In spite of his late-notice career, Big Star band leader Alex Chilton made a huge impact on American music, and showed that, once again, Southern sounds were a vital part of the equation. Having grown up in Memphis during the ascendancy of Sun, Stax, and Hi Records, Alex absorbed their rock'n'soul rhythms, and later concocted his own power-pop brew of sun-soaked grooves. Sadly, on March 17, 2010, we lost one of the most distinctive voices and musical visionaries of our time. Here we pay to tribute to Alex's memory and body of work, reading about, listening to, and discussing the illustrious artist whose star faded all too soon. We've included extensive reviews on Rhino's Big Star box set KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE SKY and the Chris Bell I AM THE COSMOS reissue; travelogues from this year's SXSW music festival, dedicated to the late Alex Chilton; and music writing, including past OA coverage on Big Star and a review of 33 1/3's album worship of RADIO CITY.
Big Star in The OA
Thank You Friends, an OA film, edited by Derek Jenkins, from THE OXFORD AMERICAN DVD #2 (Best of the South Issue, 2008).
"Chris Bell—THAT DON'T GET HIM BACK AGAIN: The legacy of Big Star's "other genius" by John Jeremiah Sullivan. From our 2003 Music Issue.
"Waltz Across Memphis" by Mark Rozzo. From our 2003 Music Issue.
"Big Star: It Isn't Even a Record" by Mark Rozzo. From our 2006 Music Issue.
Big Star: Keep an Eye on the Sky
by Alex Cook
Keep an Eye on the Sky does for Big Star what any box set should do: Widens the lens on a beloved body of work just enough to see the before and after, offering up just enough microscopy to follow the threads and, in the end, revealing the big picture. The Big Star story spun here starts with Chris Bell's acid-baroque locomotions and the orchids grown in Alex Chilton’s musical greenhouse during those quiet years after The Box Tops. Things coalesce a little in Rock City, the band Chilton, Bell, and Jody Stephens had with Thomas Eubanks and Terry Manning, and a spatter of those moments dot the first disc. Personally, I'd have liked to hear the whole of Rock City’s “The Preacher” excerpted on the disc, but perhaps its Moody-Blues-via-Gram-Parsons totality would have derailed the narrative.
The mix of demos, alternates, and album versions from the band's debut #1 Record muddies the waters. I share Peter Holsapple’s sentiment in the Bob Mehr essay from the liner notes: “...the minute the needle hit that record, it was just like ‘Ahhh...that's what's been missing.’” Having a perfect little pop record, maybe the perfect little pop record, laid out on the dissection table like that is disarming. By the second version of “The India Song,” I'm worn out, and ready to move on, like Alex Chilton is on the confessional snapshot “Motel Blues.”
Hear This! "Motel Blues" by Big Star
Their 1974 Radio City album occupies most of disc two, starting with demos that point to the beautiful flaws in that material. Alex Chilton’s voice is too close on “There Was a Light”; he sounds naked without that harmonica solar flare lacerating the fragility of “Life Is White.” The songs needed the heft of the studio to stand upright, and with it, they rise like Godzilla against cardboard buildings. That’s why Radio City is the blueprint used by every heartsick genius crafting a jangly masterpiece. Alex Chilton may have had it bad like December boys do for "September Gurls" all along, but it took his command of sound, his careful orchestration of everyone else, to really feel it.
The actual big stars in the cosmos above us do only one thing in nature; grow to their maximum size and then collapse. Chris Bell left the group during the recording for his own fated spirit-quest, devastatingly portrayed on the tracks collected on I Am the Cosmos (a transformative document in its own right; the title track and its B-side “You and Your Sister” are included here). And Alex Chilton was matching the indifference the world showed Big Star, so, like the collapsing star itself, he retreated into the void and created a record of amazing, scary, and ultimately unsalable power. As Robert Gordon notes about Third/Sister Lovers in his intimate historical essay, “No deal could be made; no one wanted to promote that darkness.”
