Local bassist Steve Scariano reminisces about the legacy of Alex Chilton

Sep 22, 2010 at 4:00 am

Fans of smart, elegantly tailored pop music were dealt a double blow this year when Big Star's Alex Chilton and Andy Hummel died within four months of each other. Big Star was an underappreciated band from Memphis during its brief lifetime in the mid-'70s, but the band's four albums remain a Rosetta stone of power pop and are a lasting influence on countless musicians.

This Friday night at Off Broadway, KDHX will continue its series of tributes to deceased American songwriters with "September Gurls & Boys: A Tribute to Alex Chilton & Big Star." Local artists, including Magic City, Grace Basement, Adam Reichmann and Beth Bombara, will draw from Chilton's vast and varied songbook, touching not only on his Big Star tunes but also his early days with the Box Tops and his genre-bending solo work.

Few local musicians are more qualified to pay homage to Chilton than Finn's Motel and Love Experts bassist Steve Scariano. A rock & roll lifer who now works in the mail-order department of Euclid Records, Scariano's discovery of Big Star in high school triggered a lifelong love of Chilton's songcraft. (A young Scariano even traveled to Memphis to meet Chilton in 1976, an episode recorded on his blog, www.rollawaythestone.blogspot.com.)

Scariano will perform in three acts on Friday's tribute show — as a member of the Jans Project and the Remodels (both of which are making their live debut) and as part of Edward Burch's band. He spoke with B-Sides about the lasting appeal of Big Star and the overlooked gems in Chilton's solo catalog.

B-Sides: How did you get interested in Big Star?

Steve Scariano: When I was in high school, the rock press was still in its infancy then, and it was starting to emerge. It's what I call the golden era of rock writing, and I started to read Creem magazine, Phonograph Record Magazine, Circus, Rolling Stone. The interesting thing about that was reading reviews and stuff, and that there was other music being written about that you didn't hear on your FM station in town. You trusted these writers implicitly; they were great tastemakers. It was that coming of age — you know, you're in high school now and starting to discover things on your own and feeling special because you're doing that. And finding out, Wow, there's more rock in the world that's cool and good besides what I'm hearing on KSHE every day and what my friends knew about at school.

My first awareness of them was reading a live review that was in Phonograph Record Magazine. I went out right after that and found #1 Record in the cutout bin, and then I found Radio City shortly after that. And the weird thing about that was there were a couple DJs on KSHE that played "O My Soul" all the time. So they got airplay in St. Louis.

As far as the press goes, Phonograph championed Big Star. And that was it. It was as if the Beatles had made a whole record of "Paperback Writer" and "Nowhere Man." That's what it sounded like to me. But you also instinctively knew that they were American, too. It wasn't like some nostalgic throwback either, because it was very much of its time. It sounded like 1974, too. And like I said, I was seventeen, eighteen at the time, and those lyrics — that's what you're feeling. Even though Alex wrote them when he was 21, he was still kind of an arrested adolescent at the time.

How did that lead you to make the trip to Memphis to meet Alex Chilton?

Looking back, I thought, "Hey, I gotta meet this guy." And that was it. You just called information and got the Chilton household, and he was living at home. Oh my god, I'm talking to Alex Chilton.

Was he aware of the cult of Big Star?

I wasn't the first one who had done that. Steve Wynn [of the Dream Syndicate] did the same thing, the guys in the dB's did the same thing. They had all made pilgrimages. He was a weird cat. He was appreciative of it, but at the same time it was like, "Well, where is this gonna lead?"

As a lifelong fan, how do you approach covering these songs for the KDHX benefit?

The great thing about this show, the important thing about this show to me, is that it's an Alex Chilton tribute, not just a tribute to the rock band Big Star. That's another soapbox with me, is Alex's solo work. For a lot of people, when it comes to Alex Chilton, all they know is Big Star, and all they wanna know is Big Star. And to me, it kinda saddens me because they're missing out on so much great music. He left this amazing, varied body of work. In my opinion, he made three of the greatest albums of all time: Radio City, Third Sister Lovers and Like Flies on Sherbert. All three of those are completely different from each other. They're all important records for completely different reasons.

So will you be playing his solo stuff as well as Big Star songs?

I have this weird thing, and some people have made a big deal about it, where I jokingly say I don't do Big Star covers. And it's not that I'm being difficult or pretentious about it. But it's weird — the bands I've played in, Big Star has meant a lot to us. It's such hallowed ground to me. Also, you're not gonna sound like them — sorry. I've never had the burning desire to cover them. For the three bands I'm playing with, I'm not doing any Big Star covers.