When we were 16 or 17 years old and armed with new driver’s licenses, my friends and I would drive around our hometown in the evenings listening to music. We used our parents’ cars mostly, a beige Honda, a green 70s-era pseudo-deluxe van, a Chevy Nova. None of them were fast. The cassettes we played were $3.99 bargain-bin jobs, white and easily eaten by an overaggressive tape player. The roads we drove were dark and twisting two-laners that meandered out of the city and cut lazy circles through the woods and tiny sinking villages that grew out of the country nearby.
In those years, before the Internet and cable TV began to tie everyone closer together—or, depending on your viewpoint, before they began to wrap themselves around our necks—there were fewer messages from the world beyond our town and the dull brown hills that encircled it. With no college culture to speak of in the area, we ate what the networks and record companies fed us. Musical independence at my high school meant choosing Megadeth over Metallica.
The stuff my friends and I listened to was a loud, mind-expanding message from the outside—on a starless night, it could sound like it was coming from the universe. It was jarring, in a glorious way, to roll the window down on a humid Pennsylvania summer evening, hear the crickets and see the stars and fireflies in the distance and the deer way back in the trees, and fill the air with the ice-cold Manhattan majesty of Television’s “Marquee Moon.”
We started with the Stones and the Beatles, moved to Motown and soul, and progressed, with difficulty, to the punk and indie rock we’d read about but couldn’t find at the Wee Three records at the county mall. The last two genres, made by kids not much older than us, felt like a secret language, a code we could speak that the headbangers couldn’t understand—punk vs. metal seemed like life vs. death in those days; maybe it still does. One step at a time, the sounds and words deepened what we believed was possible intellectually, emotionally, artistically. Along with the musty fiction section at the public library, these cassettes were our culture. Fragments of phrases that poked through that din remain riveted in my brain:
Broadway, looked so medieval It seemed to flap, like little pages
Standing on the corner, suitcase in my hand Jack is in his corset, Jane is in her vest Me, I’m in a rock and roll band
I hear you talking when I’m on the street Your mouth don’t move, but I can hear you speak.
Hanging out, down the street Same old thing we did last week Not a thing to do But talk to you
Steal your car, and bring it down Pick me up, we’ll drive around Wish we had A joint so bad
The first three of those songs above were urban fantasies, exotic and gritty. The last, about having nothing better to do than drive around and talk to the same couple of people, is small town poetry. You may know it, unfortunately, as the theme to a sitcom, but it was originally a song by Big Star, written and sung by Alex Chilton.
Chilton, a Memphis native and most famously the singer of the oldie-radio staple “The Letter,” died of a heart attack this week at 59. It’s not surprising that he didn’t reach a grand old age; Chilton relished living out the irresponsible life, the mythic life of the traveling musician that he’d learned growing up in Memphis and living for years in New Orleans. I saw him play an outdoor summer show at the World Trade Center—it really was right up against one of the towers—a dozen years ago. His on-stage manner was loving towards the old soul cover songs he played, but skeptical about the artificial spectacle of performing. A cigarette dangled from his lip throughout.
After Big Star folded in the mid-1970s, Chilton had a shambling, erratic underground career. There was a 50 percent chance he’d blow off any show or sabotage it midway, but this was part of his fascination, and made him a cult hero. His last 20 years were also marked by moments of shining, sarcastic brilliance. His 1980 album Like Flies on Sherbert, with its William Eggleston cover, is a masterpiece of broken-down rockabilly. Like Chilton, it’s ornery but full of love for obscure rock and soul, and it contains one of my favorite lines in any song, from “My Rival”:
My rival I’m gonna stab him on arrival
But Big Star will be his legacy. It’s what we listened as teenagers and in college, and what I listen to today. Talk about a secret language—Big Star was Top 40 radio from another, much more perfect planet. Paul Westerbeg summed up its magical, mysterious appeal in a song called, naturally, “Alex Chilton”:
Children by the million, wait for Alex Chilton when he comes round They say, “I’m in love, what’s that song? I’m in love, with that song.”
To my friends and I, Chilton felt like one of us—tongue-tied, obsessed with rock and roll—as we drove in circles.
