They sing “I’m in love/ What’s that song? I’m in love with that song.”
– The Replacements, “Alex Chilton”
This line in the Replacements’ song is such a perfect way to describe Alex Chilton’s work, because so many people (including myself for a long time) didn’t know his name, yet instantly recognize the songs he sung and wrote.
I feel a little silly writing this post about a dead musician that is rapidly going to turn into a story that’s All About Me instead. And yet here it is.
“My” Alex Chilton song that I used to not know was his is “Watch the Sunrise.” Back in the mid 90s I was working a short-lived job at a certain corporate coffee chain, and they were doing a 1970s themed promotion, complete with pre-programmed 70s music for all the stores. Most of the songs were the well known Doors/Hendrix/Joplin/etc stuff, but there were a few rare ones thrown in. One day I was pouring yet another cup of over-roasted coffee and I heard a song with the refrain “it’s o.k. to look outside… watch the sunrise…”
(“what’s that song??”) I wanted to rush off to the break room and find the playlist, I had to finally find out who sang that song.
I had heard the song one time before. It was at the funeral for a classmate of mine who was killed in a snowmobile accident. I remembered that song, played on acoustic guitar and sung by a friend of his, as one of those rare moments that cut through the rote ritual of the funeral mass and offered a small glimpse of beauty and hope.
I didn’t get a chance to ask about the song after the funeral, but the refrain of “watch the sunrise” got filed away somewhere in my head, and now this standardized playlist at work helped me i.d. this song that Alex Chilton had written when he was with the band Big Star.
About a week after first hearing “Watch the Sunrise” at work, I got a call from my dad with some awful news: my cousin had been struck by a runaway vehicle, and was killed instantly. Like the rest of my extended family, I was devastated. But I kept hearing that song in my head, and it was a small bit of bittersweet beauty that gave some comfort. Before leaving for Minnesota for the funeral, I looked all over several Chicago record stores (this was pre-iTunes era, when I was still making mix tapes with actual cassette tapes) until I found a Big Star compilation CD with the song. I didn’t know if it would have any meaning for anyone else, but I wanted to play it at my cousin’s memorial service.
After the service, my grandpa told me that the song reminded him about the times my cousin would stay with him and my grandma. He said that my cousin would often get up early for a run and stop on the highway overpass near their house to, yes, watch the sunrise.
I have no idea if my cousin knew the song while he was on this earth, but knowing his better than average taste in music, I’d like to think he’d be in love with that song too. I listen to “Watch the Sunrise” from time to time when I’m missing him, and it helps me feel close to him and not feel so sad.
And that’s my Alex Chilton story.