One of my all time favorite records is the Replacement’s Let It Be. I wore the grooves out of my scatched up copy in my tiny basement in-law apartment of my grandmother’s house. For as much as I liked the band, I never really got to see them live, just one song at the Shoreline Theater. They opened for Tom Petty, and played at the ungodly hour of 8pm- way too early for and self-respecting hipsters to make the scene. We missed most of their set, catching only “I’ll Be You” while they rocked about as tiny ants on the stage from our vantage point on the lawn.
I was given a cassette tape of Pleased to Meet Me, and loved the song Alex Chilton so much, that I would listen to it, flip the tape over and listen to Skyway and keep repeating until I finally broke the tape. I can’t tell you any other songs on the album because those were the only two I ever heard from it.
As much as I liked the song, I never went any further into an investigation of Alex Chilton. A friend at work raved about him- told me he was a brilliant songwriter, but had eschewed rock and roll and fame, and now worked as a dishwasher in New Orleans. I thought that was interesting and promptly forgot about him.
One day I was talking about food with my friend Barry, and he mentioned he was going to New Orleans. He had a plan in place for each meal while he was there. He said it would be a challenge to eat that much food- breakfast, lunch and dinner at well known restaurants, but he’d made the reservations and was going to go for it. Was I up for it??? Do you even have to ask? I once peeled and ate 20lbs of crawfish at an “all you can eat” crawfish boil in New Orleans. When I told the bartendar I was from San Francisco, he said I did a good job, for a tourist of course.
Barry also was planning to see his good friend Alex Chilton, who would be playing his annual New Year’s Eve gig, and go to a football game that takes place on New Years Day. “Oh, the dishwasher!” I thought. That would be interesting. And I could see my cousin, who now lives in New Orleans. We are each half Scottish, and Hogmanay is big with the Scots, so I’d go first footin’ with him.
So I wound up meeting Alex very briefly on the trip. We visited his house on New Year’s Eve day to say hello and hang for a little bit, as it would be too busy to chat at the gig. He lived in a typical New Orleans house, small but efficient, and had loads of guitars lying about. I looked around while he and Barry caught up. I remmeber him being quiet but humorous. He’d had a good year, money wise, as That 70’s Show was using one of his songs as their theme song. He was getting royalties. He wasn’t washing dishes. I don’t know if that was actually true ( I certainly didn’t have the balls to ask him), but he seemed to live a comfortable, simple lifestyle. This was pre-Katrina but you could still have a nice quality of life in New Orleans without making a ton of money. We left early so he could get a nap before his gig. I was impressed that he could sleep before he played. It was his ritual.
We had an awesome time in N.O. and Alex’s gig was great, but I did have hard time holding up my end of the bargain as far as food went. “Breakfast, lunch and dinner!” Barry would chant each day. But after 3 days I groaned “Breakfast and dinner! Breakfast and Dinner” !!! I hadn’t trained for this, and I had to beg off of a couple of lunches to give myself a rest. Barry eventually forgave me.
Over the many years of our friendship, I would often consult Barry’s travel plans. He travels A LOT- always going to SXSW, New Music Seminar, Giants Spring Training, not to mention lots of various gigs like Coachella, Lolapalooza, and events like Sundance. Then he said he was branching out and going to Europe. We compared calendars, and saw we’d overlap for a week in Europe for our planned vacations. He was going to see Alex play some gigs in England. Alex had a gig in Italy while I would be there, so we planned to meet in Milan.
I flew to Milan, and of course was a little delayed. I texted Barry upon landing and he told me to come to the hotel NOW. We could get a ride on the tour bus to the gig. It took me a while to get through customs, and the texts from Barry started to get a little frantic. The gig was at a stadium on the edge of Milan, and we didn’t want to miss it. The cab driver let me off at the hotel and I saw Barry pacing in front of the tour bus. I ran across the piazza yelling “Barry, Barry , Here I am!!!”. He grabbed my bag and tossed it on the bus. As soon as I boarded, the driver shut the door and sped off. I looked around the bus and it was packed with nicely dressed people in evening gowns and tuxedoes, all starting at me with curiosity. Huh? I was underdressed in comfy jeans and a tee- my crossing-the- Atlantic flight gear. I mentioned this to Barry, and he said “Oh that’s just the London Symphony Orchestra”.
