Alex Chilton's death is felt in Memphis -- and on Capitol Hill

By Joe Heim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 2010

As speeches in Congress go, this one was remarkably brief -- and poignant.

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) took to the floor Thursday morning to offer a statement on the passing of rock musician and singer Alex Chilton, who died of an apparent heart attack on Wednesday in New Orleans at age 59. The tribute, posted on YouTube, was tweeted and posted on Facebook by fans and rock cognoscenti, with many remarking on how touching and appropriate the eulogy was.

Just under two minutes long, Cohen's off-the-cuff remarks captured the independent spirit and artistic achievements of the musician who, though not especially well-known, was highly regarded and influential. Cohen quoted lyrics from "The Letter" ("Gotta get a ticket for an airplane/ain't got time to catch a fast train") a song that a 16-year-old Chilton and his band the Box Tops took to the top of the charts in 1967. He also commented on the mark Chilton, with his band Big Star, made on such groups as REM and the Replacements, and mentioned the singer's fiery iconoclasm.

"He never cared for the critics, he didn't have that much acclaim . . . [with] record sales, but he did with others."

Cohen ended his Chilton tribute with this: "He is an embodiment of Memphis music: hard, different, independent, brilliant, beautiful. We're lucky he came our way."

Reached later by phone, Cohen said he learned of the musician's death late Wednesday night and had spent a lot of time since then listening to Chilton's music on his iPod, including such songs as "Bangkok," "Tee Ni Nee Ni Noo" and "No Sex." He decided on his way into work Thursday to make the speech on the House floor.

"I miss him greatly," said Cohen, 60, who had known Chilton since he met him at Chilton's father's funeral. "There's just something about Alex. He's my generation and most of us in Memphis knew him and his music. This is a great loss to the Memphis scene."

Between meetings on Thursday the congressman "spent the day reflecting" on the singer. Chilton's songs, he says, "remind me of episodes of my life and the life of the city of Memphis."

This wasn't the first time Cohen had mentioned Chilton in an official setting. In a transportation committee meeting Cohen says he quoted "The Letter," as a way to make a point about getting fast rail to Memphis. He told those present that if faster rail service was provided he would ask Chilton to write a new song.

Cohen had another personal reason to mourn his friend's passing. He was set to introduce Chilton and Big Star at a May concert in Memphis.

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