WUWM, the campus/public radio station of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, was set up in the back of the room, presumably to attract listeners/supporters, but it could have just as well been an attempt to recruit Alex Chilton to be professor on campus. Judging by the experience at his show at the Turner Hall Ballroom, Chilton could easily hold his own as professor of musicology, ethnomusicology, pop culture, and cultural studies. He is the professor of rock ‘n’ roll, class was in session, and he was lecturing from his Epiphone guitar lectern.
Alex Chilton, who scored chart spot with the Box Tops, created long-lasting influence with Big Star, and was held up as an icon for the next generation through the Replacements song about him, spends little time playing his own songs. While midway through he demurely rips into “The Letter” (Box Tops), that is only a blueprint/syllabus for the music he loves (our reading list for the evening) and a blueprint for the papers his students write (his influence on the songs of the Replacements, R.E.M., dB’s, etc.). For even as he let the last familiar chord of “The Letter” resound, he seems even more excited about showing us an Italian classic, “Il Ribelle” (Adriano Celentano), than he was about playing his biggest claim to fame.
The experience is like taking us back to the BBC Session of the Beatles, when they still covered many of the early rock ‘n’ roll tunes. It’s like listening to the soundtrack Stand by Me, as I did when it came out in 1986, and imagining I was hearing a whole new rock sound—which was really just the 50’s discs spinning again. Listening to his version of Johnny Guitar Watson’s “I Want to Ta-Ta You, Baby,” I realize Professor Chilton was giving us quite a musical education while funking out to the backpages of R&B, soul, and rock classics.
Before playing 70’s Stax R&B singer/writer Frederick Knight’s song “Claim to Fame,” Chilton mentioned that it was so obscure that when he contacted the publisher, they didn’t even know about the song. And they should. Sung in Chilton’s faux-Brit voice, he is simply pointing to what should be the classic nature of the tune. It’s like walking into a used record shop with a true collector who not only tells you what to buy but sings it right there for you.
There’s nothing obscure about Michael Jackson’s “Rock with You,” but while calling it the best song Jackson ever did, Chilton helps us all “feel the beat,” bringing out the historic, blues, classic, soul of the song with an inspired mini-solo on guitar. He makes it OK to like Off the Wall.
Chilton wrapped up the class with Wilson Pickett’s “6345789,” giving it a strong, soul swagger. He came back for one encore, an odd groove take on Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” which came with a great solo to send us off to study up until the Professor comes again.
I first caught sight of the disheveled, 90’s flannel-garbed, vagabond as he chatted with the door attendants hoping they’d believe his story and let him into the Turner Hall Ballroom. Turns out he had propped open the stage door, went to retrieve something from his car, and meanwhile, someone pulled the stage door closed. The ticket takers almost didn’t look convinced by this man who didn’t have a laminate pass or anything, but they let him in anyway.
Later, it was clear that some in the audience weren’t convinced about the vagabond’s identity either, as if he was just an interloper who wormed his way onto the stage. Mid-set someone yelled out, “What’s your name?”
The flannel-clad one replied, “It used to be Zimmerman, but I had to change it.” The audience member looked more puzzled than ever. Before leaving the stage, the artist-metaphorically-formerly-known-as-Zimmerman said, “I guess I should’ve brought some business cards.”
This is Grant Hart, former drum of the seminal punk band, Hüsker Dü. Unlike Bob Mould who has gone on to enjoy some moderate post-Hüsker success, Hart has gathered various tribes to continue making music. He now travels along with electric guitar, playing snippets of past days, unpolished thoughts from the last 20 years, and classic/hidden tracks.
Hart is the building sub—that’s what I remember our high school calling a couple of young teachers who primarily served as substitutes in our school, any subject, any level. They seemed mainly like babysitters for classes, often not expected to actually teach the subject, instead proctoring exams or pretending to keep us studying for an hour. However, partly due to their youth and partly because they were chomping at the bit to actually impart wisdom, their sessions with classes often turned into great discussions about the world around us what seemed like open Q&A, current events, pop culture, and storytime would inevitably teach us more than we imagined.
Hart is the building sub. No one expects much from him as he warms up the crowd for the professor of rock ‘n’ roll, Alex Chilton. No one expects much from him, because no one know where he’s headed. Yet, this sub teaches us more than we imagined.
Hart looks every bit as rough as the 80’s were while adding on the intervening years. Hüsker songs like “Green Eyes” are familiar flickers amid the jazz club-like setting of tables and candles, a far cry from Hüsker’s shows in their heyday. Yet, he plays these songs on a sad sounding Gibson. He’s a Bob Dylanesque folk-singer-songwriter with a Gibson’s rockabilly and flashes of punk intensity. And he brings out the country feel of “Never Talking to You Again.”
To be honest, the set was a bit of a slow train that wanders and eventually settles into derailment. Yet, on his own song, “2541,” Hart finally let his heart be revealed. Beyond the humor/stupor act he puts on, there are the glory days, sad days, art days, days of the muse’s fury and flurry. And when he sings Hüsker Dü’s “Back From Somewhere,” you realize he’s still teaching and inspiring the youth of American who are now 20 years older.