I Am The Cosmos
It is very hard to know where to begin; perhaps with all of those band
practices out at the "back house" (no doubt the source of the ringing
in my ears that has plagued me for the last twelve years), or perhaps
all of the high school car-port parties, with their endless hauling of
amps and PA systems.
Maybe it was the early years of the old Ardent Studios on National Ave.
in Memphis. It was the start of a kind of separation. So much technology;
so many buttons and dials: the cosmic electricity.
Through all of it, I watched the talent grow and develop into much more
than the myriad garage bands who were hoping to be the next Beatles or
Stones. This younger brother, five years my junior, was running away with
only a promise. His photography, his music, and his art captivated
me in the most personal ways.
Chris started playing when he was 12 or 13 years old, heavily
influenced by the Beatles. It may sound like the typical beginnings
of an aspiring pop musician, but in Memphis in the 60's the sound
was soul. Stax was cranking out the hits and Atlantic and Motown were
in their prime. The Beatles led Chris to the Who and the Yardbirds, and
his Anglo leanings made him something of an outsider. He formed a group
with two like-minded Memphians Richard Rosebrough and Terry Manning.
Both men were to play a considerable role in Chris' future recordings.
It was in high school that Chris met the pre-Box Tops Alex Chilton.
Though Alex occasionally jammed with the band, Chris felt that Alex
wasn't interested in a future in music. This was confirmed when Chris
tried to get Alex to join the band permanently. Chilton declined and
went back to school. In the meantime Chris and his group continued to
play high school dances, but it wasn't what he wanted to do. "I
hated (playing those shows) because all they wanted to hear was soul,
Sam and Dave, you know?".
Eventually, college lost its' appeal and Alex returned to music
as a member of Ronnie and the DeVilles, who metamorphosized into
the Box Tops. Set apart by Alex's raw vocals, the Box Tops had ten hits, but
the group was an outlet for producers Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham.
Alex became frustrated with the format of the group, in which he
was unable to express himself. Eventually he quit In late 1969.
ln the meantime, Chris had been spending more and more time at Ardent
in Memphis. His group continued to play, but the influence of Sgt. Pepper
was enormous and he wanted to learn more about studio technique.
He became a part-time engineer there, learning as he went along.
During this period he recorded the first of his own compositions.
Shortly aftenward, he leh for college at the University of Tennessee
at Knoxville, where he roomed with Knoxville resident and former
high school friend Andy Hummel.
After a year of school, Chris and Andy returned to Memphis,
eventually forming a group with Jody Stephens. Alex had gone to New
York after walking offstage during his final Box Tops gig. Failed
attempts to lure Chris to New York with an eye towards starting a
Simon and Garfunkle-style duo eventually led Alex to return to Memphis.
Ardent was now more than a studio; it was also a label set up
around an unreleased Chilton record. John Fry and Terry Manning were
looking for acts. One night Alex came to the studio to play with Chris,
Jody and Andy. Impressed by Chris' material, Alex played him some of his
own songs, which in turn impressed Chris, who'd only heard Alex playing
other peoples songs in the Box Tops. This mutual admiration manifested
itself as Big Star.
Oddly, it was never a source of envy or jealousy to have a
younger brother possessed of such talent; instead, it was so much fun.
While Big Star was recording their first album he went off to university
(Southwestern at Memphis), and I went off to other countries. He
always kept me abreast of his music with tapes and letters. For one of his
class projects Chris turned in Big Star's #1 Record.
As I recall, he got an excellent grade. Chris and Alex wrote
like Chris' idols, The Beatles. While ten out of the twelve tracks are
credited to Bell/Chilton, they had primarily written apart. "I would
suggest a few things, changes etc., to Alex's numbers and he would
similarly add to mine but really it was a separate thing". So separate in
fact, that a few of the songs had actually been recorded by Chris prior
to Big Star's existence. Alex added parts and they became Big Star
originals. By 1971 I had settled in Italy and it was while I was
living there that Big Star's #1 Record was released. I did not hear the
album until I returned home in the summer of 1972. Everything seemed
to be falling apart with the band, and my brother had apparently
tried to do himself in. Sitting on his bed, I listened to his album
for the first time and cried. I knew his talent was extensive, but
I hadn't imagined that he was capable of this. He was in terrible
pain, feeling that he had put forth his best effort producing one-half
and engineering three-fourths of the album, only to see his efforts
lost in a distribution deal with a record company whose claim to
fame had been a score of black Memphis soul products and who
obviously didn't know or care how to distribute a white,
Anglo-influenced rock group. Whatever the reason, and personalities
were a factor, my brother was near rock bottom.
The immediate objective was to get him out of this environment. A
ticket to Italy was purchased, and I made plans to distract him for as long
as I could to help him through his depression.
