"I'm drivin alone, sad about you"
I saw Big Star live on their 2001 European Tour in Dublin. By Big Star, I mean the reconstituted modern version featuring two of the original members, Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens, alongside the two frontmen from modern power-pop underachievers the Posies, Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer . I was pumped for the gig. Big Star had long been one of my favourite bands. In fact, when I rank the bands I like, the only one I love more than Big Star are the Beatles. So, as you can imagine, I was excited. The crowd was a strange mix of Dublin hipsters and musos, but there was a good atmosphere, eager and enthusiastic.
The gig was alright.
You could tell Chilton’s heart wasn’t really in it. He did what he had to do, but without any great enthusiasm. He was this little, slightly grumpy middle-aged guy in denim, singing these songs his voice couldn’t quite reach anymore, playing guitar. He came most alive during a cover of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”. It was enough for most people there to hear those great Big Star songs sung by the man who had written them, played by a good, tight band. I was happy to have been there but somewhat disappointed, too. I’d read it in enough interviews, but seeing him live made me finally believe it – Alex Chilton hated Big Star. Go figure.
In the pre-download world of the early 90s, I started off with the wrong Big Star album. I’d read plenty about what kind of band they were, who they sounded like, who they had influenced etc. I found “3rd/Sister Lovers” in a second hand shop and bought it. On that first listen I was instantly surprised by the opening track (different editions feature different sequencing), in this case “Stroke It Noel”. It seemed improvised, with no evident structure, for all the beauty of its melodies and arrangements and the pin sharp crunch of the production. After that the remainder of the record was a long line of surprises – from the bizarre “Downs” to the instantly awesome “Thank You Friends”, “Big Black Car” and “For You” to the desolation of “Holocaust” and “Kanga Roo”. I wasn’t as blown away as I had expected to be. I knew “Kanga Roo” from Jeff Buckley’s cover version, but that version was cleaner and straighter (its rock out riffathon apart) than this tormented, fractured, even slightly disturbing rendition. But I stuck with it – I knew the Replacements’ “Alex Chilton” and a part of me reckoned that if it was alright for Paul Westerberg, then it was alright for me - and soon I loved the record in all its twisted, strange glory. Its moments of beauty, I could see, were incredible and hinted at another side to this band than the chaos much of the record seemed to have captured.
A little later, after a conversation about the band, a friend played me a few standout tracks off his copy of the twofer cd containing the other two Big Star albums – “Number 1 Record” and “Radio City”.
The songs he played were “The Ballad of El Goodo”, “Thirteen”, “September Gurls” and “I’m In Love With a Girl”. Right then, I was in love. Its one of the great musical memories of my life, being hit by the perfection and majesty of those songs in that little living room, knowing I had to have this cd as soon as possible.
I bought it, consumed it, and became a Big Star evangelist. Every compilation tape or cd I made after that had to feature a Big Star song. Because nobody seemed to know this band. Nobody I knew, at any rate.
I got the Chris Bell solo stuff, and a couple of Alex Chilton solo records. I got the ecords Chilton had made with the Box Tops before he and Bell had formed Big Star. I bought the two live cds, “Big Star Live” and “Nobody Can Dance” purely for the cover versions they contained (Loudon Wainwright’s “Motel Blues” and T-Rex’s “Baby Strange”). I was a fan of power-pop, the subgenre Big Star had helped to create and define, and I got into Badfinger and the Raspberries and Todd Rundgren and more modern acolytes like Teenage Fanclub and Jellyfish, all in an effort to recreate that thrilling feeling I got when I first heard that Big Star sound.
But heres what made Big Star and Alex Chilton special. For all that they were undeniably power-pop, with those Beatlesque melodies, and the Byrdsian harmonies and the punch of the Kinks all colliding in each song, they had an x factor. Badfinger, for all that they wrote and played some amazing songs, aren’t a patch on Big Star. There is a darkness floating somewhere under the surface in the music of Big Star, an ineffable quality that lifts it, enables it to transcend genre. Its almost queasy, this feeling, an edge to the bright and shining beauty of the songs. Maybe it is the anger in Chilton - the anger that made his solo career such a quixotic ramble of challenging records and self-destructive tendencies. Maybe it was Bell's struggle with his faith and his sexuality. I don't know, I just know its there, I can hear it in the music, and it is a big part of what makes Big Star a special band.
And they really are a special band. For my money, "Radio City" is their best record, and indeed one of the great rock albums, containing not a single weak song, brilliantly played and sequenced. From the surprisingly funky opener, "O My Soul", with its fluid structure, through the greatest Number One that never was, "September Gurls" to the moving simplicity of the closing "I'm In Love With a Girl", it covers a wide variety of moods and tempos but always sounds like this unique, distinctive band. They could play tough rock when it suited them, they could do soulful balladry, bright pop and - since they came from Memphis - a little bit of r'n'b is suggested, too. But Chilton always sounds like himself, like the young man he was, who had been a star in his teens but rejected it and gone to New York alone to be a singer-songwriter, sorta failed and retreated to Memphis where he had finally begun a band with a Beatles-obsessive that made music America wasn't quite ready for at that time. His later material is interesting, and sometimes even inspired, but its never great in the pure way Big Star was.
When I read that Alex Chilton had died a few nights ago - on Twitter, where I seem to hear all news these days -I felt a sharp sense of loss not really felt about a Musician since Elliott Smith died. But then I listened to some Big Star, and as usual, all I could feel was joy.
1950 - 2010
All three original records are must buys, as is the box set from last year, "Keep An Eye on the Sky", full of demos and covers and alternate takes and live numbers, and for a Big Star fan, absolutely orgasmic. Rob Jovanovic's book "Big Star: The Short Life, Painful Death, and Unexpected Resurrection of the Kings of Power Pop" is a great read for fans, too.
Below, "Daisy Glaze", my favourite Big Star song, with such a euphoric guitar moment at 1:54 it still catches my breath:
O My Soul:
And the Replacements sublime "Alex Chilton":