BIG STAR, #1 RECORD, 1972
I wanted to wait a few days until the initial buzz had subsided to put in my own words about Alex Chilton, who died last week at 59. Like so many others, those two Big Star records are crucial for me, and there was no doubt which song I wanted to write about when I heard the news.
I bought both Big Star records at Olsson's Books and Music in Alexandria, VA in the fall of 1986 on a 2 for 1 CD reissue, just before the Replacements put out "Alex Chilton" on Pleased To Meet Me and made it much easier to find Big Star music. The Radio City album had been on my radar for two years ever since I'd read about it in a book, but it was out of print, and I'd only ever seen one vinyl copy for thirty bucks, which was out of the question. Twice a year, though, my friend Red and I would drive from Annapolis to Alexandria just to go to Olsson's to look for albums that we couldn't find in Annapolis (even though there were plenty of record stores, their selection was pretty hit and miss). I usually went with $50 to spend and a list of about 25 albums to look for. On a great day, I'd find three of them. This time, though, I hit the jackpot-- CDs were just starting to go mainstream, and old catalogs were finally coming out en masse. I can't remember everything I got that day, but I know I went home with copies of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, The Band's Music From Big Pink, and the two Big Star albums. I'm sure there's never been a better day of music shopping in my life in terms of what I brought home-- three of my 100 all-time favorites are on that list.
What was great about that haul was how much it challenged me. All four albums ask so much from their listeners. They are complicated and thoughtful and beautiful all at once. When I first put in the Big Star, I was eager to hear Radio City, but figured I'd listen to the CD in sequence, and so my first exposure was "Feel," from #1 Record. At first, I was put off by the sound-- the vocal was histrionic and high, and the guitars were super-trebly and distorted. I had been expecting something less metallic in its sonic tone, but I had to admit that, by the bridge, the song was rocking, especially when the horns and keyboards came in.
And then came track two, this song. The name of the track was off-putting, and I'm usually not much for slow songs on first listen, but those chimy guitars pulled me right in. I think these first five seconds are as pretty as music gets. On 98% percent of records, they'd have put this moment on an acoustic guitar, but it's much better on that chorusy electric. The acoustic comes in later as glue with the rhythm section, and it's so much more effective that way.
After ten seconds, in comes that voice. Chilton had already been a teenage star, singing "The Letter" with The Box Tops. Check it out here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wD9mCp8SifM&feature=related . My favorite moment comes at about 55 seconds, when he cracks up because of the funny faces the organist is pulling. Even here, as a teenager, Chilton seems tired, done in by the starmaker machinery. And even here, at sixteen, he's got a remarkably emotional voice. He's an effortlessly communicative singer.
Chilton is 23 or something on "El Goodo," and he sounds even more wise and world-weary. There's not a better "ooohh" in rock music, I'd argue, than the one at the top of this song. The lyric suggests perseverance, ("guns are meant to be stuck by") and they'd need it, as Big Star's career was one of the most tragically mismanaged in rock history. It's incredible to hear this record and think that it only sold 2,500 copies in 1972. It's one of the five best albums of that year, which included Stevie Wonder's Talking Book and the Stones' Exile On Main Street.
When the drums kick in at 0:40, the thing that overwhelms you is the beauty of the production. Listen how big and deep the drums are, how clear the bass line is, how perfect the background vocals are. Drummer Jody Stephens' fills are both inspired in their precision and how they fit into the song. From there, the band adds angelic background harmonies to verse two. By the second chorus, I'm always, even after 24 years of listening, amazed at the sound coming from the speakers. Nobody made records that sounded this good in 1972. It's a marvel of sonic attention and careful playing, and while Ardent Studios' engineers did an astounding job capturing sounds onto tape, the band basically self-produced the tracks.
The bridge adds more pathos and tension to the song: there's a beautiful dip to the relative minor and the "hold on" refrain. Listen to those picked guitars all through the bridge weaving in and out of each other. R.E.M. is unthinkable without this album.
In the final verse pass, Chilton loosens up on the vocal, pushing himself a bit, and you can almost hear his disbelief at the great band he's fallen into. Already sure that fame has passed him at such a young age, this track sounds like a band fully aware of its good fortune to have found one another. "Ain't no one gonna turn me around," indeed. If I had gone into the studio and made a record this good, I would have called myself Big Star also (they're named for the grocery store chain across the street from the studio). And why not call the record #1 Record? How could music this good not be a hit?
It never was, of course. Instead, Big Star was perhaps the first truly important "cult" rock band. By the time they were "rediscovered" in 1987, it seemed like it was too late. Co-founder Chris Bell had died a decade earlier, and Chilton had disappeared, releasing only a series of truly weird recordings, starting with Big Star's "3rd" album, and then a few solo recordings that are more embarrassing than revelatory.
Amazingly, there was a second act to this play. Drummer Stephens and Chilton got together with members of the Posies and toured as Big Star in 1994 completely successfully. That reunion remained in place off and on until last week. Chilton seemed happy and healthy, and it was like having an old friend get back in touch after years away. They even tried to make another album of new music together a few years ago, but Chilton had lost his songwriting touch-- later in life, he sounded as comfortable singing "Volare" as his own stuff. Though the band finally got the recognition they deserved, Chilton never quite came back fully from the disappointment of his commercially failed youth. Without being too maudlin, he definitely died partially from a broken heart last week: broken mainly because of how he'd mistreated it for decades, but also broken because mistreatment was the only way Chilton knew to quiet the voices of rage and frustration in his head from having had the brass ring in his hand twice and not holding onto it.
On a live album based on a 1974 radio broadcast, Chilton is being interviewed by the DJ host, who says that Chilton must be thrilled by the reception to their new album, complimenting him on the excellence of the band's catalog. Chilton is quiet for a moment, and then says, "Thanks. I hope it sells." When I heard that at 24, I thought Chilton was jaded and missing the point. Now I completely get it. You can't eat your great art. If Big Star were happening in 2010, they'd be fine. They'd have the internet and a niche audience already in place, and Chilton could be content with shadow fame and the occasional commercial or film placement for his tunes. But back then, the band's failure meant dissolution, disillusionment, and obscurity. No one asked Chilton to write songs for other projects; no one offered him a soundtrack deal. He just disappeared back into the shadows of Memphis, and never really fully returned.
Chilton's death reminds me that we'd be well-served to be happy with the choices we've made, be ready to celebrate our successes even if they're small and anonymous, and be capable of recognizing a great moment in our lives even if no one else is there to tell us that it's great. The great irony for me of Chilton's life was that his songs chronicle those small, defining moments better than almost anyone: check out the first verse of "Thirteen":
Won't you let me walk you home from school?
Won't you let me meet you at the pool?
Maybe Friday I can
Get tickets for the dance
And I'll take you
How perfect is that? THAT is thirteen in a nutshell. The fact that Chilton could articulate our pain without reconciling his own is the true sadness in his passing. I'm glad the new box set came out in time for Chilton to read its rave reviews, but I'll bet they drove him crazy at the same time.
So thanks, Alex. We'll miss ya.