Suffice it to say, the trip to Italy was a bust, notwithstanding
side trips to Switzerland, England, and other points. He drank an
alarming amount of bourbon and was generally inconsolable. One of the
few high points of the trip is the picture we took in the Alps
that now graces this album. When he returned to the U.S. in the
fall of 1972, he left Big Star. I was still worried about him.
Over the next two years Chris managed a few visits to LA. He
spent time with Andrew Lauder and was encouraged by the likes of
Bud Scopa and Greg Shaw. Unfortunately, none of this brought him out
of his depression. He had attempted suicide at least twice during
these years and had been hospitalized as a result. A brief reunion
with Alex and Jody led to three songs on Big Star's Radio City
("O My Soul," "Way Out West," and "Back Of A Car"), but the extent
of Chris' involvement is sketchy at best.
During the course of four or five trips to the States to visit family,
I saw a slow deterioration in Chris. He had occasionally sent me demos which
showed that he continued to grow musically and lyrically, but on the personal
side, his sadness was a constant source of concern to me. It culminated in a
horrific scene during a trip home in the summer of 1974. After a night on the
town, I returned home and walked into my brother's room to find him pulling
with his teeth on a rubber tourniquet, a syringe in his hand. I froze. Not wanting
to harm him in some sort of struggle with the needle, I stood and watched.
Now there was no choice but to get him out of Memphis away
from the availability of drugs and onto something as happy and
productive as possible. So I dangled a carrot in front of him.
We should go to France to do some recording at the studios of the Chat
eau D'Herouville where Elton John had recorded "Honky Chateau"
and "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." I somehow had to make him feel
like a star, like someone on the verge of discovery, especially
with his recent track record of uniformly fabulous reviews for
Arrangements were made for Chris to fly over in September with
Richard Rosebrough. Richard had been instrumental in engineering
and drumming on many of Chris' songs, and also an integral part of
many of the earliest Ardent recordings.
They arrived in Italy in mid-September of 1974 and after a holiday
of about ten days in Rome and the north of Italy, we ended up at a
garden party in the countryside out from Torino. Several Italian
industrialists, guests of the party, continually asked Chris
to play some songs.
He complied, and, after finishing one number during which
everyone continued to talk, he began playing Joni Mitchell's
People's Parties. Singing in English, the Italian guests never
understood the return of the insult. However, a teenage son of one of
the businessmen got up and left in disgust. He was elated two months
later when I presented him with a copy of #1 Record.
The next morning we took a train to the studio. Arriving the
following day at the station in Pontoise, some forty kilometers from
Paris, we were met by people from the Chateau who drove us to the
village of Heureville. The Chateau had been the setting for many a
tryst between Chopin and Georges Sand.
The reception was a nice stroke for Chris' ego, in that his
reputation had preceded him. Several quality songs were put down on
tape here, though his initial disappointment upon finding the
exact same recording console he'd left behind in Memphis might
have been disastrous. As recording progressed, we learned that our
English engineer, Claude Harper, had been a technical engineer
at Apple in London, working with Geoff Emerick. Geoff had engineered
all of the Beatles' recordings from Sgt. Pepper onwards. Claude made a
call to London and has able to arrange a few days for us in October
at George Martin's Air Studios. Mixing tracks with Geoff at Air was
a remarkable experience. Chris showed no deference to Geoff in spite
of his impressive history, yet certainly respected his talent. He once wrote
me that all the time he spent in England had been worth it, if only for
that one mix Geoff had done of "I Am The Cosmos." On our last day at Air
an acetate arrived from EMI and we were treated to a preview of
Junior's Farm which interestingly enough had been recorded in
Tennessee. With a not-so-subtle grin, Chris asked Geoff if he
needed a tape delivered to EMI studios that night. Not so
coincidentally, Geoff was going to be doing a final mix of Junior's
Farm there with McCartney. At first, Geoff seemed a bit ill-at-ease
with the proposal, but said that we might stop by for just a few
minutes. We were met by Geoff in the control room of Studio 2,
where all of the Beatles' songs had been recorded until the time of
Apple. In about ten minutes, a ruckus in the hallway announced
Paul's arrival. He and Linda strode in and after about ten minutes
of chit-chat Chris and I left to see Studio 1, which seemed so big
that a football game could be played in it. We returned to Studio 2 and
had a few more minutes generally centered around recording technique,
with Chris asking how all the different vocals were achieved. Then
it was over and we said goodbye. Stepping out into the hall I seemed
to make out a radiance on Chris' face. He felt he had arrived!
"One down, two to go, he said, in reference to Harrison and Lennon.
Apparently he had no interest in meeting Ringo.
The mixing ended and it was time for us to go our separate ways.
He returned to the States and I to Italy. We met again in Memphis for
Christmas and decided to meet again in the French West Indies.
Italy had run its course with me and Chris still needed guidance.
