And so a few weeks later, at KCOU's behest, there we all were under a big striped tent and the spring sun. Alex, Jody Stephens, the Posies' Ken Stringfellow and Jon Aver as delighted hired hands, and a few hundred people who have loved Big Star so long and so fiercely that even 20 years' worth of the record industry hasn't succeeded in erasing its memory.
What was it like? I stop making sense when I try to talk about it. We waited, and watched, and pinched ourselves. And when those chiming guitar chords, those shiny choruses appeared like they'd never been away, I wouldn't have traded places with God.
They plated some pop songs, I guess, and we sang along. And as Jody beamed out from behind the kit and the Posies played their hearts out, I thought I saw Alex Chilton listening to his past and smiling.
Big Star. For most of the good people of Memphis, Tennesse, these two words conjure up nothing more out-of-the-ordinary than the name of a regional supermarket chain. This is probably as true today as it was in 1971-74, when local band Big Star recorded a pair of critically acclaimed but generally ignored albums, played a few gigs, and broke up. They never really found an audience for their music, with its sunny surfaces and undercurrents of darkness and dread, and as far as the perpetrators were concerned, that was that.
In the modern world of postpunk pop'n'roll, however, Big Star is it. Mentioning the group to members and fans of R.E.M., Teenage FanClub, the [ex-] Replacements and dB's, and countless younger bands and next-big-things on both sides of the Atlantic is like mentioning the Holy Grail to a medieval Christian. Big Star wrote and recorded sophisticated, meticulously crafted pop songs but played them like true-blue rock-and-rollers, with the intensity, the edge, and the grunge deliberately left in. In the 1990s, this approach has become the very essence of guitar-band rock, especially in its "alternative" manifestations. Big Star may not have made waves during its original period of [largely thankless] existence: so what? Nowadays, the Chicago Tribune can call them "the most influential group in pop music ... outside the Beatles," and it's taken not as hyperbole but as simple fact.
Here are a few more simple facts, for any readers who may have spent the past decade listening exclusively to New Age music, or perhaps living on the moon. Originally, Big Star was guitarist-singer-songwriter Chris Bell, bassist Andy Hummel, and drummer Jody Stephens. Bell had known fellow Memphian Alex Chilton since they were 12 or 13, and when Alex returned to Memphis in mid-1971, after a year of living in New York, Chris asked him to join the group.
A teenage Alex Chilton had struck gold at his first recording session, in 1967, as the new lead singer for Ronnie and the Devilles, soon to become the Box Tops. Out of that initial session came "The Letter." a #1 record and one of the biggest hits of 1967. But the Box Tops were largely a vehicle for their hit-happy producers, who picked songs, hired and fired musicians, and kept a tight lid on Chilton's burgeoning creativity. Alex was miserable but figured he'd be more miserable if he had to go back to school. He stuck with it until the winter of 1969-70, when "finally, in a huff, I just blew it off" Several of his original songs had made it onto the last two Box Tops albums or been issued as the B-sides of singles. In New York, he honed his songwriting skills and applied himself diligently to the guitar.
Some Chilton-watchers have assumed that Alex's wholehearted embrace of Big Star's Beatles/Byrds/Kinks-inspired aesthetic was a musical reaction to his fustration with the Box Tops, whose producers had pushed his singing in the direction of a growly sort of pop-soul. According to Alex, "I was trying to fit into what Chris and Jody and Andy were already doing and what they liked to do. I liked Chris's music: we had some rapport. Of course, I was a big mid-'60s Brtish invasion fan, and being in that kind of band was something I hadn't tried yet. I was interested in trying to do different things, different kinds of music, and that was one of the things that I wanted to do."
Chilton's matter-of-fact assessment might seem unduly diffident, or even perverse, to longtime Big Star fanciers. What he's really telling us is what kind of musician he is, something that has been almost universally misunderstood. Alex's father was a jazz pianist: he grew up in a musical hothouse. "From the time I was nine until I became such a rock superstar," he recalls with a wry grin, "there was pretty much a party going on all the time, musicians coming over every night. I can't count the number of times I went to sleep with musicians playing downstairs. I absorbed a bit of music theory just from my environment, growing up." With that kind of background, it's hardly surprising that Chilton has been such a restless and comprehensive musical explorer. In the years since the original Big Star breakup he's systematically worked his way through the many idioms of popular music, from the creatively twisted inventiveness of solo masterpieces Big Star Third/Sister Lovers and Like Flies on Sherbertto rocking psychobilly, from hard R&B to lounge-pop to his current project, a solo album of [mostly] jazz standards.
