Alex Chilton and Scott Walker

I was trying to listen to some recent Scott Walker music the other day — and if you’ve done this, you know that “trying” is the right word — and it got me thinking about the close parallels between Walker and Alex Chilton. They were both teen idols in the ’60s, each the big-voiced lead singer of a blue-eyed soul group (the Walker Brothers and the Box Tops, respectively) that had a couple years of success with a few big hits before breaking up. They both followed up with a quirky and uneven solo career; in Walker’s case, the highlight was the four Jacques Brel-like baroque pop albums he recorded right after the Walkers split; for Chilton it was the three influential albums he recorded with Chris Bell in the group Big Star a bit later. For both, by the late ’70s their commercial viability was more or less over.

That’s where the stories really diverge. Walker turned his back on the mainstream entirely, making experimental, avant garde music that gives a whole new meaning to the word “difficult” — that is, when he can even be bothered to record it and put out an album, which hasn’t been often. Many critics still like these records, but even the most rave reviews tend to warn off casual listeners.

Chilton, meanwhile, hung around the New York music scene and released a bunch of solo albums that (the ones I’ve heard, anyway) are a likeable-but-harmless mix of odd covers and hit-and-miss originals. He was still a gifted guitarist and singer, but from the end of Big Star to the end of his life — a heart attack in 2010 — he seemed to have been more or less making time, without any real new ideas:

Years after Big Star’s Third Album was recorded and then locked away, the punk/college radio scene finally rescued it from oblivion. But by then, it was too late to resuscitate Chilton’s broken talent. Alex Chilton was ruined. He wasn’t one of those tireless adapters like Lou Reed, who got a second wind after ’77 by hamming up his old punk act. And Chilton couldn’t adapt to cult obscurity well, unlike Jonathan Richman or Pere Ubu, who knew only that cult obscurity and thrived off of it…
Just when Chilton was being rescued from oblivion in the mid-80s, there was a rush among college radio bands to claim his authentic-martyr-cred as their own. The Replacements won the competition with the song “Alex Chilton,” which pretty much ruined him for good, making him into an ironic 80s icon, the type who “doesn’t take himself too seriously” which was considered a really great thing to be by the late 80s. He’d’ve probably preferred being Lou Reed, but all he could do was shyly bat out some surf tunes in small concert halls sparsely attended by college radio DJs. The shows sucked, as any honest person will tell you. They were downright sad. Even the fabled late-recognition turned out badly; once again his timing was off.

The brilliant young star who’s just too sensitive to handle success is a cliché that’s often applied to people who don’t really fit it. These were two who did, and they took opposite paths after the limelight faded. Who made a better choice? On the surface, Chilton’s story seems sadder. Walker, who just turned 70, seems to be relatively at peace (as much as possible given the utterly nightmarish content of his music) and still engaged in his work. But the fact that he had to disengage so completely with the rest of the musical landscape in order to get there …there’s something sad and deeply lonely about that too. Which life would you take?