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It’s spring: Hello Jimi, goodbye Alex

The lamb laid down this past weekend, after the lion took a somewhat vicious nip on Friday. A nice slice of springtime on Saturday and Sunday, following a blast from the past the day before; as if March is a spoilt child — adorable one moment, a candidate for the river-bound gunny sack the next.

For more than a month, I’ve heard locals grumble at the hint of snow, “I’m done with it, already.” No argument from me but I also know that, if this spring is anything like the previous two I’ve experienced in Pagosa Country, the massive mounds of snow will disappear quicker than we could imagine, the afternoon sun will warm our shoulders, with more hope than despair and more green than white, brown or gray, but the lion will continue to return.

Readers here will have noticed that I keep bringing up springtime in my columns and for that, I won’t apologize; spring is, for me, air. Arising from the dark cave of my despondency, the winter of my discontent, I embrace every ray of sunshine and bask in the warmth, breathe deeply, savoring the aroma of new life, celebrating the numerous moments of my own rebirth.

Yet, the season does not come without some regrets; some bittersweet some need to seriously reflect on the march of time (as Pink Floyd said, “Shorter or breath and one day closer to death”).

This spring is no exception. During the past week, the passing of one Rock God occurred in tandem with the resurrection of another Rock God.

Close as we are to Easter, I’ll begin with the resurrection: the release of “Valleys of Neptune” by Jimi Hendrix, a compilation of previously unreleased material that, apparently, hasn’t pissed off Hendrix fans in the way that previous posthumously released albums have.

And, considering the album shot to number one on the album charts the day it was released, I figure the rest of the world was, like me, waiting for another Hendrix album.

Considering my first guitar came with a “Hendrix note-for-note” tablature book, I have to admit to a certain bias and affection for Jimi, “Purple Haze” being the first proper song I learned how to play on guitar (my band would eventually arrange the tune of “Purple Haze” to feature the lyrics to the “Green Acres” theme). Everything Hendrix played was my standard as a lead-guitar player. I knew I’d never come close to the bar but we all need something to shoot for, no matter how impossible to reach.

So, to see some dead Hendrix stuff released had my chain yanked — and I was not disappointed. While the previously recorded songs on the album — “Stone Free,” “Fire” and “Red House”— all involve much more production than the originals, yet not substantially different, we hear those cuts as if experiencing them for the first time.

Of course, Jimi’s playing is sublime … who the hell else plays like him?

No one. Hendrix stands head and shoulders above anyone else, not just as a guitarist but as an arranger and “Valleys of Neptune” shows him as both, miles above Count Basie or George Gershwin — I’d bet Hendrix will continue to stand long after many of his predecessors have fallen from renown and memory.

For instance, the version of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” bypasses anything Eric Clapton could have done, raising it beyond — if you can imagine — anything Cream or Clapton could have conceived of or arranged. Whereas the Cream version is a classic in its own right (deservedly so), Hendrix turns it into a garage band rave up that nonetheless pits the slow hand against Magic Sam’s dice. Who shot the sheriff? Who cares, there’s a new sheriff in town, Hendrix declares.

As a guitar player, however, I listen to songs like “Hear My Train a Comin’” or “Ships Passin’ Through the Night” or the title cut and wonder how I ever imagined that I could even imagine to play guitar. Hendrix didn’t just intimidate me, he reminded me of my tiny place in the universe. Just an insignificant speck on a small planet in a tiny solar system residing in one in a billion galaxies ... dude.

Rising from the dead, Hendrix brings an awareness: the eternal nature of music, the miracle of his talent and its ability to transcend time and death itself.

Likewise, lyrically (and compositionally) so did the guy that died last week: Alex Chilton.

I have to admit that I walked backwards in order to understand Alex Chilton. Whereas Hendrix held me close to my guitar (I slept with my first one for years, a Fender Broadcaster teddy bear), Chilton escaped me for a long time. In the ’80s, as a punker, I read how bands like REM and Teenage Fanclub would go on and on about how awesome Big Star and Chilton were and, well, I just wasn’t convinced. The little access I had to Chilton and Big Star didn’t really impress me.

