Alex Chilton R.I.P.

The recent death of Alex Chilton apparently wasn't as much from a heart attack as it was a lack of nationalized health insurance, if one is to believe Facebook comments prompted by a recent article by Keith Spera of The Times-Picayune. "Cause, meet effect," wrote a prominent music critic friend of mine. In response, another wrote: "This is so sad, and makes me so angry... that someone would end up dying because they don't have insurance."

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Making political hay out of someone's death is appalling in and of itself, but when one has to stretch the boundaries of credibility it's particularly irksome. As much as it pains me to write this, Chilton wasn't a martyr for health care reform as much as he was a man who suffered a fatal heart attack. In fact, lots of folks with health insurance shuffle off the mortal coil from heart attacks on a daily basis.

For the uninitiated, Chilton was the vocal prodigy who recorded the lead vocal for the Box Tops' hit 1967 single, "The Letter" (found here) when he was just 16. From this height, Chilton moved on to pop-music genius status after co-founding Big Star. The saying goes that anyone who bought a Velvet Underground album in the 1960s formed a punk band in the 1970s. Similarly, anyone who bought a Big Star album in the 1970s ended up forming an alternative rock band in the 1980s. Never heard of them? Trust me, you've heard their performances on countless film soundtracks, and the Chilton-composed "In the Street" served as the theme song for "That '70s Show."  After Big Star, Chilton fronted the rockabilly band, Tav Falco's Panther Burns.

Despite these accomplishments, Chilton lived in relative obscurity in New Orleans since 1982, emerging sporadically to record and tour a new batch of songs, or perform reunion tours with the Box Tops and Big Star. According to Spera, Chilton moved to the Big Easy to escape substance abuse issues and unhealthy personal associations. There he lived off of his "modest" publishing royalties and income from touring. His death last month, according to Spera, was due partially to his lack of health insurance, which Chilton's widow attributes to him not seeking medical attention sooner.

Chilton chose not to purchase health insurance and look after his own health. Instead, he stayed home, watching television and smoking pot and cigarettes rather than writing songs, recording and producing albums and touring if one is to believe the accounts given in Spera's article. Chilton enjoyed the "low overhead" of life in New Orleans, and "saw little reason to hustle additional work," according to Spera, who also quotes Chilton's widow as saying of her late husband, "He was kind of lazy.... Why work when I don't have to?" Before my libertarian brethren attack your writer as a prude, let me add that there's no value judgment in Chilton's lifestyle - only an acknowledgement that they were conscientious choices made by an incredibly bright and gifted singer and songwriter.

By the time he died at age 59 on March 17, Chilton was a known brand whom one wishes would've offered the world far more songs than he did. Since that's not the case, we should acknowledge the catalog of great songs and performances he left behind as the treasure trove it is rather than indicting the health care system in the United States for stopping this genius far before the rest of us were prepared.