Behind The Song: The Replacements, “Alex Chilton”

“Yeah, December boys got it bad, as ‘September Gurls’ notes,” Paul Westerberg wrote in The New York Times in March of 2010 in a piece called “Beyond The Box Tops,” which reflected on the death of Alex Chilton a few days earlier. “The great Alex Chilton is gone — folk troubadour, blues shouter, master singer, songwriter and guitarist. Someone should write a tune about him. Then again, nah, that would be impossible. Or just plain stupid.”

The joke, of course, was that Westerberg himself had written a tune about him, a damn good one at that. “Alex Chilton,” found on the 1987 album Pleased To Meet Me by Westerberg’s band The Replacements, is a song that pays tribute to Chilton by rendering his exploits larger-than-life as if he were a rock and roll Paul Bunyan, which seems to be Westerberg’s way of nodding at the somewhat star-crossed nature of Chilton’s actual career.

After providing soulful, beyond-his-years vocals to a string of hits by The Box Tops in the late ’60s as a teenager, Chilton stepped away from the spotlight to form the band Big Star with Chris Bell. That group helped define the term power pop, music resplendent with guitar hooks and sing-along refrains. But despite the critical acclaim Big Star amassed in its career and all the impact the band had on musicians like Westerberg, mainstream pop success never was in the cards.

Westerberg could relate, since The Replacements cast the same kind of shadow on the rock world, albeit in a more disheveled musical manner, without ever hitting it big. That’s why Westerberg’s assertion in the song that “Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton/ When he comes ‘round” is more wishful thinking that fact.

“Alex Chilton” is The Replacements’ approximation of the Big Star sound, as Westerberg’s guitar chunks out ragged riffs and drummer Chris Mars takes us to cowbell heaven. The songwriter creates some fantastical scenarios for Chilton, such as trips to Venus and Mars and a marauding rampage through the land as if he were Attila The Hun. These flights of fancy are interspersed with elements that feel more biographical and almost startlingly raw: “Checkin’ his stash by the trash at St. Mark’s Place.”

Westerberg ultimately keeps returning to the music and Chilton’s special way of putting it across. “Invisible man who can sing in a visible voice,” he sings, hinting at both his tribute subject’s rare talent and his unlikely anonymity.” He puts it simpler elsewhere: “I never travel far/ Without a little Big Star.”

As the song nears its conclusion, Westerberg cuts off the electricity and goes into an acoustic breakdown that captures the essence of Chilton’s pop mastery. What he sings in those moments (“I’m in love/ With that song/ I’m in love/ What’s that song”) not only praises Chilton but also speaks to Westerberg’s contention in that New York Times piece that “Those who fail to click with the world and society at large find safe haven in music.”

“If he died in Memphis, then that’d be cool, babe,” Westerberg sings at one point in “Alex Chilton.” That wasn’t to be, but maybe there’s some consolation in knowing that Chilton passed away in New Orleans, itself a pretty soulful place. In any case, very few artists have left behind such an intriguing legacy, not just with the music he produced, but also with the countless tunes from artists, like The Replacements, that he inspired.

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