In the track notes, producer Jim Dickinson is quoted saying, “People have accused me of indulging Alex on THIRD, whereas in fact I don't think I indulged him enough. See, he didn't have any bad ideas.” Third is a force to be reckoned with: The album’s studio demos are the real reason to own this set. Strewn across discs two and three, the Third demos are my new favorite album. With just voice and guitar, “Blue Moon” is a cavern of unfathomable hope accessible only to those willing to fall in. When Chilton sings about “angels from the realms of glory” in the stripped-down version of “Jesus Christ,” he sounds like one himself. I wonder if, a decade earlier, a similar angel coaxed Lou Reed into writing “Femme Fatale” just so it may find its perfect form in Alex Chilton's spectral falsetto here. “Thank You Friends” sneered and wept alone into a microphone is a goodbye note embroidered in the air by spiders, hanging in the last place you look for a missing soul. Try to hold it together the first time you hear his solo version of “You Get What You Deserve.” Nick Drake’s Pink Moon has nothing on the Third demos.
Hear This! "You Get What You Deserve" by Big Star
The skewed, moonshine-glorious studio version of Third/Sister Lovers is curiously offered up in a different track order from the Ardent white-label version and the Chilton/Dickinson-approved Rykodisc CD version from 1992. Why? The funeral march of Third was perfectly imperfect on that CD, but I suppose you can have a beautiful train wreck no matter how the cars are lined up. The thread of Third is bewilderingly elusive; a concept album of brokenhearted nihilists who've given up on concepts, from the birth of Christ to the radiation poisoning of “Kanga Roo.” Never has eschatology sounded this good.
Fun fact: The version of “Nature Boy” ending disc three features Chilton accompanied by renowned photographer William Eggleston (his photo “The Red Ceiling” appears on the cover of Radio City) on piano.
There are some volumes missing from this encyclopedia. While Bell’s I Am the Cosmos is represented by two tracks, the whole of Alex Chilton's multivaried solo career is absent, as is anything from the not-as-bad-as-people-make-out album In Space from 2005 by the latter-day incarnation of Big Star Chilton formed with members of The Posies. The two generally sanctioned live recordings Nobody Can Dance (recorded in the early ’70s in Memphis) and the exquisite 1993 Columbia: Live at the University of Missouri are eschewed in deference to a 1973 set featuring the core band (except for Chris Bell) from Memphis’ Lafayette Music Room but the story still finds its end. Their rock numbers are bombastic, their ballads tender. They comfortably (maybe knowingly) rub elbows with yet-to-be-classics by The Flying Burrito Brothers, T. Rex, The Kinks, and Todd Rundgren. The show and the box set both close with “O My Soul,” the three-word virus that crept across text messages and status updates cluing me in to Chilton’s death. Chilton hoarsely declares in the song, “I don’t really need one/Cuz I'm big star” just a minute before announcing the evening’s headliners Archie Bell and the Drells. He's talking about more than a driver’s license. He’s talking about a promise, a career, residuals, drugs, a girl, a legacy, an anything beyond right now.
Hear This! "O My Soul" by Big Star
Alex Chilton may have appreciated this box set but he didn’t need it for validation. He was that big star. Those of us who embraced his music and mythology can hear him in the wind and in our hearts. Maybe this collection will inspire a whole new generation of singers to fall in love with a girl, and be outlaws for their love, and sing about it in that manner that is missing. Maybe Big Star will disappear into the void like all other big stars eventually do, and the lucky few will remember when it shone across the expanse of time and was, for a moment, a wondrous light in the sky.
WHEN I COME HOME SO COLD AT NIGHT:
Big Star at SXSW 2010
by Betsy Shepherd
Hear This! "For You" by Big Star
No matter how meticulously I planned for the upcoming SXSW music festival, I couldn’t guess what it would be like returning for the first time to the city I used to call home. With a whelming sense of regret for having left Austin and, conversely, for having stayed as long as I did, I couldn’t imagine a more appropriate, or grander finale than seeing Big Star live in concert: The band that wrote the soundtrack to youthful ambivalence and dislocation.