What? It turns out that the gig was a tribute to Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heartsclub Band, and the Symphony would be playing the music. Each song would be sung by a different performer- all of them stars in their own way. Barry had managed to hold up the tour bus by telling the driver that I was someone important flying in from the states. So that explained the odd looks as they tried to figure out which famous rock star I was. Ha ha.
We got to the gig and went backstage to look for Alex. It was a little honeycomb and we peeked into various rooms before we found him. I caught a glimpse of Marianne Faithful warming up. We chatted with Alex for a minute and then left to give him a chance to prepare in private. As we walked over to the backstage bar, we ran into Peter Murphy. “Peter!” Barry exclaimed, “Have you met Carmela? She just flew in from San Francisco!” Peter Murphy smiled and shook my hand. He was being polite, but I’m sure was wondering “who the hell are you?” It was fabulous, Barry did this with everyone. I got to shake Marianne’s hand, and then she grabbed my arm and muttered “the horrors, the horrors”. Turns out she has terrible stage fright and has to be dragged to the stage to preform.
The show was awesome. Besides Alex, Marianne and Peter Murphy, Robyn Hitchcock and the Residents played. There were some other famous people performing (Badly Drawn Boy and Beth Orton) that I didn’t really know. After the set we were able to take the tour bus back to the hotel. I sat next to a guy on the bus and introduced myself. He said he lived in Berkeley and we chatted for a minute before he told me that he was one of the Residents. OMG! I was a big fan, but obviously couldn’t recognize anyone from the band. I mentioned this and he said it was great being a Resident because you could be incognito. He introduced me to a couple of the other Residents. I told then how I used to watch the garage door of Subterranen records as I painted apartments across the street with my dad. I wanted to catch a glimpse of a Resident but it was like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. They agreed that “no one every goes in, and nobody ever goes out.” Alex got on the bus and sat behind me. He leaned over and asked me my birthday. A couple of minutes later he told me I was the King of Diamonds. I said “It’s good to be king!” He replied “It’s lonely at the top”. He then asked the young guy next to him what his birthday was, and then told him what playing card he was, and they wound up talking all night.
Barry told me that Alex had a system where he calculated which card of the deck you were- by adding up the numbers of your birthday, and probably some other information. The card told him a lot about you- some cards were good, some neutral, some bad. He based a lot on the cards. I don’t think the King of Diamonds was that great of a card but he was still very nice to me. The guy next to him must have been a good card because Alex spoke with him the rest of the evening. I guess the system worked. He probably had a lot of crazy fans, and it was a way to screen people that somehow worked for him.
We wound up going out to dinner with some of the Lonely Hearts. I sat at the table with Robyn Hitchcock and his wife. Peter Murphy was also there. We went to a restaurant that opened up just for us, as it was quite late. I was jet lagged but managed to stay awake, texting my roommate back home “I’m eating dinner with Peter Murphy!!!! I love Italy!” It was surreal to say the least. I was a bit intimidated. Everyone was very nice and were asking each other about their upcoming touring and recording plans. I was a bit out of the element. My tour plan was an upcoming gig at the El Rio.
The next day Alex flew back to London, and Barry and I scoured Milan looking for something to eat. We couldn’t seem to find a restaurant that was open, much less breakfast, lunch AND dinner. It was during one of the famous fashion weeks. We assumed all restaurants must be closed because fashion people don’t eat food, and the restaurants figured it’s a good time to close for vacation (and it wasn’t in August either). We finally found a place open and it was the first time I’d seen a bathroom where literally there was just a hole w/drain on the floor. I’d heard rumors that this happens in some places in Italy, but I insisted Barry go take a look, even tho he didn’t need the lav. It was hilarious.
I left Barry the next day to catch a train to Florence to meet up with my parents, and he was headed back to the States, I think hitting New York on the way back.
When Alex passed away I called Barry to offer my condolences. He was at an event that Alex was supposed to play at, and it became an impromptu memorial. I was sad for him. We laughed about our time in Italy. Barry said “I’ll never forgot you running across with piazza with your suitcase, blond hair flapping around, yelling “Barry, Barry, here I am” with the London Symphony craining their necks out the bus window, wondering “who’s the famous blond?” Britney? Christina ? Madonna?”
Nope…it’s King Diamond!