There’s a chasm of time, sobriety, and emotional distance that separates From Memphis to New Orleans one of Bar None’s latest Alex Chilton compilations from what some consider his most vital work both with Big Star, and his equally ground breaking art-damaged punk informed late’s 1970’s solo work. That’s not to say there isn’t plenty to love on here, but you might just have to open your mind a bit to appreciate what’s being presented here. My introduction to this era of Alex was via the Rhino Compilation 19 Years: A Collection back when I was in college. At first, I just didn’t get it all. How did the wounded brilliant soul behind the emotional chaos of Big Star’s 3rd morph into the guy delivering the tongue in cheek sleaziness of “Take It Off” by the end of the collection? I was mystified, and more than a little non-plussed at first. Which probably would have delighted Alex to no end. I think that’s a lot of fans’ initial reaction to this stuff who come into this era of Alex’s work via Big Star fandom.
The context goes something like this. By 1981, Chilton was bottoming out, the balance between order and chaos Chilton seemed to dangerously court following the implosion of Big Star had tipped too much towards the latter. Legend has it that over Christmas of that year, a cold prompted him to stop drinking for a few days. Once he realized how much better he felt, a decision was made to stay sober. Looking to escape some of the negative pull of his hometown associates, he relocated to take his chances in the Big Easy. Taking a few years off from music, he washed dishes, took a gig as a tree surgeon, and played in local cover bands.
From Memphis to New Orleans culls the best from Chilton’s 1980’s solo output, once he decided to re-emerge from his self-imposed musical exile thanks in part to the encouragement of some high profile admirers like R.E.M. and The Replacements. There was also that Bangles cover of “September Girls” that surely put a few bucks in his pocket. The Alex Chilton that emerges on these recordings is a more relaxed, and confident artist who is more willing to embrace a wider range of styles (a skill he probably honed putting in all those hours playing endless covers in local honky tonks) backed by a skillful and sympathetic band which included bassist René Coman, and drummer Doug Garrison. Chilton shows off this versatility in his choices of oddball cover tunes which run the gamut from the soulful reading of “B-A-B-Y” to the rockabilly rave-up of “Lonely Weekends,” the faux Beach Boys pastiche of “Little GTO,” and the Brill Building assembly line of pop of “Let Me Get Close To You.” Chilton’s originals now spoke more directly than his more impressionistic lyrical work with Big Star, although he retained a little of the subversive edge he sharpened in the late ’70’s; take for example his at times wince inducing take on the 1980’s AIDS epidemic, “No Sex,” or his takedown of hypocritical televangelists on “Guantanamerika.” Elsewhere he deflated any myths about the perception of his rock star status on “Underclass.”
Everything presented on here has a groove, and is about as far away from the Power Pop of Big Star as imaginable. If anything, the music presented here harkens back to his earlier work with The Box Tops. There’s even a cover of “Nobody’s Fool” which was written by his one time Box Top vocal coach and producer Dan Penn.
This collection is one that in many ways feels like Alex Chilton is letting you flip through his thrift scored box of 45’s, while taking you for a drive down some dusty forgotten back roads in his ’73 Buick LeSabre. It took me a little bit to figure it out but sometimes, it’s more about the journey than the destination.
Order From Memphis to New Orleans from Bar None.