In 1971, Alex Chilton, the once-teen-singer for The Box Tops, returned to his hometown of Memphis and partnered with songwriter Chris Bell to form Big Star. With their sparkling harmonies, atmospheric guitar tones, and honest, compelling lyrics, Big Star was “the sound of America with too much treble,” as music journalist Bob Mehr describes them. The facetiously titled albums #1 RECORD and RADIO CITY received critical accolades, but failed to achieve commercial success due to their record labels’—Stax’s, then Columbia’s—failure to promote and distribute them.
Almost forty years after the record industry’s criminal neglect of the band’s talent, why was Big Star closing out SXSW, an event that pooled hopeful bands and discriminating business scouts together in a glad-handing parade of false expectations? Was it another example of Chilton’s searing sense of humor? Or was it, following the release of Rhino’s Big Star box set, a final shot at commercial viability? Though the irony wouldn’t have been lost on Alex Chilton, he never got to deliver the punch line. At the age of fifty-nine, his heart finally gave out.
While driving up on Austin’s Day-Glo skyline, “Alex Chilton” by The Replacements played on a local station, confirming the news I’d received just hours earlier of Chilton’s death. “If he died in Memphis, then that’d be cool,” sings Paul Westerberg in his anthemic hero-salute, which sounds every bit as dewey-eyed as “Thirteen” and as hot-blooded as “Feel,” two Big Star classics. “Alex Chilton” inspires something between iconoclasm and gushing fandom, an effect the song’s namesake had on many. The circulation of bootlegged copies of Big Star’s three albums won them a small but devoted following. By the ’80s, the fan base had expanded, and many Big Star aficionados were inspired to form their own bands, including R.E.M., The dB’s, The Posies, and Teenage Fanclub. SXSW organizers had recruited Alex Chilton and friends to discuss Big Star’s late career and enduring relevance in an event titled, “I Never Travel Far Without a Little Big Star,” after a line in The Replacements’ homage. Though these plans were upset by tragedy, Chilton’s death underscored questions of the band’s legacy.
Over the next few days, rumors and conjecture about the Big Star showcase circulated the festival. No one could possibly fill the shoes of the inimitable Alex Chilton, and yet the need to celebrate the life and music of Big Star’s iconic front man had never seemed more timely or pressing. In the spirit of Chilton’s artistic doggedness, family and friends decided that the show would go on. With the help of Chilton’s ever-talented devotees, the concert was reworked into a tribute show and the panel discussion acquired an elegiac tone. The festival’s director even dedicated SXSW 2010 to the memory of Alex Chilton.
Expecting a big turnout, I arrived at the Convention Center early and parked myself on the front row. The hollow conference room steadily filled with the chatter of expectant photographers, journalists, and musicians, all facing the spotlighted stage. I overheard conversation bits about Ray Davies’s wrenching version of “Til the End of the Day” dedicated to Alex, about Jeff Tweedy being a possible guest vocalist, and about the need to stand in line at least six hours in advance to get into the venue. But the crowd grew silent as the panelists filed into their seats. Bob Mehr, a writer for the MEMPHIS COMMERCIAL APPEAL, took center stage as the moderator and introduced the other speakers. To his right, sat the original members of Big Star, Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel, and Chilton’s longtime friend and collaborator Chris Stamey. To his left, sat members of The Posies and Big Star 2.0, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, as well as power-pop veteran Tommy Keene. Making an appearance via Skype video chat, Ardent producer John Fry traded stories with the other panelists, lightening the mood with their memories of the idiosyncratic artist. Stephens told of an epic standoff between the prickly Chilton and Charles Manson over a gallon of milk while partying at Dennis Wilson’s house, to which Mehr added, “Charles Manson finally met his match.” Hummel recalled how Chilton, after penning “Daisy Glaze,” tagged the song “by George Friedrich Chilton in the blessed key of America.” Stephens also told of Chilton’s acerbic wit, remembering the time he asked Chilton, who had just collected the band’s paltry gig fee, if the money was all there. Chilton quipped, “Yeah, just barely.”
