Tuesday, March 23, 2010
I do believe this is a scoop. From the one, the only Ben Vaughn...
I met Alex Chilton in the early Eighties in New York City. We were introduced by our mutual friend Mike. I was just starting my music career and Alex was the guy who produced the Cramps and I needed a producer so I handed him a demo of my songs. He took it, examined it from all angles as if he’d never seen a cassette tape before, looked me in the eye and asked, “Is this original material?” I nodded yes and in a very blasé voice he said, “great” and put it in his pocket. My friend Mike and I shrugged at each other. We assumed the tape would be tossed.
A few years later I had a record deal and was booked by the same agent who handled Alex and he put us together on a tour of the Midwest. At the first sound check in Kansas City, Alex strolled in, introduced himself and told me how much he liked the cassette as if he had just received it and said it was “a gas” to be working with me. I loved the words he was saying but again, the blasé tone threw me off. I was beginning to see why “misunderstood” always preceded “genius” when Alex’s name came up. It was hard to figure the guy out.
We went on to do a few more tours and spent a lot of time together. He wasn’t an easy guy to get to know. He could be silent for long periods and you had to get used to that dead air. But then he could suddenly go off on a two-hour dissertation about the South during Reconstruction complete with exact names, dates, and places. Or recite every one of Lawrence Olivier’s lines in “The Entertainer” from memory. And then, out of nowhere, more dead air. He was “an interesting bunch of guys” as my dad would say.
But we had fun. I enjoyed egging him on about how much I loved Gary Puckett and The Union Gap which always touched a nerve, possibly reactivating a professional rivalry from the Sixties. “Listen to yourself!” he would moan, “Listen to yourself!” One time he pulled the car over and demanded I eject a cassette of Mel Torme’s “California Suite” and throw it as far as I could into the bushes off the Missouri interstate. I had to get out of the vehicle to really give it my best shot and he almost drove away without me. For some reason, the only thing we were able to agree on was that Freddie Cannon still “had it” as a performer.
When not touring, Alex and I stayed in touch, visited each other in our respective cities, and at one point even tried writing songs together though we never really finished anything. In the mid-nineties, I was producing a dark “midnight sessions” blues album by Alan Vega and told Alex about it. He loved Alan’s voice and offered to pay his own way from New Orleans to be involved. We recorded over three nights and called the album Cubist Blues. It was released in the States and in France. We played two shows to promote it, one in NYC and one at a festival in France.
Soon after that I moved to L.A. to score for films and TV. In 1998, I was hired to provide music for That ‘70s Show and the creators wanted the opening of the show to feature the cast singing along in a car to their favorite hit song. After throwing around Seventies song titles like “We Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Eighteen,” I asked if maybe we could use a song that wasn’t actually a hit in the Seventies--but should have been. “Sure,” they said, “As long as it’s great.” One of the writers was a Big Star fan so I asked him to run down to his office and grab his CD of the first album. I played “In The Street” for the producers and they went nuts. It was a classic Hollywood moment. They jumped up and down and yelled, “That’s our song!”
After a discussion about re-recording it at a faster tempo to sound more like The Who or Bad Company, the business affairs people went about securing a deal with the song’s publishers. I called Alex and told him the news. He was thrilled. He always thought the song should have been a hit. “Better late than never,” he said. And it was good for the show too. They had a quality theme song that was actually written in the Seventies. It was good news for everybody.
Turning it into a TV theme was not easy. Even with the quicker tempo, we had a hell of time fitting the first verse and chorus into the allotted thirty seconds given to us by the network. It was amusing to learn later of the conspiracy theory in the rock world that Fox had censored the line about the joint. Definitely not true! We could hardly fit in the first verse much less the second verse containing the drug reference. But Alex inspired that kind of loyalty among fans and critics. They wanted to take care of him and defend him against the evils of the entertainment business. That’s how it is with misunderstood geniuses.
But the truth is Alex was happy to see “In The Street” finally get the exposure he felt it deserved. Every time we spoke on the phone through the years he would lead off with “How’s our show doing?” I’ve heard reports that that his royalties from the show paid all of his bills from that point on. I don’t know if that’s true but I do know he was paid quite well over the last twelve years. And he seemed more content than ever in the end. When I last visited Alex in New Orleans he was in love with his gal Laura and seemed relaxed and excited about life.
It’s going to take a while for me to realize that he’s gone. Sure, I’ll miss his music like everyone else but mostly I’ll miss his blasé tone and unpredictable nature.
“An interesting bunch of guys” indeed.
Sincere thanks to Ben for letting us have this...