"Dalai Lama" / Alex Chilton
Now, I would never have known about this song if Marshall Crenshaw hadn't pulled it out at last Wednesday's City Winery all-star tribute to the late great Alex Chilton. ("All-star" being a relative term, considering that Yo La Tengo, Cat Power, Sondre Lerche, and Marshall were some of the biggest names on the bill. Oh, and Ronnie Spector.)
While most of the artists in the tribute focused on Alex's hit-making years with the Box Tops, or his underground cult-icon years with Big Star, this particular number is from one of Alex's later solo albums, 1987's High Priest. Even Marshall wouldn't have known that song, I gather, if it hadn't been re-released in 1994 by Razor & Tie, which was also Marshall's label at the time. Alex's solo career was a sporadic and inconsistent thing, and a lot of music lovers had turned away in frustration.
Not me, of course -- I'd stopped listening to Alex Chilton when he left the Box Tops. Despite the fact that "The Letter" is my favorite single of all time, I didn't even know his name until a few years ago. So many lost years....
Anyway, here's the song. It's pretty much self-explanatory -- it's not even satiric, really, since Chilton's just goofing around with the idea of what a Dalai Lama is or does. The rhymes in it, though, are sneaky fun (though I wish he'd done more with the "mosquito" line -- well, you'll see).
As far as I can tell, the real reason for doing this song at all -- besides those crunchy guitar riffs -- is that bridge where Chilton sings, "Na-na-na nah, na-na-nah, na-na-nah" et cetera. Marshall seemed to me have a ton of fun singing that too, the other night. Who wouldn't?
And yes, Chilton probably enjoyed giving that exotic little wail of melisma on the words "Dalai Lama" over and over.
The point is, this is what a supremely gifted musician could do, late in his career, when nobody seemed to be listening anymore. Think of fat Orson Welles, performing magic tricks on The Tonight Show. As Welles once said -- with that trademark arch of an eyebrow -- "Just because you have talent doesn't mean you have to use it."
Except that Alex Chilton IS still using his talent here. Even on a doodly song like this -- it's so catchy, so loose-limbed and delightful, you have to love it.