Alex Chilton doesn't lack for appreciative fans who also happen to be talented rock musicians. One of them, Paul Westerberg, even wrote a song called "Alex Chilton," a loving ode to the music of its hero's receding past.
But a verse from Elvis Costello inadvertently comes closer to summarizing Chilton's attitude in the present:
\o7 Well, I used to be disgusted,
Now I try to be amused.
\f7 In a remarkable, chameleonic musical lifetime, Chilton, 44, who fronts a basic guitar-bass-drums trio Monday at the Coach House, has gone through a pop equivalent of the Ages of Man described by the ancient Greeks.
First, there was Alex the Teen Idol. The son of a Memphis jazz player, he was plunked down in a studio at age 16 and coached to sing a song called "The Letter" in an unnaturally gruff voice. That song's success was the start of Chilton's three years with the Box Tops, a band that pretty much followed the orders of its producers and handlers.
Chilton came of age artistically in his early 20s with Big Star, a Memphis band that took its cues from the Beatles, the Byrds, the Kinks and the Rolling Stones. From 1972 to 1974, Big Star made three passionate and very different albums worthy of those '60s precursors. "#1 Record," "Radio City" and "Sister Lovers" all qualify as pop-rock masterpieces, forming the body of work that would eventually prompt Westerberg's musical fan note.
Big Star's almost-lost music was unearthed by such savvy rockers as the Replacements, R.E.M. and Matthew Sweet, who helped retroactively to make Big Star something of a big deal for fans of contemporary alternative pop-rock.
In its own time, however, Big Star was an unmitigated commercial flop. Listen to the haunting final album, "Sister Lovers," one of rock's most beautiful and disturbing embodiments of mental and spiritual exhaustion, and you can practically hear Chilton's peace of mind crumbling along with his career prospects.
Which led to the third Age of Alex, the one that is the final stage in most such rock 'n' roll sagas: burnout.
For about 10 years after the breakup of Big Star, Chilton recorded sporadically and with chaotic results, did some record production and spent a lot of time in career limbo. In a 1991 Times interview, he admitted that heavy drinking during the '70s had taken a toll.
But Chilton resurfaced in 1985 and embarked on the fourth chapter of his musical life, this one as a wry, unpretentious dealer in an assortment of vintage musical models, with the focus mainly on garage rock and R&B. (Chilton, together with drummer Jody Stephens and two talented young acolytes from the Posies, did revisit his post-adolescence with a brief series of Big Star reunion shows in 1993, one of which yielded a good, fully engaged live album, "Columbia," issued by Zoo Records.)
Chilton's new album, "A Man Called Destruction," finds him back with Ardent, the Memphis label and studio where Big Star had tried to make its mark. It's the most meticulously wrought release of his roots period. Chilton, a wonderful guitarist who can effortlessly spin out loose, juicy licks, is abetted by a sharp rhythm section, bright horn arrangements and some nifty organ playing.
He sings in a nasal voice that has an impish, almost bratty cast to it, giving his own spin to a motley assortment of material--ranging through garage-rock, slow blues, bouncy New Orleans R&B, sprightly pop-soul, Stonesy cranking and early Beach Boys tribute paying--that could be collected only by a guy singing not to get ahead, but to stay amused.
There also has been an intimation of one more possible Age of Alex: Chilton's 1994 Ardent release, "Cliches," points to yet another musical guise, this one as a singer of old jazz-pop saloon standards. Accompanied only by his own acoustic guitar, Chilton does them complete justice, infusing ballads by Cole Porter, Sammy Kahn, Ray Charles and others with radiant warmth. Replacing the typically offhanded and ironic rocker we've come to know in the past 10 years is a passionate singer who gets caught up in fervent songs of yearning and loss.
It is Chilton's most openhearted performance since Big Star, the work of someone who has moved through disgust and amusement, and now has recaptured the capacity he had in his innocent days to be deeply moved.
* Who: Alex Chilton.
* When: Monday at 8 p.m., with Woodface and Painted Id.
* Where: Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano.
* Whereabouts: Take Interstate 5 to the San Juan Creek Road exit and turn left onto Camino Capistrano. The Coach House is on the right, in the Esplanade Plaza.
* Wherewithal: $10.
* Where to call: (714) 496-8930.