After paying tribute to Chilton’s uncanny personality and the humor he wore like armor, the conversation inevitably turned to his fraught career as a recording artist. John Fry described his frustration at Columbia’s refusal to promote SISTER LOVERS, which the record executives treated as if it were “radioactive.” Chris Stamey remembers how, after hearing #1 RECORD, he thought Big Star was going to blow up, but couldn’t find a vendor anywhere that stocked their records. Stamey explained that Alex was incapable of telling a lie, a trait that made him an outlier in the image-for-sale industry. But no one handled the complexities of Chilton’s legacy better than Tav Falco, a friend and collaborator in Panther Burns. Reading from a letter sent by Falco, Bob Mehr offered these closing thoughts, “Was he resentful because he had given so much, and had received less than the key to the temple of abiding good fortune and fame immemorial? Was he content in his rickety eighteenth-century cottage on the edge of the French Quarter surrounded by his guitars and aquatints and a cognoscenti of musicians who celebrated him as we do now?...The answers mean little, and the questions even less. What matters is that those whom he touched, were touched immutably.”
In spite of the windchill and the six-hour wait, I decided to camp out at Antone’s until the show’s start. But my pining, planning, and unguarded expectations were served thusly: Due to projections of a high turnout, SXSW decided at the last minute to close off the Big Star show to all but the elite badge-holders. Being turned away after having come so close, I felt what many of the eighteen hundred bands at the festival were probably feeling that Saturday night—the disappointment of an unceremonious end. I wandered the streets trying to hatch other plans and find a bottle of cheer, only later deciding to claim some slab within earshot of the Big Star tribute. I strained to make out the muffled voices and submarine melodies, but could discern little more than the crowd’s uncontained approval. About halfway through the set, the bouncer I’d been chatting up finally took pity on me and let me in, just in time to see Andy Hummel come out of retirement to perform “Way out West,” his ballad of long-distance pining. Mike Mills’s voice rang out exultantly on “Jesus Christ,” while Jon Doe’s jangly version of Chilton’s torch song “I’m in Love With a Girl” seethed with the inevitability of heartache. But the night belonged to Chuck Prophet’s cheeky delivery of “Thank You Friends,” a song that might have been the tribute’s theme. As the voices of fans and artists swelled together in the shimmering chorus, “All the Ladies and Gentlemen, who made this all so possible,” Alex Chilton’s music made us feel at home in our unrealized hopes, those abiding and those foregone.
FREE SXSW: A Recap
by Natalie Elliott
Since relocating to Arkansas from Austin for work with The OA, I manage to catch enough live music in Little Rock to keep from whining about it. But when SXSW season rolled around, that springtime hankering resurfaced, and visions of music-mecca Austin hung like a fat, golden sun on my immediate horizon. So, as last-minute ambassadors of The OA's music arm, my coworker and I set out to sample the tastemakers of 2010.
Of course, no one could have anticipated the passing of Alex Chilton days before Big Star was slated to close the festival. Our editor called and delivered the news when we were this side of Dallas. It's also true that just after clearing Round Rock—the suburban nest due North of Austin—as soon as the community radio station KOOP was in range, the DJ mumbled something about Chilton and spun off The Replacements' classic ode, unmistakably setting the tone of the weekend. It was literally the first song we heard on the radio.
It wasn't just the loss of Chilton that made this year's festival feel less-than-winsome. SXSW is usually one of the most glorious weeks on earth. Seriously, I mean, mid-seventies and impenetrable sunlight. The typical joke is that the weather is so magnificent, it sways a percentage of the festival-goers to move to Austin, only to realize amidst a twenty-day stretch of one-hundred-and-two degree weather—yon week in March was just a siren song.
Thursday showed great promise. After hanging around the Convention Center for a bit, in an effort to weasel my way into something other than the trade show, I joined friends downtown. Though nearing five o'clock, the sun was still out (it's true that the days are longer in Austin) and we ventured over to the East Side to the French Legation grounds for their park party. The sound was wrecked, the PA system completely fuzzed-out, though the gently sloping grasses were too inviting, so we stayed anyway, straining to hear the beloved dream-pop band The xx. Afterwards, across the lawn, what looked to be a partially improvised klezmer band started up, and we enjoyed them until asked to leave the park, just after dusk. I was already sunburned.
