The recent release of Alex Chilton’s Electricity by Candlelight on Bar/None Records turns a “you had to be there” moment into a “you are there moment.” The late, great singer/songwriter and Big Star frontman took a major setback – a sudden power outage between two sets at New York City’s Knitting Factory in 1997 – and spun it into a most magical listening experience: Chilton picked up an acoustic guitar and regaled a small audience with a clutch of covers, from standards (“My Baby Just Cares for Me,” “Someone to Watch Over Me”) to country classics (“D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” “I Walk the Line”) to the kind of brilliant pop songs he was more than capable of creating (a sublime three song run through the ends of Brian Wilson’s Beach Boys songbook, from “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” to “Surfer Girl” to the obscure “Solar System” off 1977’s Love You).
What brings this performance out of the realm of mystical recollection and into tangible experience is one lucky fan, Jeff Vargon, who attended Chilton’s show with his trusty recorder and captured an enchanting moment (“something I never would’ve expected”) from a career chock full of them. Not long after the release and enthusiastic reception to Electricity by Candlelight last month (“It’s good to see people getting what this show is about,” Vargon enthused), I had the pleasure of speaking to Jeff about his history with Chilton and what it was like in the presence of pure musical magic.
Where does your own history with Alex Chilton’s work begin? What was it about him that drew you to him?
I’ve been a Chilton fan since the early ’90s, and I’d liked power pop even before that – The Raspberries, Badfinger – but a friend of mine turned me on to Big Star in ’93, and I’d seen Alex live in 1994 or early ’95. This project in particular – at the time I was there, I knew something exceptional was happening. But the reaction out there surprised me – you might not expect something like this to get such positive feedback. But Alex Chilton had a fan base that was very unique.
When he was alive, his performances were very eclectic and unpredictable. There were certain songs he’d play if he was putting on his “lounge act,” so to speak. That photo that’s circulating with this release, that was from his first set that night, and he’s got on this shiny jacket and a nice shirt. By the second set, the one that’s on here, he had just a t-shirt on, strumming in front of a crowd by candlelight.
Alex was a musician – not to be cliched, but he did it his way. He had a No. 1 hit at 16, and could’ve kept going that route. Look at Michael Jackson – how he’d faded, spiraled and became a disaster. Alex, on the other hand, was someone who basically did his own thing, went out there and played gigs. He was a human being when you met him or talked to him, and he had bad days and good days. One night, I saw him at a Box Tops gig, and he was out on the street, and I’d said it was a great show. He replied, “No interviews, no interviews.” Now, I’d met him a few times before that, though I’m not certain he recognized me. It was one of those nights for him. But when he played, he always do what he wanted to do, not what corporate America was pushing down anyone’s throat.
Set the scene of what it was like to be at this show for us.
It was Valentine’s Eve, and I’d bought tickets for both sets. If he was playing over a few nights, I’d try to catch him once, but since it was one night, I just bought them both. So he played his electric set without a hitch, and I’d stood up front, took pictures and recorded him – I’ve been recording since my first Chilton gig. There was this break between sets, and people were milling about while Alex had gone upstairs to talk to a few friends. Just as they were setting up for the second set, the lights went out. Most people started booing, and the bulk of the group started to walk out. But Alex being Alex, he walked downstairs to see what was happening, and I decided to sit there and wait. All of a sudden, I hear this guitar strumming and he’s singing “Volare.” As soon as I heard it, I hit “record” and got as close as possible. People were still leaving at this point, but there were others starting to drift in and circle around him. And he just started playing. Eventually, people bought up a few candles, because it was dark where he was standing. As he continued to play, he warmed up even more to the crowd – you can hear on the recording that everyone there wanted to be there.
He played a long set, over an hour. There were songs we actually cut from the performance – the idea was we’d get out there songs he’d never recorded or performed regularly.
Basically, I had a Sony stereo Walkman recorder with an external microphone I’d clipped to my shirt. It was funny, the entire recording I was paranoid that he’d spot the mic. I was close enough to him that he could’ve seen it had he looked – there was actually one point where he’s strumming and singing, and he stops, kind of smiles wryly and looks at me. And I figured, “Oh, I’m busted – he saw the mic and it’s over.” But it wasn’t.
It was a very basic setup. I was behind a lady directly in front of him – I didn’t want to be right in front.
When or how did this become an official Alex Chilton project?
I’d gone to the City Winery tribute in New York. Bill Cunningham, Gary Talley, Jody Stephens, Alex’s widow Laura – they were all there. And I’d put together packages ahead of time based on who played with him. One of the discs I’d put together was the acoustic CD, which I’d actually given to Alex back in 1998. It’s still my favorite personal recording – and Laura really enjoyed it. That’s what gave me the impetus to get this out there.
What are the most memorable moments of this show for you?
From what I recall, everything was very spur of the moment. He was kind of shooting from the hip – there was nothing he wouldn’t play, other than his own music. And a few of these songs were just called out, like “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.” So Alex’s musical knowledge was phenomenal – almost limitless, if you think about it. Nothing was set in stone for any of this. Even those three Beach Boys tunes – I wasn’t aware that “Universe” even was a Beach Boys tune at the time. It was one of those things that just kept getting better as it went on, and nobody wanted it to end.
[But] “Surfer Girl,” for me, would be the song. He did a demo of that which ended up on a bootleg album, Beale Street Green, and it had such a 1970s feel, although it’s a ’60s tune. The ’70s were a point in history where, at the time you might not have appreciated what was going on, but looking back – especially in today’s world – it was a paradise.
I’m not going to live forever, but as long as I live, this is something to remember. It’s an example of beauty – it captures a moment where there is good in the universe, and everyone comes together, regardless of our differences, in one place and time to experience something great.