‘September Gurls’ and so many others that went through my head with such rapid connection that I didn’t have time to properly identify them. I was flooded with song - a simultaneous catalog - and with each song, a memory or two or six. Most of them involved driving somewhere with the windows down and singing along as loud as possible, not even knowing the words exactly but intimately familiar with every sound on every album and so I (and often we – as these were shared experiences) just sang what the words sounded like. Others were more solitary; dark college bedrooms listening to the final suite of Third/Sister Lovers over and over.
I’m not one to get choked up over death. My own grandfather (my last living grandparent) was admitted to the hospital not two weeks ago and is not expected to ever come out. Since getting that news, I have been a rock, strong and supportive for my mother. I have found every reason to continuously assert that this is “for the best” and that death, unknown as it is, cannot be a final end – not in nature as we know it. I really believe this.
But as I wrote before, I was flooded, and all floods do the same thing in the end: They devastate. And last night I sobbed, full-throated, wet and involuntary, for a good while before I stopped it up with a bottle of beer. Floods begetting rivulets.
I saw Chilton live once in the early 90s. It was a perverse and slightly contemptuous experience. Better for me is a memory of a Teenage Fanclub show I saw in Chapel Hill when, for the finale, the band gave their instruments to four randomly chosen members of the audience and those four people, along with the Fannies, banged out a sloppy and ecstatic version of ‘September Gurls.’ If Chilton had been in the room, he’d have hated it, I suppose. But we all loved every ringing chord, however poorly played. And that’s the gist of Chilton, oddly like Socrates before him – he wasn’t, to most of us who didn’t know him, a man who consisted of himself; but rather a man who consisted entirely of all the millions of people who loved him.