Thursday, March 18, 2010

"Back of a Car" / Big Star

R.I.P. Alex Chilton 1950-2010

I'm pretty good at resisting the knee-jerk commemoration posts (how long did it take me to get something up on Michael Jackson?). But fer chrissakes, this is Alex Chilton we're talking about. Only a few days ago, I anointed his first hit single, "The Letter," as my favorite 45 of all time. And now he's dead of a heart attack, at age 59. I'm in shock, and I see most of my fellow bloggers are as well.

I've certainly given Alex his due here. Besides gushing over "The Letter," I've written about another Box Tops number, "Sweet Cream Ladies," as well as one song by his second band, Big Star -- "I'm In Love With a Girl". But in this hour of mourning, let me offer one more Alex Chilton gem: Another Big Star track, also from their second album, Radio City.

Part of Alex Chilton's genius -- whether he had any control over it or not -- was the raw emotion of his voice, a perfect vehicle for expressing the inchoate passion of teenagers in love (or at least in lust). Has there ever been a teenage necking song so steamy as "Back of a Car"? He gets it exactly right, all the surging hormones and messed-up feelings. Without bothering with an intro, he launches right into things: "Sitting in the back of a car / Music so loud, can't tell a thing" -- and indeed, the metallic tangle of guitars creates an immediate wall of sound. (I'll bet the windows are fogged up too.) There's no scene setting, no pretty description, no romantic speeches -- he can't tell the girl what he feels because he doesn't know himself. "Thinkin' 'bout what to say / And I can't find the lines . . . ."

There's no doubt he wants sex -- that's written all over those woozy swoops of melody, the churning chord changes, the swelling crescendos of volume -- but he does love her, or at least he thinks he does, as he declares in the second verse. Yet he's afraid, and indecisive, and, well, all mixed-up. After all, there's the future to consider ("waiting for a brighter day") and he's longing to escape ("trying to get away / From everything").

As the song morphs on, though, I get the idea that desire is going to win the day. Listen to the earnest, yearning harmonies of that bridge -- "I'll go on and on with you / Like to fall and lie with you / I'd love you too" -- it's almost as if he's talking himself into it, never mind convincing the girl.

So do they or don't they? The last verse isn't at all clear: "Why don't you take me home / It's gone too far inside this car / I know I'll feel a whole lot more / When I get alone." Maybe that's the girl talking, wanting to flee back to her pink bedroom to sort out her emotions. But surely a boy can feel that way too. (Exhibit A: Brian Wilson singing "In My Room.")

Of course it's murky. Teenage love is always murky. In less than three minutes, we've been pulled so deep inside this heavy petting, we don't know where we are either. That's some songwriting, eh?


hot stix said...

Some songwriting, indeed. The first song to pop in my head when I got the news was 'Neon Rainbow' boyfriend and I listened us up some Alex for a while...'Thirteen' made me cry, which is actually nothing new, but...

Love you, Alex. >sigh< Another one bites the dust...

Alex said...

I'm listening to "Free Again" from the early 90s Rhino collection -- great stuff.

I miss him already.

Anonymous said...

Radio City is good, but the First Big Star LP is the greatest. When Chris Bell was still there - tey were world class. Chris sang like the other singer in The kinks (not Ray Davis) and had a harer edge than Chilton.

Alex's best LPs were Flies n Sherbet and Cliches.

Natsthename said...

I remember when I first saw "That 70's Show," getting a little thrill over the theme song. Yeah, that was great.

Mister Pleasant said...

Perfect power pop. The harmonic changes in Back of a Car send shivers down my spine. And the guitar work - breathtaking. I like to think of it as Wagnerian power pop. It is way way way up there on my favorite songs list.