Photo by Aimee Toledano

Being a cult hero is a schizophrenic bit of business. Within the confines of his circle of influence, the cult hero is treated as nothing less than a god by adoring fans, who greet his every utterance with fascinated awe. When the cult hero goes to the market, however, he has to get in line like everybody else.

This pretty much describes how it is for Alex Chilton, a cult hero who began building his legend when he was 16 years old. Born in Memphis in 1950, Chilton scored the first in a string of seven hit singles in 1967, when “The Letter,” a pop confection performed by the Box Tops, went to the top of the charts. Chilton quit the Box Tops in 1969, and the following year hooked up with Chris Bell, the son of a successful Memphis restaurateur, in Bell’s band, Big Star, a star-crossed group that released three brilliant albums, then went down in flames in 1974. Fueling the conflagration was the fact that Big Star’s various labels failed miserably to promote the band’s music, drugs were happening in Memphis in a big way during those years, Bell and Chilton were vying for dominance of the band, and Bell was a tormented young man, torn between his closeted homosexuality and the church.

All that Sturm und Drang was channeled into Big Star’s recordings, and it gave their sweet pop tunes a unique dark undercurrent. Like all great pop music, the best of Big Star evokes the shiver of excitement that comes when one senses oneself on the brink of a brand-new world of endless possibility. What set Big Star apart from the rest of the pop pack is that the deliriously joyful realm they conjured with those shimmering chords was perfumed with the scent of dread and regret. It’s strange stuff, haunted and lovely, and that’s why people still listen to it decades after Chilton and Bell parted ways.

“That music continues to speak to people, because we were doing the best thing we knew how to do, and making few compromises in terms of what we were told we ought to be doing,” says Chilton. “It’s music from the heart.”

Following the demise of Big Star, Bell got a job in one of his father’s restaurants, then died in 1978 when he totaled his car after consuming a handful of pills. Chilton embarked on an erratic solo career that has resulted in a string of uneven recordings, including High Priest, Feudalist Tarts, Like Flies on Sherbet and A Man Called Destruction. His latest release, Set, is entirely composed of cover tunes, albeit cover tunes performed with the sly wit and languid sensuality that inform all of Chilton’s solo work.

Reflecting on his long, strange musical odyssey during a phone interview from New Orleans, where he’s lived since 1984, Chilton says, “Being this kind of weird halfway celebrity is a living, I guess, but the cult thing is pretty marginal. A few of my neighbors know I’m a musician, but generally they’re not hip to my scene, and I’m rarely recognized when I walk down the street.

“There are several schools of Big Star cultists, most of which are based in England, and one of them sees me as a Machiavellian guy who stole Chris Bell’s band from him. Chris was a funny person. We’d known each other since we were 13, but Chris was secretive, and although we got along great on the surface, there may have been stuff brewing that he didn’t show me. I never knew anything about his gayness until after he quit our band. But we had a good working relationship, and there was never a harsh word spoken between us. Looking back on it now, I see that some of the things he said did indicate some tension, but they were so cryptic that all I could do was just look at him and nod. After Big Star, I decided never to be in another cooperative band. It’s like being married to four people, and it’s impossible for four people to cooperate on that level for very long in any real way.

“Many people I grew up with in Memphis developed raging drug problems long before I did, and lots of them went the junk-to-Jesus route,” he says of Bell’s conversion to Christianity. “That was always peculiar to me, but Chris was one of them. In 1976, I had an epiphany and realized drugs, alcohol and cigarettes were bad, and I quit drugs immediately. It was at that point I realized I had a drinking problem; I found I couldn’t just walk away from alcohol, however, and it took me five years to really quit that. The cigarettes I still haven’t been able to shake.”

Growing up in the heart of the Memphis music scene, Chilton was exposed to a lot at a young age. His father was a musician, his mother ran an art gallery, and both of them were unusually hip for Memphis. “Both of my parents were children of the Depression who grew up in Mississippi, and my dad was a great fan of Franklin Roosevelt,” he recalls. “In 1960, when I was 9, our family moved into a big house in the inner city, and Bill Eggleston and lots of other artists and musicians took our house as a central place to hang out. Bill’s a great baroque pianist, and because there was a good piano at our house, he hung around and played it a lot.

“I was always interested in my dad’s jazz records, and my dad taught me a lot about music. I can remember him talking to me about music theory, and though I didn’t understand at the time, later on I figured out what he was talking about. When I was 7 years old I became fascinated by Chet Baker — his tone was so gorgeous, and he was the first singer that really captured me. My dad also listened to a lot of Ray Charles, particularly the Atlantic records, and those were some of the greatest recordings ever made.”

When one observes that both those artists were heroin addicts when they made much of their best work, Chilton says, “There is inarguably some kind of Dionysian connection between drugs and a lot of great music. I don’t know how it happens, but you can make great music when you’re really fucked up on drugs. You can also make great music when you’re not fucked up on drugs.”

As to how he went about selecting the material on Set — which includes covers of “April in Paris,” “You’s a Viper” and “I Remember Mama” — Chilton says, “I look for songs that suit me well and are a little obscure. The album was originally released in Europe with the title Loose Shoes and Tight Pussy, but we changed it for the U.S. version because we’d suffer discrimination on certain store shelves. It’s a good title, though, and I picked it because it describes my aesthetic of life. Easy living and good love are what I aspire to, and though easy living is achievable, good love remains elusive, because the world is a snake pit of competing interests.”

Asked in parting why he left Memphis to settle in New Orleans, Chilton says, “Because it’s beautiful, the weather is great, and the people here are wonderful, at least the black people are. The races live very closely together here, and New Orleans has always had free people of color who formed a social class of their own. The black people here are very politically empowered, and the music scene is also quite lively, largely because the musical education in the public schools here is unusually sophisticated. At all levels there’s great music instruction, so there are 18-year-old kids here who are 10 times better than I’ll ever be.

“This isn’t to suggest I’m dropping into clubs all the time,” he adds. “The last gig my band made in town was last summer, and I’m sort of a stay-at-home person these days. When I’m home I play piano a bit and read The New Yorker, and because I live in an old house that needs a lot of renovation, I do some of that, too. Not much else. I’m a relaxaholic.”

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