Alex Chilton goes to cool school
Alex Chilton was the prematurely gravelly lead singer of a #1 single when he was in his teens, and a member of a cultishly adored alt-pop band in his twenties, but his solo career was something of a jumble, filled with tracks scattered around EPs and import records, uncompleted projects, unpredictable live performances.
No wonder, then, that Holly George-Warren’s valuable biography of Chilton is titled A Man Called Destruction, and that a 2008 edition of the Rolling Stone Record Guide admits that his “discography is a complete mess.” The subsequent decade hasn’t sorted it out much: making sense of Chilton’s third act, which came to an early conclusion in 2010, is still an exercise in frustration.
Bar/None Records is at least giving it a go, simultaneously releasing a pair of Chilton collections, Songs from Robin Hood Lane and From Memphis to New Orleans, assembled from recordings made in the ’80s and ’90s. Most of the tracks on Robin Hood Lane first appeared on the album Clichés, released in 1994, and on 1993’s Medium Cool, a multi-artist affair, and it’s the more focused and engaging of the two new albums. George-Warren writes about a period of Chilton’s life, in the ’80s, where he was working as a dishwasher at the Louis XVI Restaurant in New Orleans. “He bought a cheap record player at Goodwill and listened to a handful of LPs, including Chet Baker Sings, one of his father’s records that he’d loved as a child, and played one track over and over, ‘Look for the Silver Lining’.”
That optimistic Jerome Kern–B.G. DeSylva song, introduced in 1920, is the oldest one on Robin Hood Lane, and one of seven songs where Chilton becomes a fabulous Baker boy. He doesn’t, on any of them, imitate Baker’s tone or phrasing exactly, but he gets to the center of what made the trumpet player turned vocalist such an arresting singer, despite having what might be considered a limited instrument. In the mid-’50s, Baker was a jazz star who resembled a pop idol, James Dean with a horn, and, like Dean’s, his appeal was partly the idea that he was fragile. His singing didn’t have the swagger of Sinatra’s, although they did some of the same songs; when Baker sang them, you felt as though you were eavesdropping, like the emotions were too private to be exclaimed, too intimate to be exposed.
VIDEO: “Chet Baker Sings” (Full Album)
Chilton was drawn to Baker at an early, impressionable age, and Robin Hood Lane, cobbled together from different sessions, shows how deeply he absorbed those songs. It’s odd: when we first heard Chilton’s voice, on “The Letter” by the Box Tops, he was an adolescent with a mature growl. “Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane,” he sang, like he’d stumbled to the airport counter after an all-night bender. Like a pop version of Benjamin Button, he seemed younger and more bright-eyed with Big Star, and then, on these standards, he reaches even further back to his childhood. What’s arresting about Baker, and about Chilton’s take on that repertoire, is how much like a male ingénue he is, how giddy in a romance (“Time After Time,” “Like Someone in Love”), how busted by love lost (“That Old Feeling,” “There Will Never Be Another You”). Their voices might, at times, be wavery and imprecise, the way a teenage boy’s can be, especially around girls.
Frank Loesser and Jimmy McHugh’s “Let’s Get Lost,” considered a signature Baker song since Bruce Weber’s cinematic mash note used it as a title, is sexy and hip (“Let’s defrost in a romantic mist” is a great Loesser line). It has a walkin’-on-air bounce. Like, can you believe how lucky we are that we found each other? (That’s also the theme of Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne’s “Time After Time.”) There is something so open-hearted and unaffected about Chilton’s approach to these songs. There’s none of the neo–Rat Pack trappings of Michael Bublé or the by-the-book renderings of Rod Stewart, and although Robert Christgau critiqued how Chilton “misprises classic pop as acoustic folk,” that makes him sound like Michael Franks or Kenny Rankin. That’s not what’s going on here. Some tracks are just voice and guitar, like Donaldson and Kahn’s “My Baby Just Cares for Me” based on the famous Nina Simone arrangement (from not long after Chet Baker Sings) and Cole Porter’s “All of You,” but I don’t hear folk in there. I hear Chilton stopping into a downtown jazz joint after a CBGB set and playing songs that captured his imagination decades before.
VIDEO: Alex Chilton – “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying”
Robin Hood Lane takes some nice detours off Baker’s road: there’s a subtly swinging “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” (the Louis Jordan/Ray Charles one; not, I guess I have to say, the one by Gerry & the Pacemakers), an instrumental “Frame for the Blues” by Slide Hampton, and the little-known saloon song “What Was,” written by Stephen Lehner and Ken Wannberg for Robert Benton’s ’70s noir-comedy The Late Show. It’s a melancholy coda: “What was is the only thing you cling to,” Chilton sings, and you can imagine the later-years Baker gravitating toward the song, the way he did to Elvis Costello’s “Almost Blue,” reflecting in a cracked near-whisper. It’s the one song on Robin Hood Lane without a fixed prior-version frame of reference, but it was smart to pull it from Clichés to wind everything up.
Compared to Robin Hood Lane, From Memphis to New Orleans is more scattershot, rounding up tracks from rare Chilton projects, some originals, and some covers, and you may very well want to check it out to hear him do “Little G.T.O” (a hit for Ronny & the Daytonas), “Let Me Get Close to You” (by Goffin & King for Skeeter Davis), Lowell Fulson’s “Make a Little Love,” and, in a neat full-circle, “Nobody’s Fool” cowritten by Dan Penn (with Bobby Emmons), who wrote a bunch of terrific songs for the Box Tops, including the hit “Cry Like a Baby.” Chilton’s cover choices over the years were crazily inspired: “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” from Bye Bye Birdie, “Volare” in Italian, songs by Jan & Dean, the Seeds, the Troggs. He came across as honestly sincere about all of them, no matter how random they seemed to be. But what Robin Hood Lane does is reveal something personal, a touchstone. “A heart full of joy and gladness,” he might have sung to himself as he washed dishes in the French Quarter, “will always banish sadness and strife.” He may have even believed it.
VIDEO: Alex Chilton – “Little GTO” at Coney Island High, NYC July 18, 1998