Friday, September 27, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: September Gurls

There’s no way he could have known.

There’s no way that a teenaged Alex Chilton could have known in 1966, with his voice rich in soulful southern gravel as he belted out rock-n-roll gold like “The Letter” and “Cry Like a Baby,” that he would one day front a band that wouldn’t get half the attention that his Box Tops did, but it would be that very band that would become the proto-postpunk and college rock fore-bearers for a generation to come.

I mean, how could he? He had no idea in 1966 that Big Star would exist. He was 16! And postpunk? Hell, punk rock hadn’t even reared its head yet. At least not as a genuine rock movement, anyway.

But there ‘tis. In the 1960s Alex Chilton possessed the grittiest voice on the pop charts, the archetypical “blue-eyed soul” sound that was raw and throaty enough to become an instrument as vital to the Box Tops sound as the dreamy keyboards or country-fied guitars. And then he hit his 20s and decided to form a band that seemed to lean way more on Roger McGuinn or Stephen Stills’ influence than the Holland-Dozier-Holland sound of his youth.

It was a dramatic turn, that is to say, the transition from The Box Tops to Big Star. Not only that but he had taken to writing his songs (with partner Chris Bell) rather than signing other people’s material. The simple tales of young lust turned to the more introspective 1970s ilk of the singer-songwriter. At which he more than excelled. This wasn’t the same kid who was belting out “Soul Deep.” And for those who noticed, the change must have been alarming.

But that’s the thing. Not many folks noticed. At least not right away. Their three albums between 1971 and 1974 all received good reviews, but the sales were minimal. When Bell died in a car accident after Big Star’s third album, that was pretty much it. Chilton moved on to his next chapter.

Somewhere in there, though, and in the years to follow his legend began to build. That Memphis cool, that grown-up voice now aching with sincere, pained longing, and those lyrics that placed his heart smack out there for all to see. There was a melodic raggedness to Big Star’s sound that was there for a reason, a sound that gave hints to what was soon to come from the CBGB and from Athens and from Minneapolis and from, yes, eventually Seattle.

I mean, it’s easy to see why he had such a profound influence on Paul Westerberg (who of course penned one of the Replacements greatest songs in his honor, eponymously). Paul Westerberg even sounds like a less-refined version of Alex Chilton. But you also get why Michael Stipe and Peter Holsapple and Frank Black and Evan Dando and so many other singer-songwriters of Generations X and Y worshiped him too.

Which brings us to today’s installment of Favorite Song Friday. Which is somewhat appropo, given what month we’re still in.

Favorite Song Friday—Big Star—“September Gurls”

Those opening chords. Those opening chords!

Those scraping, jangly chords that open up the song and carry it to the very end. Those chords sound like someone someone crying in the rain, staring up at a closed window he knows will never open. It’s a jarring and unsettling way to open up a love song, but damn if it also isn’t just so pretty, too!

September gurls do so much
I was your Butch, and you were touched
I loved you, well nevermind
I’ve been crying, all the time

December boys got it bad
December boys got it bad

September gurls I don't know why
How can I deny what's inside
Even though I'll keep away
Maybe we'll love all our days

December boys got it bad
December boys got it bad

When I get to bed
Late at night
That's the time
She makes things right
When she makes love to me

September gurls do so much
I was your butch and you were touched
I loved you, well never mind
I've been crying all the time

December boys got it bad
December boys got it bad

Read these lyrics and one thing you notice—after, I guess, the spelling of “gurls,” which, well, I just don’t know, but it probably has something to do with that eternal obsession of youthful love Chilton always seemed to have—is its never exactly clear who “September Gurls” are or why “December boys got it bad.” (Aside from maybe the plain fact that Chilton was, well, born in December. Occam's Razor and all that.) But really, we don't know. Not at all. Nor is it clear who or what “Butch” is or means. It’s a loveletter, the contents of which are possibly only understood by one person, and maybe not even her.

What we get is a fairly sparse and heartfelt plea. These words mean something to someone, though, and maybe that’s the point. But they are nonetheless breathtaking. And honestly, as someone who very often loves great songwriting and great lyrics above all else, and has assembled myriad lists in his head of his favorite lyrics over the years, this little toss-off:

I loved you, well never mind

…is and remains one of my favorite lyrics of all-time. It’s beautiful and it’s silly. It’s petulant and immature and desperate and defeatist and it’s bluntly honest and plainly confused and it’s all of six words long and I just used 10 words to try and describe it!

Every little inch of this song is lovable and memorable. The sweet and sunny harmonies that hang over it. The lustrous background vocals and cries that take the song up into the ether. Chilton’s shows some damn impressive range, starting high and staying high and going ever higher when he hits the “When I get to bed” bridge. And that weeping, descending guitar line, which you just know Peter Buck must’ve listened to a thousand or two times, seems to offer a pleasant nod to everything that led Chilton to this point – Motown and Stax and Liverpool and his beloved Memphis. It’s all in there, neatly tucked into 2:44 of rock-n-roll splendor.

“September Gurls” is neither a kiss-off or a sappy plea. Or it’s both. It is what you want it to be, as so much of the best music so often is. When Chilton died in 2010, his postpunk godson Westerberg wrote an op-ed about him for The New York Times. He summed up his career thusly:

Success shone early on Alex Chilton, as the 16-year-old soulful singer of the hit-making Box Tops. Possessing more talent than necessary, he tired as a very young man of playing the game — touring, performing at state fairs, etc. So he returned home to Memphis. Focusing on his pop writing and his rock guitar skills, he formed the group Big Star with Chris Bell. Now he had creative control, and his versatility shone bright. Beautiful melodies, heart-wrenching lyrics.

That’s the story of Alex Chilton, leader of Big Star and, as Westerberg would later describe him, “folk troubadour, blues shouter, master singer, songwriter and guitarist.” And what he left behind, with “September Gurls” and plenty more, keeps him going, makes him relevant to those of us who weren’t even alive when “The Letter” was released.

September comes to an end in four days. “September Gurls” exists forever.

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