AUSTIN, Texas -- This noontime panel discussion was supposed to celebrate a band whose legacy, reputation and influence far outweighed its commercial success and popularity. It was also supposed to be a prelude to one of the most anticipated headlining shows at this year's South by Southwest music festival.
But Alex Chilton died on Wednesday, so "I Never Travel Far Without a Little Big Star" became a celebration of the music of Big Star, a public memorial for Chilton and a requiem for his beloved band.
The six panelists who gathered on Saturday included singer/songwriter and pop maestro Tommy Keene; Chris Stamey of the dBs; and Big Star founding members Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens and Big Star alums Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow. John Fry, the founder and owner of Ardent Studios in Memphis, who was introduced as the "George Martin of Big Star."
Moderator Bob Mehr of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, navigated the 90-minute discussion that began with Chilton's boyhood and his rearing by parents steeped in the city's arts and music scene.
Hummel: "I remember going in to use the restroom once and being transfixed by all the artwork on the wall. The house was full of modern art." And music, too. Chilton's father was a jazz musician and his mother had some training in classical music.
Stephens: "He grew up a round lots of music: jazz, classical music and the rock and soul sounds going on in Memphis. His house was like a center of Memphis culture."
Chilton would become a teen pop star with the Box Tops, and Keene recalled seeing them play when he was a child: "I went with my older brother. They opened for Gary Puckett and the Union Gap. ... I had a camera and I got a great picture of Alex ... They were great. Most people were there to see Gary Puckett, but I think (the Box Tops) upstaged them."
Fry recalls his first encounter with a teenager who would quickly become a lifelong friend: "The first time I met Alex was at Box Tops session. Dan (Penn) brought the rhythm tracks to Ardent ... The first one we worked on was 'Cry Like A Baby.' Alex was this teenage kid, sitting in the corner, waiting for someone to tell him it was time to sing."
He was also writing his own material, which was not getting the appreciation he felt it deserved, Fry said: "As the Box Tops franchise went on, Alex made no secret that he was frustrated. He was writing songs, good material, and little, if any, got recorded. As he found his voice and his writing talents, that was a frustration for him."
Most of the panelists has at least one or two anecdotes to share; Stephens told one of the more memorable stories, one involving Charles Manson, who had befriended one of Chilton's acquaintances, Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys.
"Charles gave Alex a grocery order, a list of things to pick up. It was in San Francisco, so it's hilly. Alex makes his way to the grocery store, and on the list is a gallon of milk. Alex elects not to get the milk because it's heavy and he had to walk back up a few hills. Charles was upset about that. ... I'd have loved to see the looks on both of their faces."
Hummel and Stephens recalled the birth of Big Star, when Chilton joined them and Chris Bell. Hummel: "We thought adding him to the band would push us over the top."
Both recalled the working relationship that blossomed between Chilton and Chris Bell, who died in 1978. Stephens remembered the first time he heard one of their songs: "I remember Alex and Chris saying, 'Here's a new song.' I don't know if it had a title yet, but it was 'The Ballad of El Goodo.'
"I was astonished with what they'd come up with and how they connected with me, We'd primarily been a cover band, doing James Gang and Led Zeppelin, and here are songs being written by Alex and Chris and there was a real emotional connection.
Hummel: "They were both a couple of alpha guys yet they worked together seamlessly. I don't recall any conflict. ... EVeryone was pushing forward for this common good."
Big Star inspired a tide of critical acclaim, but not many record sales. One of its most devoted fans, however, was Stamey, about whom Mehr said: "If Big Star were a religion, Chris Stamey would be the apostle Paul."
Stamey, who would later become a music colleague of Chilton, remembered hearing "When My Baby's Beside Me" for the first time as a teenager in Winston-Salem, N.C.: "I felt like I was floating. I was so into that record. I pulled the car over until the song ended. ... I figured it would take over the country. It didn't. But it took me over. ... It was like we'd found people who could speak for us. ...I felt like they were not lying to me. They seemed truthful, like they were writing about their life experiences."
Fry recalled how the big labels reacted to the band's later albums: "Jim Dickinson produced 'Third/Sister Lovers.' He sent it to every major label, and no one would touch it. It was like it was radioactive. Lenny Waronker at Warner Bros. told Jim, 'This music disturbs me, deeply.' They were all honest records, expressing his real-life experiences."
Several of the panelists talked about Chilton's disposition,which could be a tricky terrain to navigate."We both loved Mingus and we went to the Village Gate to see Mingus play. He was great. After about 15 minutes, he takes a solo and he says, 'Hey Mr. Soundman, I can't hear the monitors,' and he cursed out the soundman. We look at each other like, 'This great American composer is on our level.
"For years, I'd see (Chilton) do the same thing on stage: 'Hey, Mr. Soundman. I can't hear the monitors.' I think it came from that show. He did things that had lots of meaning in his life."
Auer and Stringfellow recall getting to know Chilton for the first time aftger they'd joined the reunited version of Big Star in the early 1990s.
Stringfellow: "His reputation preceded him, but I think a lot of it was based on misinterpretation. ... He let you figure him out. He kept his cool and didn't explain himself. He was very consistent about that. The nicest things he ever said about us we heard from other people."
Stamey recalled a story from the early 1980s, when Chilton was in New Orleans, working in a kitchen: "Alex was saying something about 'the world,' and one of the guys he was working with said, 'Yeah, Alex, you're right and the world is wrong.' And Alex said, 'You know, Chris, I really think he was on to something,...
"He was incapable of lying. ... In those social situations where we all say, 'Yeah it's a great day -- he didn't have that in him. So sometimes it was hard for him to hang out."