It was another example of how nearsighted and closed-minded I could be. When I finally took the time (and shelled out the scratch for the records), it was apparent to me how wrong I had been. It was as if I’d pulled an old suit jacket out of the closet, something I’d never worn before because I’d made up my mind that it was ugly and boring, only to discover a hundred dollar bill in the pocket and the coat made me a chick magnet.

Anyone listening to indie rock now hears Big Star (and, by implication, the genius of Alex Chilton). #1 Record” — Big Star’s first release —has plenty of evidence: “The Ballad of El Goodo,” “In the Street” (which became the theme song of That 70s Show (with a brilliant remake by Cheap Trick), and “My Life Is Right,” are complete classics. Likewise, songs like “Thirteen” and “Try Again” remind one how modern how Big Star was — off of one album. One incredible album, that was, one off for whatever reason. While we were listening to Zep or Lou Reed or whatever, this album was out there, floundering, unheard until we got hip.

Whereas #1 Record never came close to grabbing whatever Chilton hoped to achieve (he’d done fabulously with the Box Tops and hits like “The Letter” and “Soul Deep”), Chilton continued to create some of the most revolutionary pop music ever. The rest of us be damned; his follow up album, Radio City, really wraps it up with an emphasis on Beatlesque harmonies and song structures thirty years ahead of their time – songs like “Life is White,” “Way Out West,” “Daisy Glaze” and “September Gurls” could be heard on XMU today, without a second thought or a wayward glance.

Whether #1 Record or Radio City, it’s all contemporary, as fresh as if you’re listening to the latest Frightened Rabbit or the Shins or A.C. Newman (all profoundly influenced by Chilton) — and the records were from the early 70s, amazingly enough.

Whereas most music contemporary to those two albums sound dated and quaint, snapshots of that place in time, #1 Record and Radio City remain timeless, not of that time or any other time, for that matter. The Zen quality of Chilton’s music on those two albums is that it captures the here and now.

While Chilton’s arrangements refuse to be locked in time, it’s the lyrics that seal the deal. Universal and consistently fresh, Chilton’s themes are simple: a celebration of love and life, even if heartbreak is involved. He manages emotional complexity only because he is capable of capturing exactly how we feel; there is never a false note nor inauthentic phrase. There is nothing maudlin or manipulative about the music, nothing rococo or pretentious. What draws us in is that we know precisely what Chilton is singing about.

The music is an exuberant testimony of what it is to be young, to have no other worry than to steal a kiss or score some beer, to drive all night with no particular place to go. “Hanging out, down the street/the same old thing we did last week/not a thing to do but talk to you,” might have been turned into a dirge of adolescent angst and ennui (see Big Black, “There’s kerosene around, there’s something to do ... set me on fire!”) but Chilton makes it a paean to having nothing but time to talk to his sweetheart, there is absolutely nothing angry about the sentiment.

At the risk of being a blowhard, I state the obvious and declare that adolescence is a tumultuous time, the threshold between the nursery and the workplace, full of adventure and sorrow and confusion and discovery and love and fear — but mostly, fun. Chilton risks nothing, he states it with such clarity and unassuming wisdom that we are only reminded what it is to have loved and lived, reminded that the simple things are indeed what we should most appreciate.

And so, with his passing last week, I was reminded of those simple things: the slight chill in the morning after sleeping with the window open all night, the distant sound of a lawn mower and the smell of fresh cut grass, the rattle of a baseball glove dangling from the handlebars of a bike, the taste of Coke from an ice-cold bottle, the way the horizon looks like it has caught fire at the end of the day, well into the evening, with the chatter of the neighbors on their porch, the cool skin of the hood of a car and the exhilaration of finally, finally touching the fingertips of a new love and feeling her hand move timorously to respond, palms pressed together, warm and wet.

Chilton’s music is just about that, really, and not much else. Were he still with us, he’d ask us to crank up the new Hendrix CD, I think, pull a cigarette from behind his ear and light it up, smiling and looking up from behind the bill of his ballcap to say that, yes, it’s about time. Spring is here.

jim@pagosasun.com