I Got Alex Chilton's Name Written On My Body Forever


On Friday I got Alex Chilton's name tattooed about an inch above my left ankle. I love Alex Chilton because it seems like he generally did whatever the hell he felt like doing, and a lot of it was beautiful. That's the fast and easy explanation for why I got his name written on my body forever, but here are eight more reasons, about the cosmos and gross sex and sex poetry and summertime and bad vibes and plum trees and huge, undying, life-saving love:

viii. Astrology. I have a recurring daydream in which I meet Alex Chilton (in Heaven, I suppose) and he asks me my birthday and I get to tell him what my birthday is. The answer is we have the same birthday, December 28; we are both Capricorns born in the Week of the Ruler. One of my favorite things about Alex is he was obsessed with astrology and made a point of asking everyone his/her birthday, and thought it was very important that he and Chris Bell were both Capricorns, which of course it was.
        Jen does illustrations for Madame Clairevoyant from The Rumpus, and on April 15 my horoscope told me that week was a "good moment for wandering, at your own speed, for going where you want to go, for looking up at the sky, for seeing your own weird thoughts form in the clouds." My gut response to that was to get all high and mighty, like, "Eww, what do you think I usually do? Do you think I'm one of those super-Capricorn-y Capricorns or something?" But now I'm into it. Maybe a lot of Capricorns aren't accustomed to wandering around and watching their own weird thoughts form in the clouds - but Alex Chilton is, and I am too, and we are just the same: a couple of weird cloudy dreamers together forever.

vii. Because his dream world has the same exact temperature as my dream world. It took me a while to get into the third Big Star record, which I understand is a typical experience. I'd known and loved "Kangaroo" and "Stroke It Noel" since a boy put them on a love mixtape for me when I was 19, and I immediately fell for "Kizza Me" and "Holocaust" when I bought the record earlier this year, but the rest of the songs took their sweet time sinking into my brain. In retrospect, I'm completely charmed by and admiring of their lack of hurriedness in getting to me. 
        I fell in love with the third record late one night in February, when I spent hours and hours sitting at a table on the sidewalk near the Sunset Strip, drinking pink wine and hanging out with a bunch of strange people, some of whom were very lovely. On the way home I drove down Beverly and the sky was so foggy and black, all the light was ghosts; it was the most perfect way you could ever hear "Big Black Car":


Now whenever I listen to "Big Black Car" I think of that car ride and I think of the end of the first chapter in my book, which I'm rewriting to give it optimal "Big Black Car" vibes. The scene's in a car when the sky's foggy and black and all the light is ghosts, except the air's more "Massachusetts in deep summer" instead of "Los Angeles in winter": it's heavy and hot and muggy, it kills you a little but it's okay. When Alex sings it ain't gonna lassssst with that hiss at the end, it's so severe and it always jars me, but never in a way that disrupts that cool murky daze the song's put me in. Alex Chilton really knows what he's doing when it comes to "subtly twisted manipulation of vibes." I want to be more like him.

vi. Because he is my favorite girl poet. There's an Alex Chilton song called "Take Me Home and Make Me Like It (Version 2)"; it's probably the Alex Chilton solo jam I'd most rather die than live without. It's seven-minutes-long and it's basically Alex singing/playing the same shit over and over but somehow making it weirder and weirder as the song goes on. At first listen the real showstopper lyric is "Call me a slut in front of your family," but my favorite line is the one that goes "Bite my veins, cigarettes and big eyes" - or at least that's what I think he's singing. Some people think he's singing "You like my bangs, cigarettes, and big eyes," but I think those people are dumb. Obviously he's singing it exactly the way I want him to.
        I love "Bite my veins, cigarettes, and big eyes" mostly because it sounds like something I would have read in a zine written by some superweird and glamorous girl a very long time ago, like 1999. I would have read that sentence and spent the next few days or weeks of my life being obsessed with that girl and trying to write like her, walking around Boston feeling so electrified by this new world in which you can command someone to bite your veins, cigarettes, and big eyes - and maybe he'll even actually do it. That's what I value most about girl poets like Alex Chilton, how all this wild and insane and beautiful shit you never even thought of before suddenly seems so hugely possible.

v. Because he is the most beautiful sicko. The first Alex Chilton solo song I ever heard was the original version of "Take Me Home and Make Me Like It," which goes like this:

and I loved it right away but it also embarrassed me. "Take Me Home and Make Me Like It (Version 2)" is even more embarrassing; there at least three moments in the song that will never not mortify me, especially the part where he actually says the word loincloth. (I mean, I can't even tell you how much I had to psyche myself up just to type the word "loincloth" in that last sentence, such is the depth of my "loincloth" embarrassment. "Loincloth," Alex, really? Loincloth???????????)
       So every once in a while, like maybe once a decade or so, I get way into some musician-dude who's exorbitantly weird. My first one was when I was 17, and so much of the appeal was knowing it sounded way too crazy to most people. But I think maybe it might also be a sex thing. Patti Smith's point about not listening "to music by people I don't wanna fuck" is a little too limiting for me, but I could definitely I amend it to something like "I don't listen to exorbitantly weird music by people who aren't sexy, scrawny, slightly deranged dudes whose hair's always in their eyes, these perpetually bugged-out eyes that would probably be really terrifying to stare straight into, and maybe you'd just die if you looked at them too long." That's not the sort of thing I look for in a guy in real life, but it's good to sometimes fall for musician-dudes like that, to turn them into my imaginary weirdo-boyfriends that I'm endlessly grossed out by.
        So I can forgive Alex Chilton for saying "loincloth" because my creepy attraction to him balances out the horror of that. And by the time the song hits the five-minute mark and he laughs like the most adorable psychopath, I'm just incurably in love with him forever, it's so disgusting and wonderful.

