UNDERCOVER #3: WILLIAM EGGLESTON
by Gianpaolo Arena


BIG STAR “Radio City”, 1974, Ardent Records


Photo: William Eggleston, Greenwood, Mississippi, 1973

Alex Chilton, described by some as the fragile incarnation of the beautiful loser, left us over a year ago at the age of 59 after a heart attack, just days after the death of Mark Linkous aka Sparklehorse. In 1967, at the age of seventeen as the lead singer of Box Tops, Chilton reached the top of the U.S. singles chart with the single The Letter. His full artistic maturity as a singer, guitarist and songwriter came after joining the band Big Star with whom he recorded masterpiece albums like “# 1 Record” (1972), “Radio City” (1974) and “Third / Sister Lovers” (1975). The band of Alex Chilton and Chris Bell was influenced by The Beatles, Byrds and Velvet Underground, but it brought its own identity with a power pop open to the influence of folk and soul; a country-rock acid and lysergic fruit of an artistic vein creative and elegant as much as dissolute and iconoclastic. There are countless bands that pay a strong tribute to the psychedelic pop of the first three Big Star albums: REM, Replacements (who titled one of their songs simply Alex Chilton), Soft Boys, Smithereens, Posies, Teenage Fanclub, Lemonheads, Elliot Smith, Primal Scream, Wilco… 

The cover of Radio City is one of the most famous pictures of William Eggleston. A naked white light bulb anchored to a red ceiling on a web of white threads. The author timidly points out to an evocative access to the sense of mystery and its enigmatic value. A picture that describes with extraordinary creative power and decisive synthesis the extreme beauty of one of the masters of American color photography. The marginal subjects, aesthetics of everyday life and its concerns, the threat and the danger lurking in the normal range will later become strong influences for film works like Blue Velvet (1989) by David Lynch and more. 

The simplicity and yet complexity of everyday life and relations between human beings are faced with no hierarchical assessment of subjects, treated democratically. The Democratic Forest is the title of his most important project in the 80s, preceded a few years earlier by a portfolio entitled William Eggleston’s Graceland, which contains a series of images taken during a visit to the residence of Elvis Presley. From Elvis’ birthplace Tupelo to Big Star and forward, Eggleston has in several times crossed dissonant moods and sounds of the twisted world of rock, from True Stories (1986) by David Byrne to the album covers of Alex Chilton, Primal Scream, Chuck Prophet, Silver Jews, Joanna Newsom, amongst others. We’ll talk about again in the future, but for now do not miss the photographer’s cameo role as a pianist in the video “Lived In Bars" by Cat Power. William Eggleston says about his photograph in the cover of the Big Star’s second album: “It’s just a picture I offered out of the blue,” … “I Happened to run into Alex [Chilton], and he said, ‘I’d love to use it ’. I Said, 'You’re welcome to’. There’s no more to that story."

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LINKS

Big Star's Big Documentary, New Yorker 
Big Star's Third performing live from the Bumbershoot Music Lounge, 2014 
Alex Chilton & Jody Stephens performing as Big Star in this 1994 appearance on network television 
Alex Chilton appears on 120 Minutes on MTV to promote his new record on Big Time called Feudalist Tarts 
Alex Chilton and Band live in San Francisco, November 1985 
William Eggleston



William Eggleston playing the piano on Cat Power's music video 'Lived in Bars', directed by Robert Gordon, 2006