Alex Chilton is Alive
by Kent J. Landry
The first time I met arguably the greatest American pop-songwriter of the 20th century, he was washing my dishes. A big star he was not.
Of course, they weren’t really my dishes, but those of the patrons of Mommy G’s Creole restaurant on St. Ann’s in the French Quarter where Alex and I worked. When I moved to New Orleans to pursue a career in music, I landed a job busting tables at the restaurant in order to pay my rent and because they gave me a 20% discount on my meals and all the leftovers I could eat after my shifts.
The other workers and I would take smoke breaks outside in the courtyard, sitting by a round, cast-iron table that rested under an old, creaky staircase which lead to Big Momma’ office. Big momma was the owner and manager of Momma G’s. I never did find out what the G. stood for, but it was apparent what Momma stood for and why we all prefaced it with Big. This was her restaurant and she was the boss. She didn’t put up with anything, and she made one hell of an etouffee.
For the record, I didn’t know he was Alex at the time. I didn’t even really know what Alex was supposed to look like. See, this was a time before the Internet, and I-Phones, and TMZ, where everybody’s business was everybody’s business. The only time I actually saw him was in the pages of a couple of guitar magazines when I was a kid, but I didn’t pay much attention back then. I knew he had curly hair and a sharp angled face, but during his time at the restaurant his mass of flowing locks had long been shorn off, and what little mane he did have was safely tucked away under a hair net. He was blunt almost to a fault, and when I would do something wrong, like place a cart of dirty dishes on his sanitized counter, he would stare at me hard and curtly say, “Those don’t belong there,” and then go about his business.
But there was something about him that was different, and it attracted me to him almost immediately. He was almost cheery in the way he approached his job, even though that included scraping off other people’s leftovers and washing away their waste. He could be warm and inviting one day, yet shy and reserved the next. Still, after I worked with him for a couple of weeks, it felt somehow, like I new him. I didn’t quite know how or from where, but I knew him.
I had a small apartment on Magazine Street and would often walk to work in order to take in all the sights and sounds and smells of New Orleans. I especially enjoyed my morning shifts when I had to arrive at work early. It always felt to me as if the city was just waking up and realizing it had a terrible hangover. The sun would rise slowly over the Riverwalk and shop-owners and workers would be busy washing off their little piece of heaven, with long hoses and sleepy faces. Mornings in New Orleans are special. There’s a sense of debauchery still in the air, but it’s getting religion.
As a musician and writer, I always thought that I could find my muse on those long walks to Momma G’s, and I could take advantage of her because I was awake and fresh, and she would be drunk and stumbling home.
And then one day during my morning walk it hit me. No, it couldn’t be true. What would a guy like him be doing in New Orleans, and washing dishes no less. I had to find out.
When I went out for a smoke later that day, Alex was in his usual spot on the stairs. No one else was outside.
“What’s up, Alex?” I asked, not sure if he was in the mood for conversation.
He flicked the ash of his cigarette with his middle finger and without looking up at me responded, “Not much.”
“Mind if I smoke with you?”
“Not at all.”
After a few seconds I mustered up the courage to continue the line of questioning I had been waiting to ask him for some time. “So where you from, dude?”
My heart began to pound. Alex Chilton was born and raised in Memphis. I couldn’t believe he was actually telling me the truth. I had to press harder. “How long have you been in New Orleans?”
“Oh, about ten years, I guess,” he responded.
My heart raced. My god, this is really him. Alex Chilton is right in front of me.
“Alex, can I ask you a personal question.”
He stood up, smiled his little quirky grin, and walked past me to the door. Before he opened it, he stopped, turned around and said, “I’m not who you think I am.”
I was surprised. Did he know that I knew?
“What do you mean,” I managed to say.
“Break’s over. Better get back to my dishes.”
That night I went to Tulane Library. As an undergrad there I used to kill time during my studies and go up to the third floor where they stored all the microfiche machines. Just for kicks I would search old Rolling Stone articles to read interviews about John Lennon or Janis Joplin in their primes. Now, I could do all that in front of my computer, but back then it was more rewarding, like I was on a search for something sacred — the Dead Sea Scrolls of the music biz.
