Like Michael Jackson, Alex Chilton hit it big young, charting #1 with “The Letter” before he could vote. But Chilton was not like Jackson. His most serious effort at stardom, the early-70s Big Star, never went mainstream; the songs were too innocent, too authentically teenage – the sex and drugs was about not having sex and not having drugs. In 1971, the cool kids were into decadent, egotistical jet setters, Mick and Keith; Big Star produced perfect and honest pop songs about 8th-grade crushes and driving around with nothing to toke. In other words, the lives of actual American kids who listened to rock and roll.
Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee commemorates the life of Alex Chilton in a speech to the House of Representatives.
It didn’t take. Whether he liked it or not (and who would?), Chilton became a mark of underground cool. He was punk before there was punk, touchstone for a kind of cognescenti that hadn’t existed before: indie rockers. Generations of college kids passed down Chilton on cassettes and saw him in skanky clubs, and each generation thought it had discovered a new continent. I’m talking before the internet, when the world wasn’t at your fingertips, and you might wear down the Maxell before you did the math and said, “Wait; how old was I when Alex Chilton started?” You weren’t born, kid. But maybe your mom had on the oldies station, and “The Letter” came on in its permanent rotation, and she hummed along while she was changing your diaper. He was there before you knew it.