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Alex Chilton 

Beachland Fifth Anniversary Celebration, with Alex Chilton and Doug Gillard. Saturday, March 5, at the Beachland Ballroom.

Alex Chilton
  • Alex Chilton
It's 1987, and we're booking a club just steps from the University of Alabama campus. All the really cool kids are cradling imported copies of Big Star's Radio City and Sisters Lovers, because by then the word was out. This was the music their favorite bands -- R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub, the Replacements, the dB's -- listened to. But singer-guitarist-pop savant Alex Chilton had already switched gears -- again.

Twenty years after the Box Tops, 10 years since Big Star, Chilton had gone from teen sensation to power-pop icon to rhythm and blues wannabe.

On his first visit to Tuscaloosa, we told him that we were honored to have him play, to let us know if he needed anything -- anything at all.

"Would you mind?" he said. "I'm trying to eat a sandwich."

He eventually thawed, of course -- if not to us, then to the attention these college kids bestowed upon him. They cheered his every note, even though not a single Big Star song made the set list. He seemed surprised, even pleased. Maybe surprised that he was pleased. In the dressing room, he taught his band the chord changes to "September Gurls" and went back out for an encore that blew the roof off.

Chilton came back to Tuscaloosa many times, but he never quite lost the skin of an awkward loner, never quite gave up that discomfited distance that kept damn near everyone at arm's length.

The irony, of course, is that's just the type of person that rock and roll usually saves.

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