Friday, I went back to the Convention Center, begging for a press pass to get into the Big Star panel on Saturday. Admittedly, I'm no good at that sort of hustle. I politely argued with the lady behind the desk until she flatly informed me that such a thing as a "day press pass" didn't exist. The contact who had assisted my coworker was mediating a two-hour speed-dating event in the other auditorium. I had somewhere else to be; it just wasn't going to happen.
I did get to speak to Dean Deyo of the Memphis Music Foundation. It was through his organization that we discovered the Big Star panel Saturday afternoon would be converted into an impromptu memorial, and the Big Star showcase scheduled for Saturday night would become a tribute show with a glittering cast of willing musical volunteers, flying in on short notice from all over the country.
Deyo said simply, "Memphis is devastated." He spoke lovingly of Memphis music as an institution, and mentioned Chilton's timeless impact on the Memphis legacy, even long after the heyday of Sun and Stax Records. Of course lately, it's almost too much to bear. Isaac Hayes passed away in 2008, and Jay Reatard, one of the presumed next-generation Memphian torchbearers, passed away in January, long before his time. Occasionally, an expression like "I don't know what we're going to do," flickered over Deyo's face. But above all, he maintained hope and enthusiasm for Memphis music. To echo Deyo's concern regarding the Big Star tribute show: When gripped by tragedy, how can the show go on? On the other hand, how could it not?
Afterwards I met up with some friends and we trekked again to the East Side for what I remember being one of the better day parties, Mess With Texas. Traditionally, Mess With Texas takes place in Waterloo Park in downtown Austin—a sizeable, well-located plot of land large enough to encompass two stages at a non-confrontational distance. This year, for some ridiculous reason, they moved the party to what can best be described as a vacant lot on the East Side, half-covered in grass and half-smeared by broken concrete and gravel. I'm sure the city has good reason for moving the party, but it was much less pleasant this year. We found a patch of grass right next to the gravel and hunkered down with beers for Billy Bragg. The sun lost itself behind a sheet of thin, drab clouds, and so close to nightfall, it would be the last we knew of it. Bragg's finale was his most-famous "New England," the seminal anthem of overfeeling young boys and young girls everywhere. He deigned to sing the chorus once, leaving the responsibility entirely to the willing audience. Sprawled in the measly grass, I held hands with my best friend and we belted every wistful word like we'd written them ourselves.
The weather soured, and the bottom fell out Saturday. A painfully uncharacteristic ice-wind slit through Austin. Beyond gloomy, it looked like seven P.M. anywhere else in the country—all day long. I didn't want to leave the house. Eventually, I caught the bus to meet up with my coworker for a showcase featuring my current favorite Southern band, Surfer Blood. In a tendency towards some bygone thrill of sensory over-stimulation, I deliberately marched the stretch of 6th Street where most of the bars and venues live. Every door was exploding with some crash and uproar, hipster patrons spilling into the streets, creating a kind of well-behaved Mardi Gras for the beautiful people. I love that moment of too many sounds; I love being lost in the expanse where the din and racket converges into a perfect, indistinguishable soundtrack.
The wait outside was merciless. I think we stood in line for over an hour, clad in whatever hoodie/jacket/scarf combination cobbled together from our erroneously spring-friendly attire. It wouldn't have been so bad without that bone-chilling wind whipping through every stitch of clothing. My toes were numb. But, in one of those too-cinematic moments, the payoff was terrific. Surfer Blood was giddier than you might expect a group of twenty-somethings who write power-pop hooks about apathy and David Lynch to be. The frontman donned a wool scarf and sweater as if in implicit acknowledgment of their undeniable nerd-rock forebears, Weezer. At times they seemed bewildered, maybe by the clamorous reception, or the hearty turnout on a thirty-degree night at an outdoor venue. No matter: They killed, and the crowd dug it, running noses and body aches aside.
After their set, the inhospitable weather overcame me. It was early enough that I could find a cab without hassle, so I called it a night before my indulgences caught up with me. I wasn't foolhardy enough to attempt the Big Star show—without credentials, I was persona non grata, and it was on the opposite side of town from where I was staying. I dreaded the long drive ahead of us the next day.