The dos screen was black with green blinking letters. I typed in Alex Chilton and Big Star, and the list of articles appeared on the screen before me. I would find my answers here. The articles said Alex Chilton, lead-singer and guitarist for Big Star had retired from making records shortly after Big Star’s third album, 3, was released. It was rumored that he moved to the Big Easy, but no one had been able to verify his whereabouts. He was recluse — the Rock n Roll version of J.D. Salinger. No wonder no one could find him, I thought to myself. No on in a million years would believe he would be washing dishes in a French Quarter café. To top it all off, the articles contained a couple of pictures of Alex. Eureka! It was him.
Why did he drop out of the music scene? All the Big Star albums were flops, but not due to any lack of artistic merit. Each one garnered rave reviews from top publications, but record company problems and lack of promotion killed each release before the big ball of momentum could get rolling down that hill. I could get the answer to one of the most enduring questions in music. But first I needed to know if anyone else knew his secret.
The staircase creaked under the weight of my feet, every step bringing me closer to Big Momma’s door. It felt like I was walking to the Principal’s office. Big Momma was all business, and I doubt she would be to accommodating to a little peon like me snooping my nose in other people’s affairs, but I had to know.
I cautiously knocked on the door. An “uh-huh” was all I heard from the voice inside.
“Big Momma,” I said.
“What is it boo?” she said, all matter-of-fact and businesslike.
“It’s Raif, can I come in for a minute?”
“Come in, boo.”
Big Momma was sitting behind an enormous desk that had papers strewn all over its top. I could smell pralines and coffee.
“Raif, you not even on the schedule today,” she said gruffly. She then looked up and met my eyes, “What’s on your mind?”
I must say Big Momma was not the terrible ogre that everyone made her out to be. I felt almost comfortable in her presence.
“I need to ask you a question, Big Momma.” I paused, not sure about how to proceed. “It’s not about me, it’s about someone who works here.”
Big Momma took the off her glasses that were resting on the tip of her nose and sat back in here chair. There was a half eating praline lying on the corner of her desk. She broke a piece off and popped it into her mouth,
“Big Momma, this might sound weird, but do you know who’s washing dishes in your restaurant downstairs?”
“Of course I do,” she responded.
I was shocked.
“So you know who Alex is?”
“Um-huh. And I guess you do to, or you wouldn’t be up here right now, huh, boo.”
“Wait a minute. You know that Alex is Alex Chilton, the lead singer for Big Star? And he’s downstairs doing your dishes?”
I didn’t know what to say. I guess I was half-expecting to drop the secret on her, but she confirmed that there was not secret at all. I finally muttered, “Can you explain that?”
Big Momma let out a hearty laugh that shook here whole body up and down. “Boo, there’s a lot of things that Big Momma can explain. How to cook the perfect gumbo. How to peel a crab to get the most meat. How to make a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant survive in a town full of them. But explaining why Alex is here, well, that’s not one of them. All I know is he came in here a few years ago asking about a job. It wasn’t till months later that a friend of mind who played guitar at The Blues House told me who he was. That he was some kind of musician. Made a couple of albums. To be honest, honey, I never heard of him. But he sure does a good job with those dishes.”
Big Momma stood up and I could tell it was a sign for me to leave. “If there is anything else you want to know, why don’t you go and ask him yourself?”
I walked down the creaking steps, sure in my conviction to finally confront Alex, but when I went into the kitchen he was nowhere to be found. Alex Chilton had once again disappeared.
One morning, as I was walking to work, I decided get a quick bite to eat. I walked up Decatur toward Jackson Square and then down Pirate’s Alley on the left of St. Louis Cathedral. There was this little café, which served coffee and the best little grilled cheese, and tomato sandwiches I had ever tasted. It was housed on the first floor of the Faulkner building — half café and half bookstore. I opened the two French doors and walked to the counter to place my order when I heard voice from behind my shoulder.
