Thank You, Friend
By Fan-Belt guest writer Terry Hackbarth
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you.” That line from “Thank You Friends” has been ringing in my head since I heard the news about the passing of Alex Chilton a couple weeks ago. What those songs mean to my friends and I and our songwriting is inescapable. Those songs offer us so much…pop melodies to die for, songs about the ups and, yes, the downs of life and of growing up. Each one of their 4 albums traces a depth of emotion that few songwriters’ could challenge. From #1 Record’s adolescent yearnings to the slightly unhinged rockers and jangly power pop of Radio City to Sister Lover’s emotional roller coaster ride. It was these three albums that made up the holy musical grail for my friends and me. But it was on 2005’s reunion album In Space where there was an Alex Chilton that few people wanted to hear, and that was a happy person who had nothing to prove except that he wanted to make some fun music. That was the Alex Chilton I got to know.
Five years later, on my birthday, a friend and I were trying to decide whether we should go see Guided By Voices or head over to the Wisconsin State Fair to see a reunion show with the The Box Tops, Alex’s teenage band that scored big with a few hits in the 60’s, including “The Letter”, “Cry Like A Baby” and “Neon Rainbow”. It was a simple decision; we were going to see the Box Tops. We arrived at the stage, which was not much bigger than a crackerjack box, and saw Alex sitting on the edge of the stage smoking a cigarette. My friend said, “Do you want to go and meet him? He’s right there.” I responded that I had heard that he was kind of a jerk and maybe it was best that I didn’t get disappointed by one of my heroes. My curiosity got the best of me however and we approached nervously. After we said hi and I sheepishly asked for an autograph, my friend excitedly said, “It’s Terry’s birthday!” Alex looked at me with interest and said, “You’re a Leo. I get along with Leos.” I instantly remembered hearing about Alex’s interest in astrology. We excitedly went back to our seats to watch the first of three sets The Box Tops were going to do. After the first set, in which I saw a very animated Alex seemingly having the time of his life, he jumped off the stage and sat down next to us and started a very pleasant conversation with us by asking us about ourselves and about Milwaukee. With The Box Tops playing another show at the fair in a couple days, we asked Alex what he would be doing with his day off. Alex replied that he would be sitting at his hotel and asked us to call him at his hotel if we wanted to get together the next night. This was pretty much the equivalent of getting together with Brian Wilson or Paul McCartney as far as I was concerned.
I seriously didn’t think he would answer his phone the next day, but when we called he answered immediately and asked if we could go out somewhere that had a good jukebox. A place was decided on and we met up with him and a lady friend from out of town. I made a point of not bringing up Big Star to him, but to my surprise he brought them up several times in the evening, mysteriously mentioning a New Orleans’ TV station filming a performance by the original Big Star and wondering if it existed still…if it did, it would be the only existing footage of the original band performing. Telling a story about his former Big Star partner, the late Chris Bell, really surprised me. But we mostly talked about life and to both of us that meant music, both current and past, and his home of over 20 years, New Orleans. He loved that city and found it more and more difficult to leave as he got older. He was even one of the last evacuees in the aftermath of Katrina, and he left then only because of crime and the looters. The fact that he was finally making some money from royalties from TV’s That 70’s Show, which used Chris Bell’s and his song of teen rebellion, “In The Streets,” as its theme song, meant that he could pick and choose what he wanted to do and that meant traveling less. The night ended with us getting late night Mexican food and taking a couple of pictures.
Over the next twelve years, anytime Alex was in the area we would always go and see him and get dinner with him and have great conversation. The last time I saw him was on the night of what was probably his last solo show which was December 2008 in Milwaukee. After the show, during which Alex was funny, charming, and appreciative of the crowd’s response, we had dinner and had a long conversation about New Orleans and the aftermath of the floods. When we said goodbye and shook hands, he asked me if I had his phone number. I got it from him, but I never called. It was a warm gesture, though, from a man I think I now understand and that I’m going to miss. Thank you, friend.