I chatted with my cabdriver on the way. We compared notes between this year's turnout and last year. I pitched him my theory about the cold keeping folks indoors, which he quickly dismissed, saying, "Look at all these people, they're from New York and other places," asserting they would be accustomed to any temperature below seventy degrees.
"Then what is it?" I asked.
"I don't know," he said, "It's just not the same."
Despite those scattershot moments where, enthralled by music, I was awash with teenage sensations of fluttery joy and irrepressible grins—like a favorite garment outgrown, something felt awkward. You can claim the untimely death of Alex Chilton cast a pallor over the festival, but I think commemoration can be warm and celebratory, in any case. Something else was misplaced; for all I know it may have just been me.
Chris Bell: I AM THE COSMOS (DELUXE EDITION)
The Rhino Deluxe Edition of Chris Bell's singular album I Am The Cosmos expands to include a second disc, comprised mostly of never-before released material. The bonus disc features tracks from the Bell-Chilton improvised studio bands Ice Water and Rock City, alternate mixes of Cosmos material, and a few standout collaborative songs.
Arguably the original I Am The Cosmos defies true genre-definition; it dances around the idea of power pop but with a greater sense of whimsy, sensitivity, and at times, painful introspection. Power pop generally doesn't do that. Power pop is about fist-raising, car-driving, girl-chasing, and an overall sense of youthful abandon. If Big Star is the language of the posturing high-school kid trying to impress, then Bell's solo work is like the heartfelt poesy scribbled in his journal. Of course, it's not all gentleness and feelings, or if so, it often attempts to cloak itself behind straightforward rock & roll.
The "deluxe" disc encapsulates Bell's true range. The Rock City song "My Life Is Right" sounds like the best of early glam rock, with the palatial piano intro, ambiguous lyrics, and strained falsettos. Followed by an alternate version of "I Don't Know" that opens with meaty Badfinger-sounding vamps and rumbling tom drums, providing a far more heart-pounding build-up than the album version. The extended, previously unheard "I Am the Cosmos" begins presumably with Bell's Memphian patois sharing a joke with the drummer. Hearing his smiling, jocund voice is absolutely jarring at the fore of possibly the world's greatest break-up song. His ability to plummet soulfully into abject heartbreak is astounding. The version is rough, however, and fumbles towards the end like any good rehearsal.
The stronger songs hide in the latter half of the bonus disc. Possibly the best gem is the track "Stay With Me," trebly country-pop almost reminiscent of a Byrds tune. Bell nails the pop structure so perfectly and sincerely it could have been recorded yesterday, and it makes one wish he had more material in the same vein. The penultimate song, "In My Darkest Hour," features Nancy Ryan singing a ballad of such desperate isolation Bell seemingly can't bear to lend his own voice to it. The disc closes with the understated instrumental "Clacton Rag," lulling guitarwork that leaves the listener dreamily floating in space—certainly a befitting place to be carried by Bell's oeuvre. —NE (Rhino, 2009)
Hear This! "I Don't Know" (alternate version) by Chris Bell
Hear This! "Stay With Me" by Chris Bell with Keith Sykes
An installment in the 33 1/3 record-writing cult-series, RADIO CITY documents the inner-sanctum sonic-wizardry of Big Star's critically lauded but commercially doomed follow-up album. Part band forum moderator, part gushing music fan, Bruce Eaton enlists a chorus of key players who show that collective input hardly yields consensus. Alex Chilton's flat assessments of his work, whether motivated by humility or disenchantment, don't contribute much to our understanding of the ironically-yet-prophetically titled RADIO CITY. With its indulgences in pro-tech minutiae and historical detail, the book is at its best when it abandons the over-zealous justifications of the album's greatness and, instead, remembers "music is meant to be enjoyed."
Lines we liked: “Collectively RADIO CITY's lyrics create an impressionistic picture of what it's like to be drifting into adulthood after turning twenty...when the sense that the real world is a less than friendly place breeds anxiety; when romance becomes more complicated than getting a date for the dance; or when you realize that the freedom of being an adult includes the freedom to really screw up, get screwed up, or get screwed over.”