“Are you stalking me?” he deadpanned.
It was Alex, sitting there with a steaming cup of coffee and a book, in which he placed a marker and then carefully laid it on the table. “Have a seat,” he said.
“So, are you a regular here,” I asked. He smiled without saying a word. It was now or never. I had to know the truth. “Look, I know who you are, and I can’t believe …” I shook my head trying to process all the thoughts twirling around in my head. “What are you running from?”
“Not success, that’s for sure,” he responded.
“What, are you kidding me? You are one of the most influential songwriters in Rock. You know the Jayhawks just covered ‘In Love with a girl?’ And that Replacements song. Dude, you’re steaming hot right now.” I shook my head in disbelief. How could he not understand his own influence? “What are you doing in New Orleans?”
Alex looked around the room and took a deep breath, as if absorbing the very soul of the city. “Well, why not New Orleans?” he finally said. “It’s a city filled with music … passion … Jazz. You know my father was a Jazz musician. Listened to that stuff as a young kid. Still love it.” He took a sip from his cup, placed the cup on the table and gave me a quick grin. He continued, “A guy could get lost here. Plus, it seemed a good place to make a fresh start, to kick the vices I was letting myself try on.”
“Really. Well, you might be the first person in the history of the world to come to New Orleans to kick his vices.” I laughed to myself, but Alex kept staring right through me. I finally had to say the obvious. “Dude, you’re a freakin’ legend. I can’t believe I’m even sitting across from you right now. In the Faulkner building no less.”
“Interesting. What makes me a legend in your eyes?” he asked.
“Dude, your music. You. Big Star were the kings of power-pop,” I responded
“Man, if you only knew how embarrassed I am about some of those songs,” he said. It’s the feeling you get if you let someone read your diary from your teenage years. It makes me cringe.”
“So I guess you’re right and the rest of the world is wrong, huh?” I said pleading my case.
Alex paused. Sat back in his chair, and traced the rim of his coffee cup with the tip of his finger. “Well, you might be on to something there,” he responded only half sarcastically.
I leaned forward in my chair, unsure of what to say. “Well, I know to me and your fans, what you think makes them embarrassing is what we think make them great. They were pure. Real. I don’t care how many albums you sold, you guys were more than that.” I sat back in my chair and ran my hands through my hair, still in disbelief about everything. “You know they talk about people being the voice of a generation. Well, you weren’t the voice at all. “
“You’re right about that,” he responded.
“No, you were the heart and soul.”
His blue eyes pierced my own. I felt his presence at that moment more than ever before. “Deep down inside you have to know it’s true.”
That was the last thing I said to Alex before he excused himself from the table and told me he would see me at Big Momma’s. On his way out, he shook my hand and walked out into Pirate’s Alley and the New Orleans humidity, heading somewhere he only knew.
Alex Chilton is dead. That’s the headline under the Entertainment section of my web browser. It’s been over 20 years since our conversation in the French Quarter café. I never told anyone about it, until now. No one would have believed me anyway. Alex Chilton? Washing dishes? And what, you guys had dinner with Bigfoot as well?
It’s funny, it seems a lot of times people finally make peace with their past only to have their present taken away from them. The photo on my computer showed a happily engaged Alex Chilton playing on stage with a reformed Big Star. More shows were to follow. He looked positively joyful. Satiated. Alive. Embracing the songs he once denounced. I guess sometimes you have to wash clean the past to make it shine on for the future.
Kent J. Landry is an educator with more than 20 years of experience and a freelance writer from St. Mary Parish, Louisiana. He lives on the bayou with his wife and two kids, and his works of nonfiction have appeared in Louisiana Life, 225, Acadiana Profile and Country Roads magazines. This story was inspired by the death of Big Star lead singer Alex Chilton, a pop genius who never really received his due. He disappeared from the spotlight in the 1980s after limited commercial success and became a cult figure in the music industry. It was said that he lived in New Orleans for a few years and maybe even washed a couple of dishes. This is Landry’s fictional take on what could have happened to him.