25 Mar Alex Chilton and “The Letter”
Last week, rock singer/guitarist/band leader Alex Chilton died of a heart attack. Not unusual for a 59-year-old these days. If you’re a baby boomer, you may remember Chilton as the voice on “The Letter,” the 1967 hit by The Box Tops. (Wayne Carson Thompson, a Nashville musician, penned the tune.) Joe Cocker covered it in 1970 and made it a hit again. Chilton was 16 when he sang “The Letter” in a distinctive growl that thousands of teen wannabes attempted to emulate in late-sixties’ garage bands.
“The Letter” is memorable nowadays not only for its perennially tuneful appeal but also for what its lyrics say about communication (writing) back in the day: “Get me a ticket for an airplane, ain’t got time for a fast train/ Lonely days are gone, I’m a goin’ home,/ my baby, she wrote me a letter.”
Nobody takes a train for long distance travel anymore, much less talks of it in the same sentence as the word “fast.” More interesting is the power of the letter in the situation this song describes. One wonders why his “baby” (the ex who wants him back) didn’t just phone him: granted, my baby, she just phoned me doesn’t have much poetic power. And maybe this guy didn’t have a phone. Maybe he was working odd jobs, staying in a room. Maybe the phone he used, when he used one, was down the hall. That would not have been unusual in the 1960s (think of Benjamin staying in a Berkeley rooming house in 1967’s “The Graduate”) .
The song’s assumption is that there’s a great, unbridgeable distance between the speaker and his loved-one. He’s got to get home and it’s going to cost him (“don’t care how much money I’ve got to spend/ got to get home to my baby again”) and, apparently, it’s going to take time. He’s got this letter in hand, maybe tucked into the back pocket of his jeans. And he’s scraping up money for that plane ticket.
Problem is, he can’t spend any cash on a long distance phone call. Long distance cost quite a bit in the 1960s. It wasn’t part of any phone plan. You had to dial the operator and get her (always her) to connect you. He could have reversed the charges but who wants to do that to an ex who’s waiting for your arrival? No, he’s got to get to her—she’s sent him word. That’s it.
No internet. No cell phones. No easy way to contact anybody from a long distance. How’s that for a different world? You had mail, I mean pen and paper mail, and land-line phone. And now, well, we can even find you with GPS as you’re texting your friends from China. I’m not sure what the equivalent situation would be for a song like “The Letter” written in 2010: “Get me a ticket for an airplane,/ ain’t got time for a migraine/ Lonely days are gone, I’m a goin’ home/ my baby, she texted me a message.”
I guess some things we’ll just have to leave behind.
If you want to read more about Chilton’s ultra-influential but perennially overlooked 1980’s band “Big Star,” check out the LA Times’s obit: