Sunday, March 21, 2010

Long live Alex Chilton

SXSW has always been about the future. Every year a new crop of eager, ambitious young artists and aspiring moguls flock to Austin for a frenzied exchange of contacts, ideas and spirit. I'm always struck by the optimism as well as the futility of this dance for a slowly dying entertainment industry. But that's OK because as the industry founders the creative aspirations of the people who inhabit it stand out in stark relief. Popular music is more than commerce; it's religion, or maybe I should say a lot of different religions, each one sustaining a core group of acolytes that meet each other each year in this pilgrimage to Austin. Every year it's a more difficult and expensive process, especially in light of the vast economic unwinding that the financial industry has imposed on the world. But these pilgrims will not be denied any more than the millions who sojourn to Mecca or Fatima for their comfort.

Though I'm no longer sure where I fit in the ecclesiastical hierarchy of SXSW I have the comfort of having witnessed it from its inception, when my own delusions and aspirations were part of the heady mix. Over the years I've watched with fascination as the venues, hotels and the city of Austin itself has shed numerous skins, each metamorphosis producing a larger and more rapacious beast. The sleepy, introspective college town I first visited, a hippy shire by comparison to its current monolithic status as the sharpened edge of a state intent on world domination, seems like the kind of image conjured up in fairy tales about places long ago and far away. Today the music that shaped SXSW is only part of a much larger creative partnership with film and a new world being created by social networking tools. The trade show, once a wild bazaar of independent publications and fledgeling record companies with ideas as delusional as my own, is now a restive glimmer of its former self, staffed mainly by representatives of corporate and governmental entites rather than the entrepeneurial renegades of yore (they're at the interactive part of SXSW, hoping to be discovered and bought out by those same corporate entities).

The hustle is still on, which is somehow reassuring in its own way. Instead of trying to sign artists to their small labels, today's budding moguls offer websites where artists can showcase their music via "free" downloads.

After all the dust settles the coin of the realm at SXSW remains live performance and the festival continues to deliver that in spectacular, undigestible fashion. The unofficial showcases, especially on South Congress, have become a major musical event in their own right. The Sixth Street corrider has become an undifferentiated din of overdriven PA systems
that swirl like a swollen river through the afternoon hours. The future of global pop is there somewhere, throbbing and sweating in its birth throes as its audience stares unassumingly back at it.

Now that the rock era is approaching an age roughly equivelant to the span of a human life it is no longer exclusively music for and about youth. This is certainly not news -- the greatest songwriters of the rock era have always contemplated aging and death. But when they were young that contemplation came from a distance either real or fetishized. Death now must be included as part of the experience and SXSW has done a remarkably good job of dealing with it. Last year's panel celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Sir Douglas Quintet's Mendocino album was really a rumination on the 10th anniversary of Doug Sahm's death. If the Austin spirit could be summarized by a single individual Sahm would have been it. His death left a gap that will never be completely filled, but his work is being carried on by his friends and relatives in the Texas Tornados, who performed songs from a great new album at SXSW 2010, and by followers such as the terrific San Antonio band the Krayolas, who also played SXSW this year.

This is the first renewal of the event, though, that was completely overshadowed by death. One of the main attractions of SXSW 2010 was a scheduled reunion of the critically acclaimed band Big Star. But the band's reclusive singer Alex Chilton died on the first day of SXSW 2010, turning the festival into an instant memorial for him. The reunion concert became a tribute show.

It was an ironic turn for Chilton. He was one of the rare popular musicians who hated the phoniness of fame and actually did something about it. Chilton was the person most likely to be dismissive of Big Star, a rock band that was more of an idea of how people obsessed with rock iconography viewed their heroes. The band's name itself contained an implied rebuke (those were different times, of course -- today a name like that would contain no irony). Shortly after I heard the news I tried to start the rumor that Chilton had faked his own death in order to avoid going through with the whole thing.

But this isn't 1970 and the myth of rock death no longer conjures romantic images or a fantasy afterlife. Jim Morrison is not living in South America and Jimi Hendrix is certainly gone forever despite the fact that he has a new album out on Sony/Legacy. Alex Chilton is a fitting icon for the comptemplation of life's end as its ultimate goal. Fame and fortune are commodities to be exploited by your enemies after death. What matters is how you lived, and Chilton lived up to his ideals, never accepting the cheap celebrity bestowed on him by those who worship false idols. Chilton didn't want to rest on his laurels, performing "The Letter" to adoring fans. He lived to write another song, for its own sake, and to do the work he himself, not somebody telling him what to do, thought was important.

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