At this point it was more a case of the blind leading the blind,
On the first of February 1975, I arrived on the island of St. Maarten.
Part of my reward for being in the marketplace in Italy wound up being
an interest in a home on this lovely and at that time, remote island.
Leaving the seeming stability and structure of a business without a
clue as to what my next move would be, I was hardly prepared to guide
But after two and a half months of false starts I knew that
any business venture in the Caribbean was out of the question.
The logical next step was to return to England and attempt to sell our
best asset, the music of Chris Bell.
We arrived in London in the middle of April 1975, and soon made
arrangements for mixing time with Geoff at Air in Oxford Circus. A few
more songs were polished and aher a month there were enough tunes
in the can to begin shopping tapes. All the while Chris played and wrote
on his Gibson Sunburst acoustic. When he wasn't playing he was cooking
or doing other jobs around our basement flat on Kildare Terrace. We
re-contacted several acquaintances from our earlier trip and were fortunate
enough to find a true friend in John Tobler who at the time, was a press
officer for CBS records.
Through John we obtained lists of A&R men at virtually every record
company in England. It is amazing how many times one can get rejections
and still plod on to the next office looking for one person who
understands what you do. Through John there were interviews arranged for
British fanzines and a long lunchtime interview with Max Bell of New
Musical Express. There were introductions to various press people who
had been Big Star fans; they helped fan the flames of interest.
All of this activity gave impetus to the goal of finding a record
deal, which over the course of eight months yielded only two
bites: Dave Crokerat Rocket and Jerry Gilbert at Charisma. In
the end neither offered a deal, and that was it.
Chris returned to Memphis for a six week period from late July to early
September, during which he managed some studio time. He talked to Jody
Stephens and Ken Woodley about coming to London to tour with one other
musician as Big Star. He also contacted Alex Chilton to discuss fixing
Alex's latest album and even the possibility of them working together
The latter idea was quickly abandoned, as the two not only had musical
differences, but had gone vastly different routes in their personal
Both Jody and Ken figure prominently on album cuts, especially Ken
on bass and organ on "Cosmos," "i Got Kinda Lost," and "Though I Know
She Lies." It should be noted that Cosmos," "I Got Kinda Lost" and "I
Don't Know (Get Away)," were all recorded in one night at Shoe
Recordings in Memphis during 1973 or 1974. I was not present at this
session but would have given my eyeteeth to be there.
Chris returned to London on September the 5th; soon thereafter he
began playing folk clubs to keep busy and earn an extra pound or two.
Money was flowing out and precious little was coming in, but one
lucrative night at a West End casino fortune smiled and afforded us a
trip to Berlin. We had heard from the musician's grapevine that gigs
were to be had for foreigners with guitars. We set out in the Volkswagon
beetle for the first night's stop in Amsterdam. My brother, as was his
wont, delayed our departure long enough to make us miss the ferry at
Dover. As a result we arrived very late in Amsterdam. The desk clerk at
the Hotel warned us not to leave anything in the car, as the
neighborhood was rather seedy. Exhausted, we both decided to trust the
universe and were subsequently robbed of everything in the trunk of the
car. The booty was not inconsequential. I was sick for several days;
Chris was impatient, so I gave him some money for a train to Berlin. He
was to leave me a message at American Express.
Several days later, arriving in Berlin, I decided to treat myself to
a good hotel. After checking in, I went to pick up my message at
American Express. Of course, there was no message.
We both had lists of folk-rock clubs that were offering work, so I
began to scour them for Chris. Two nights later, in the green room of
one of the clubs, I found him about to go onstage. He seemed completely
oblivious to the fact that he might have been lost forever in Germany.
God protects. This period began to be known as the Pension Funk: I swear
that was the name of the place where we stayed.
The trip to Berlin lasted about ten days, during which we did a photo
shoot. It yielded a few commercial, yet interesting, frames. The pub gigs
were quite easy to come by, but unfortunately did not command a very
large purse. On one of our last nights there we stopped by the largest
and best known of the clubs and asked for a spot during the break of the
featured artist (some German with a record out, whose picture was plastered all
over the entrance to the club). The management was quite accomodating
and Chris was given fifteen minutes during the break.
He was introduced and came to center stage with three white
spotlights shining on him. The superb German audio equipment, together
with a talented engineer, produced a short set that should have been
recorded for posterity. When Chris was treated like a professional, he
rose to the occasion brilliantly. It confirmed my belief that given the
proper circumstances, his talent would truly soar.
These adventures were great fun, but unfortunately they didn't
generate any substantial income. With funds running low we decided to
head back to London.
Along the way we detoured and went to the Chateau, to visit the
friends we had made there. The hospitality was warm, and as it was my
birthday they broke out bottles of champagne. The French still know how
to do things well.