Sitting in the back of a car Music so loud, can’t tell a thing Thinking bout what to say Can’t find the lines —"Back of a Car"
Won’t you tell your dad, ‘get off my back’? Tell him what we said about ‘Paint It Black’ Rock and roll is here to stay Come inside, it’s OK —"Thirteen"
Now I live in the middle of that once-exotic urban zone that I heard about on my tape player. And I don’t own a car. This makes the days or weeks when I do get to drive a time to savor, and a time to listen to as much as music as I can when I’m behind the wheel. Cars and rock and roll—it's called being an American.
Just like in the Pennsylvania backwoods two decades ago, the words and music I’ve listened to this week in Indian Wells have lodged themselves in my head and formed a soundtrack, an emotional background to the tournament. These are a few fragments that have popped out of the din and are rolling around in my subconscious. They surface randomly, as I’m walking or eating or writing or watching tennis, then submerge themselves again. What they do for, or to, me, I don’t know. But life would be much much dryer without them.
DC Comics and chocolate milkshake Some things will always be great DC Comics and chocolate milkshake Even though I’m 28 —“DC Comics,” Art Brut
Tonight the sky is empty But that is nothing new —“That’s When I Reach for My Revolver,” Mission of Burma
Gives you something you can do with your hands Makes you look cool and feel like a man —“Me and Your Cigarettes,” Miranda Lambert
Getting older makes it harder to remember We are our only saviors —“Constructive Summer,” Hold Steady
I like it when My hair is poofy I like it when You slip me roofie —“Who’s Got the Crack,” Moldy Peaches
You’ve got to give a little Take a little And let your poor heart break a little That’s the story of That’s the glory of love —“The Glory of Love,” Five Keys
We’re feeling good . . . From the pills we took —“Talent Show,” Paul Westerberg
You get under my skin I don’t find it irritating —“Another Girl, Another Planet,” The Only Ones
I hope when I die That they bury me someplace nice Away from the noise Away from the ice Away from the things that have haunted me for all of my life
—"Hobo," Patterson Hood
I’ll be sad in heaven If you won’t follow me there
—"Can’t Hardly Wait," The Replacements
Go steady with me. I know it turns you off When I get talking like a teen
—"On Directing," Tegan and Sara
Last night I was standing in the driveway, calling your name Last night it was late, I could hear your father. Sometimes I just want to change the world all around
—"Change the World," Vulgar Boatmen
Don’t the sun look angry through the trees Don’t the trees look like crucified thieves
—"Desperadoes Under the Eaves," Warren Zevon
“Which one’s the birthday boy?” she said, “I ain’t got all night. What’d your mama name you? You can call me what you like.”
—"Birthday Boy," Drive by Truckers
I’ve heard these snippets and songs as I’ve driven, by myself, between my hotel and the tournament site. I imagined finishing this post by comparing my youthful listening, which I did in darkened circles, with a crew of friends, and my adult listening, which I've done alone, straight through the palm trees and luminous little road lights of California. He who travels fastest travels alone.
But last night, I had a good mix CD going and it wasn’t all that late when I pulled into the hotel driveway. A song I loved, “Things Go Wrong” by Dumptruck, an old indie anthem, was on. I drove through the lot, turned around, and didn’t stop until I was back on the highway. I was driving in circles again.
Ten years after high school, I met a friend at a rock club in Manhattan. Coming around the corner toward the club, I caught a glimpse of myself in a big restaurant window. My hair was too long, too bushy. It was unkempt in a way that can never be cool in New York, where people know how to do unkempt right. I looked down and shook my head—“Jesus, will you ever get my hair right? Will you ever know what you're doing, be responsible, competent, with anything?” My friend, waiting ahead, was watching.
“What’s wrong?” he said, laughing.
“My hair, I need to get it cut,” I stammered. “Looks terrible.”
“No, it’s cool," he said, giving my hair a second glance. "It looks like Chilton.”
It was the right word to say. I looked down and smiled, “Yeah,” I thought, “Chilton.”
RIP Alex. Irresponsibility will never be the same without you.