Anyone who'd expect him to stick to any one musical direction, let alone be content with recycling his past, is missing what Alex Chilton is all about.
The first Big Star album, ironically titled #1 Record, was a true Chilton/Bell collaboration. It's a rare case of two diverse sensibilities blending together to produce something with a strong identity of its own. "A union of opposites is something that can work really well in rock and roll, " says drummer Jody Stephens, now Projects Director for the Ardent studio that was Big Star's home. A good example is Lennon and McCartney, and Alex and Chris had a similar sort of chemistry, with Chris's sweetness balancing Alex's grit." By the time the group began recording its second album, the sublimely provocative Radio City, Bell had left to pursue a solo career and Chilton had become Big Star's sole guitarist-singer-songwriter. Hummel left after that, and for all practical purposes the group was defunct. Big Star Third/Sister Lovers, completed in 1974 but not released until 1978, was actually a Chilton solo album, recorded with a crew of his Memphis peers that sometimes included Stephens on drums and vocals. Releasing it as Big Star Third was a record-company marketing decision, which is why there are only two songs from it on this album: the affectionately cynical "Thank You Friends," and Jody Stephens' memorably melodious "For You."
After Big Star's demise, Andy Hummel dropped out of music altogether. "I heard he was living in Texas and has some kind of engineering gig involving airplanes," says Chilton. Here, the original Big Star bassist is absent but not forgotten. "Way Out West," sung by Stephens [as is "For You"], was a Hummel composition. Chris Bell, who died in a 1978 automobile accident, is represented by his brilliant "I Am the Cosmos," the title track from a solo album that wasn't even released during his lifetime.
Stephens got the initial call from the student organizers of the University of Missouri's annual Springfest, asking whether he'd consider doing a Big Star set if Alex agreed. He says he "didn't want to be the first to say no." To everyone's surprise, Chilton didn't say no either, despite the fact that he has scrupulously avoided trading on the Big Star name for almost two decades. [He did tell his callers, "You don't have much money, but hey, cool, I'm not doing anything that day."]
It was Stephens who drafted Posies Ken Stringfellow and Jon Aver to round out the new Big Star lineup."Their record of 'Feel' and 'I Am the Cosmos' [a Popllama single] gets so close to the whole Chris Bell vibe," Jody says "I was really proud of having chosen them; their performance was just incredible." In addition to reprising their single, with Stringfellow singing lead on "Feel" and Aver on "Cosmos," Stringfellow shared some leads with Chilton and, at Alex's request took lead vocals on "Back of a Car" and "Daisy Glaze." Jody credits Stringfellow and Aver with "balancing out Alex the way Chris did. And there were some cliffhanging moments when their playing brought the music around again." Together, the revitalized Big Star made music that sounds so right-on-time, it almost comes as a shock when you recall that these songs were first recorded 20 years ago.
The further adventures of Big Star may never mean more to Alex than any other stop on his lifetime musical odyssey; if they did, he wouldn't be Alex Chilton. But it's evident that the melodic contours and deeply felt existential shorthand of his best Big Star songs still speak to his soul. He sings them as if his life depended on it, particularly "The Ballad of El Goodo," which might be more relevant to his state of mind now than when he wrote it, and his classic astrological torch song "September Gurls." "Hearing Alex's performances reminds you what a great creative player he is ," adds Jody Stephens. "Stuff he does off the cuff has more emotional and musical content than most people get from sweating out a part for days."
Even Alex Chilton's celebrated cool begins to warm up a bit when he talks about the concert and this album. "I thought we got a good, screamin' thing going," he says. "It was loose as a goose, and it rocked more than it did the first time around. I was pleased. I mean, there's no point going on-stage and sucking."