iv. Because I dig his clumsy gracefulness. One of my favorite songs sung by Alex is "Friend at a Very Good Time" by the John Byrd Band - you can download it free here, and you absolutely should. It's a gorgeous song and the chorus goes:

I'd love to feel that it's all unreal, and I'd love to find my mind
But you opened my mind, with whiskey and wine
And it's right back to blowin' my mind

- and every time I hear it I almost can't believe it exists. I can't ever get over Alex's repetition of the word "mind," how it's maybe intentionally clumsy but then so completely not clumsy and just so cool and graceful. Clumsy/graceful writers are my favorite kind of writers; I love the baby-genius brattiness of messing it up on purpose and ending up with something weirdly perfect. 
        My other favorite part of the song is when the girl asks Alex how he's feeling and Alex smiles all cute and says, "Hey man, I'm doin' fine." He sounds so warm and easy, and it makes me feel like everything's warm and easy. Whenever I listen to this song, everything is so warm and easy.

iii. Because he is great at fucking up. Earlier this year I read a book about Big Star, and one of my favorite Alex stories is from the chapter about making the third record. There's a part about how when they first started recording "Downs" someone said it sounded like it could be a hit song, and in response to that Alex was like, "Cool - let's play the snare drum with a basketball." The point was that anytime anyone said something sounded good, Alex would immediately just go and destroy it on purpose.
         I don't understand or even want to understand what it's like to have that freedom to fuck everything up - but I'm still so in awe of it, or at least of the way it manifests in Alex Chilton. There's this crazy twisting-together of bravery and bullshit self-destruction, and I guess that's sort of dreamy thing I'm endlessly fascinated by in boys who make beautiful music. All those crazy boys...

ii. Because of the irrepressible sweetness of his voice. One thing that's a drag is how the AllMusic.com reviews of my two fave Alex solo albums were written by guys who hate life. They use adjectives like "drug-addled" and "dreadful" and "drunken" and "willfully difficult," and "sneering" and "sloppy" and "slipshod," and they don't use them fawningly. The word that bugs me most is "dreadful" - like, it's entirely true that there's bad vibes all over Bach's Bottom and Like Flies on Sherbert (especially the latter), but there's also some kind of scrappy joyfulness that always saves Alex from ever sounding dreadful to me.
         I think so much of it is his voice. His voice is so high and cute and a little girly sometimes; he's wacky with his phrasing. Bach's Bottom's my favorite Alex solo album largely because there's all these bits of Alex talking: when you're obsessed with somebody, it's so exciting to hear him say stupid little things like "I need a pain pill" or "The shoulders, that's where it lies" in his hot Memphis accent. 
And I love when he sings in Spanish at the bridge of "All of the Time," rhyming with "banana" with "manana" and rolling his "r" on the word "rrrrrrrrrrradio"; it's so goofy and little-kid-like, and I hope there was lots of little-kid kinda fun for him in making those records. 
         (I mean, seriously - just listen to all of Bach's Bottom on Spotify - maybe you'll think it's fucking awful, but maybe you'll fall in love with it/him. Listen to the second version of "Every Time I Close My Eyes" at least seven times before the end of the day today. It will be twelve and a half minutes so beautifully spent.)

i. Because I just love Alex Chilton so much and he makes everything in my life so much sweeter and wilder.
 Sometimes when I'm bored or annoyed by someone and I want to keep from behaving like a jerk, I'll just say Alex Chilton's name over and over in my head - not to "right myself," but just to have a cool distraction. I've been doing that for a while, and now I get to do that and look at or touch my Alex tattoo, which is so much better. My ankle is now a conduit for meditation and the achievement of supremely chill vibes.
        On Saturday I went to the nicest party, a surprise birthday party where there was a man who set up a grill in the driveway - this gigantic spit thing with a big hunk of pineapple on top - and made us all like eight million tacos. I seriously ate a million tacos, and had some champagne and a coconut jello shot, and some guava cheese pie and "hurricane popcorn." We all sat around in the yard for like five hours, underneath a plum tree strung with tiny disco balls and Christmas ornaments to keep the birds from eating the plums. I kept hitting my head on the plums and disco balls whenever I got up from my chair, and I kept touching my ankle and tracing the still-raised letters of Alex Chilton's lovely name. I didn't even have to say his name over and over in my head, because no one was annoying or boring me. Everything was cool and made cooler by the presence of Alex Chilton; it gave me such a thrill to look down and go, "Yay! Alex Chilton's still here!"
       I feel like Alex Chilton would think that was all pretty cutesy and goofy of me, and of course I think that's so cool of him. And in the past few days I've learned that it's absolutely true that hardly anyone knows who Alex Chilton is, but yesterday Emily Richmond made the point that now I get to spend the rest of my life telling everyone about Alex Chilton and why I love him. That's such a lucky way to live, I'm so happy I get to live it.


  1. I named a lit course I taught last fall Way Out West. This fall I've been assigned Women in Literature, and I'm thinking the theme will be sisterhood and female friendship, so naturally the class will be called Sister Lovers! So maybe course themes are like temporary tattoos for me, and maybe my students will become Big Star fans.

    1. genius! i want to take that class so much

  2. Aw, lovely. Just lovely.

  3. Great post...I like reading the perspective of someone who treasures Bach's Bottom the most among Alex's recordings. Not the usual take on what counts as the apex of his recording career!