On arriving in London we were faced with the problem of finding a
new flat, as our lease had expired and our landlady had ignored our
assurances that we wanted the flat for another three months. Now came a
series of bed and breakfasts which were decidedly more bed than breakfast.
More folk pub dates followed, which barely covered a day's expenses. The
list of A&R men grew progressively shorter, as we seemed to approach the
end of the tunnel without the proverbial light.
Earlier plans for a reformed Big Star mini-tour came to nothing as
Ken and Jody could not be coaxed to England and prospects appeared to be
getting slimmer. We both decided around the end of November that chances
for a record deal would have to lie in the US for the time being. In
December we gave up the English ghost, with the prospect of a frivolous
bi-centennial year looming and we returned to Memphis.
For the next two and a half years there was a lull in Chris' music.
He had opted for the responsibility of a normal job, managing a series
of fast food restauraunts in the family chain. I know that for him this
was more of an exercise than anything else, but I believe the experience
gave him other perspectives. In the background there was always music.
He made occassional forays into the studio to test his ability. It was
during this time that 'Though I Know She Lies" was recorded. He had
written the song in London and played it to me on acoustic there. It
wasn't until several years later that I finally heard the song on tape.
During this period I lived in Memphis. After a few months I moved to
Denver, where I lived for the next year and a half. We wrote to each
other, saw each other on holidays, and generally comiserated on the state
of musical affairs and his desire to get back into the business. In the
summer and fall of 1978, through a series of perfectly timed events, I
found myself moving in a fairly radical direction and decided to return to
Memphis. There I would spend some time with my family before moving on
to a vastly diferent life.
I arrived on Thanksgiving and happily was able to spend a month with
my brother. It was easy to see his joy at the EMI release of the first
two Big Star records as a double album. This, coupled with interest from
small labels and his return to playing live had lifted his spirits. Also
a six month gig with Keith Sykes' band had put him back into a frame of
mind of a possible future in music.
A single had been released on Car Records (I Am The Cosmos b/w You
And Your Sister, CRR6). It was well received at the time and is a
collectors item today. Both tracks appear here.
The British press had bandied about the rumor of a UK Big Star tour
with all four original members, including Chris. Chilton seemed eager
to make the most of this second chance at recognition, and while the two
had discussed it, the project just died on the vine.
On the early morning of December 27,1978, returning home from a
rehearsal with a new band, his white Triumph TR-6 struck a telephone pole
on Poplar Ave., just half a mile from our father's restaurant. He died
Six years later, having been contacted by Ardent Studios about the
interest in Chris's unreleased material, I went into the studio with
engineer John Hampton and compiled the present album, with a couple of
exceptions. The additional tracks, (including "I Don't Know", "Though I
Know She Lies" and the alternate versions of "You And Your Sister" and
"I Am The Cosmos") were added later. Thanks to Jody Stephens and Rick
Clark for digging them up. The years with Chris were the best of my
life. He was Vincent to my Theo, and he had a sense of humor that made
me wet myself. The sadness has been replaced with a humble gratitude and
a desire to continue learning, even though the teachers may not be quite
- David Bell
To say that this album has been in the works for a long
time would be a gross understatement. In the end, after all
of the false stops and starts, this is a brilliant record, and yet
only a small slice of Chris' huge talent. I hope that in some
small way this record will illustrate that Chris' contribution of
sterling pop music, both in Big Star and as a solo artist is a
significant and vastly underappreciated one.
Chris Bell: Vocals, Guitar
Richard Rosebrough: Drums
Ken Woodley: Bass, Organ
Alex Chilton: Background Vocal on 'You And Your Sister'
Bill Cunningham: Arrangement on "You And Your Sister"
Jim Dickinson: Piano on "Fight At The Table"
Produced by Chris Bell Recorded at Chateau D'Heurville, France, except
"You And Your Sister" recorded at Ardent Studios, Memphis, and "I Am The
Cosmos", "I Got Kinda Lost' and "I Don't Know" recorded at Shoe Studios,
Memphis. Digital Mastering by Dr. Toby Mountain, at Northeastern Digital
Recording, Inc., Southborough,MA NoNoise Processing on selected tracks by
Scott Leviton at Fantasy Studios, Berkeley, CA.
Package Design by Steven Jurgensmeyer
Photography by David Bell
Special thanks to: David Bell, Jody Stephens, John Fry
Thanks also to: Everyone at Ardent, Barry Ballard and Omaha Rainbow, Max
Bell, Paul Dickman, Dan Efram, Dave Gibbs, Ivana Glauber, Peter
Holsapple, Alan McGee, Bert Muirhead and Fat Angel Magazine, Jim Neill,
The Posies, Chip Reynolds, Jeff Rougvie, Primal Scream, Robert Shipp,
Chris Stamey, Teenage Fanclub, This Mortal Coil, Seth Tiven, John
Tobler, Tim Tooher.