CROSSED PATHS: JOHN & LAURIE STIRRATT RECALL ALEX CHILTON

BRAD RHINES

John and Laurie Stirratt, twins, first played music together in the late 1980s. John formed the Hilltops with his friend Cary Hudson when the two lived together in Oxford, Mississippi, and they invited Laurie to move from New Orleans and play bass. One of John and Laurie’s biggest inspirations was Alex Chilton. They discovered his Memphis band Big Star more than a decade after the band called it quits, and they continued to be hooked on Chilton’s solo projects. Eventually, John and Laurie found themselves playing the same college rock circuit as one of their idols.

By the early 1990s, John had left the Hilltops to join Uncle Tupelo, and then Wilco. Laurie and Cary Hudson teamed up to start Blue Mountain, a band that pioneered the alt-country sound. Throughout their careers, they stayed in touch with Chilton and were proud to call him a friend. I talked to John and Laurie about their relationship with one of their biggest inspirations.   

John & Laurie Stirratt

John & Laurie Stirratt

Laurie: Alex was always super nice to us, and I think he truly liked John and I a lot

John: I knew from the beginning not to ever mention Big Star around him.

Laurie:  I’d seen people get on his nerves. I didn’t want to be on the receiving on that. I’d seen him rip people a new asshole in 2 seconds flat.

John: The first time I heard them, I’d gotten a cassette of Radio City by Big Star, and on the other side was Television’s Marquee Moon. It was through Cary Hudson, maybe from a friend of his. That must have been ‘86 or ‘87. It was definitely the single-most influential cassette that I ever received.

Laurie: I was living in New Orleans at the time. John was in school at Ole Miss in Oxford. He and Cary had a band called the Hi-Tops, and they were doing covers and originals. I’d gone up there a couple of times in probably ’86 and ’87 and hung out. That may actually be the first time I heard Big Star. We were listening to tons of music at that time, but when I heard those records for the first time, that music just completely blew me away.

John: We used to play records a lot together back in those days. We used to travel with LPs, and I think I brought down Third and played it for her in the apartment she was living in on Louisiana Avenue [in New Orleans].

Laurie: Those songs left such an impression me. I literally listened to that record, the Third record, every single day before I went to bed for about two years. It didn’t do a whole lot for my mental state. I was really depressed at the time, but to me it was this masterpiece that I tried to constantly deconstruct.

John: It was around that time we were getting her to join the band, and she was learning the bass.

Laurie: They wanted to go all original, and their bass player left the band to go get a regular job or whatever. They called me and said, “Would you be into playing bass?”

It was ’88. Oxford was really small, quiet. A couple of bars, but a really thriving art scene and literary scene. Barry Hannah lived next door to us; Larry Brown would be published within the next couple of years. There were other bands and lots of other musicians. The north Mississippi hill country blues scene was happening. Fat Possum was just getting started. So it was a lot going on. It was a really exciting time to be there.

John: The Hilltops had this house at 1411 Van Buren. It was the rock and roll house of Oxford, the party house. A lot of bands stayed there. The Flat Duo Jets stayed there, all of the southern rock bands.

Laurie: Chesley Pearman started booking Syd and Harry’s, which really kind of launched Oxford into the national music scene. He was the one really responsible for getting Oxford off the ground. In the late ‘80s, he booked Rank and File, Alex Chilton, Tav Falco and the Panther Burns, the Grifters, a lot of Memphis bands and a lot of bands from other places too.

John: Yeah, Chesley Pearman was booking the place, and we could kind of book whomever we wanted, including Uncle Tupelo, which is how I ended up joining that band.

Laurie: I remember when Chesley booked Alex. He came down and we were totally freaking out. Doug Garrison was playing drums for him, James Spake on sax, Ron Easley on bass. They just did that real stripped down, really awesome rock that he did on his solo records, like Feudalist Tarts.

They set up a dressing room in the back office. We were like, “Hi, we’re Laurie and John Stiratt and we’re playing before you guys. Is there anything we can get you? Are you comfortable and everything?”

He said “Yeah, I’m fine, but if you could get me some weed, that would really be great.”

We did have some connections. It took us awhile, but we finally tracked some down. It was just total shit skunk weed. And all we could get was two joints. So we finally raced back there, and he’s still in the dressing room. He was really sweet, really nice. I’m sure we were talking his ear off. He lit a joint and was like, “Oh, it’s not so bad.”  But we left him alone. We didn’t want to get on his nerves.

John: I do remember getting him weed, now that you mention it. It’s getting hazy at this point, you know.

Laurie: We ended up travelling a pretty good bit for such a young a band. We went to New York, Chicago, Minneapolis. Played with some great bands. The people we met back then, it was constantly like a dream come true. Like walking into the Uptown in Minneapolis. Tommy and Bob Stinson’s mom was the bartender, and Bob was drinking at the bar. It was a pretty amazing time.

John: We had these 3 or 4 day road trips, as you would do back in those days. I remember getting back about 1:00am and walking into my house, and Alex Chilton was sitting on my sofa in the living room of my house.

Laurie: It was really late. We never locked our doors. We would have tons of gear in there, and never locked our doors in Oxford, ever. We walked in, and Alex was sitting on the couch listening to records.

John: I went and put my guitar cases in my room, grabbed my [Big Star] vinyl, and got him to sign all my vinyl.

Laurie: He said, “I dig your band.” He said that. It was all we needed to hear.

John: He was pretty drunk and pretty surly until someone brought up astrology and then he really kind of opened up.

Laurie: After the Hilltops broke up, Cary and I moved to Los Angeles for a year, then we came back to Oxford. We were immediately working really hard, and we were on the road a lot, so I just didn’t see him.

John: I ended up moving to New Orleans so I got to be closer with him later on. This was like ‘91, ‘92, ‘93. He would convene at a friend’s house, the late Keith Keller, who was an engineer and had a great Lower Garden District studio [in New Orleans] that we would hang out in. John Sinclair would hang out there, Harry Shearer, all these people. It was kind of an old hip dudes hangout spot.

We ended up in a band, a cover band. Keith had some songs and talked Alex into singing--not playing guitar, but just singing. We had covers, and we had five Keith Keller original songs that were Stones-y sort of jams. Barry Cowsill played bass. The drummer was John Maloney. It was a band called the Wharf Monsters and we played two gigs.

Laurie: I moved to Chicago. I can’t count how many shows I’ve missed from actually being on the road. I shouldn’t complain about it, but I missed every Big Star reunion show because I was on the road.

John: Wilco played with Big Star at All Tomorrow’s Parties in L.A. That was 2003 or 2004 [Ed. note: it was 2002]. Generally, the other hangs I had with him were really just dropping by his house, maybe smoking a joint and just not talking very much.

Laurie: When I saw Alex again for any extended time, it was down here [in New Orleans] when I went to his house in the Treme. It was a really old house, and he was working on it all the time. He always asked me about the band, always asked about John.

John: I didn’t really see him after Katrina at all. The last time I saw him was at Bruning’s on the lakefront. I think it was 2004.

Laurie: Bruning's was this great restaurant that got wiped out in Katrina. It was an old restaurant over the water. I loved that place, and I think that was the last time I saw him.

John: I was with my parents and Laurie. We were eating. He walked by. We chatted for a while.  

Laurie: To this day, they’re still my favorite band. I still listen to those records.

John: Growing up, the Beatles were so regal and so untouchable in so many ways. But Big Star just had a tangible aspect that was more soulful. It was sophisticated, but it seemed reachable to me because they were just a Memphis band.