A Box Set of Memories

I had no idea who Alex Chilton was when he passed away last week from a heart attack. I agree that’s probably a shame.

You see, I never really fancied myself a music connoisseur. I know what I like and barely moved out of my comfort zone for years. I feel a bit like Kevin Kline’s character in The Big Chill saying the only real music was the Motown he grew up with. I’m wise enough to know real music didn’t begin and end with, say, hair metal or U2/REM or even the 80s power pop of Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince. Still, I only occasionally ventured out of the shallow comforting waters of “what I know I like.”

Doing some research on Alex Chilton, I was reminded of the last time my musical tastes were explored, expanded and challenged. It was twenty years ago as I was listening to, my grad school summer roommate, Andy Fischer’s vast collection of music.

Andy loves Peter Gabriel-era Genesis and played it all the time. I was exposed to The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and Foxtrot. I heard for the first time songs by Traffic, Eric Clapton, NRBQ and the Who. We used to jam to Les Claypool’s weird vocals and ridiculous bass playing with Primus. We had plenty of good times in the summer of 1991.

Back in the day, Andy made his own box sets of music. These were elaborately designed pieces of art. At the time, he was pushing a wide variety of artists who were themselves pushing musical envelopes. It wasn’t what was popular at the time so much as what was good or relevant or important.

I own three of Andy’s box sets. Digging through my own music collection, I found them packed next to my own LPs (KISS, Devo, Joan Jett and the Monkeys) and the Led Zeppelin four CD box set from a few years ago. The 1995, 1996 and 1997 Best of Collections are so old they are set up on cassettes. True mixtapes.

These collections were hand-crafted and were a limited set. Andy wrote out meticulous notes about each track and as I’m thumbing through the 1995 booklet, I see artists I recognize now such as Pavement, Wilco and Radiohead. Of course, it’s still filled with artists I’ve never heard of before like Lisa Gerrard, Tarnation and Mercury Rev.

I haven’t listened to these collections in years. Luckily, I have a cassette deck in my car. Looks like I might be rolling in some memories for the foreseeable future. The funny thing is many of these songs will be brand new to me even to this day. Just like when I heard “Thirteen” and “Summertime Gurls” by Alex Chilton’s band Big Star for the first time a day or so ago.

There’s nothing wrong with being late to the party. Even if it’s old, it doesn’t mean it can’t be brand new again.