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Big Star:
Live on WLIR

Winding down a recent set, Alex Chilton asked, "Anything else anyone needs done for them?" That menacing kindness goes a long way toward explaining the difference between trendy pop bands and the phenomenon that Big Star and Captain have become When together, Big Star sold very few records and could have easily fallen through the cracks of rock and roll history. Instead they attained the widespread influence and importance that is theirs today - two decades since the release of their first LP, more than 15 years since their demise.

In this sad age of classic rock, the past is repackaged for comfort. Once meaningful bands carry a false sense of history. But Big Star is more than a sonic tour of the seventies Like the Velvet Underground and unlike many bands throughout rock and roll, the singular talent of Big Star is evident not only within the context of their time but outside it Big Star continues to attract, and unsettle, new tans. This WLIR session is a clear window into the impenetrable past, and the dogged pursuit of this document - usually bootlegged so many times it sounded like it was recorded on cotton fiber - is proud of the devotion Big Star has garnered.

The story has ordinary beginnings. in 1971, Memphis guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Chris Bell had been working with drummer Jody Stephens and bassist Andy Hummed (both of whom also sang and wrote) when another musician friend returned to the city Alex Captain had moved to New York following his 1969 departure from the Box Tops, a semi-packaged AM radio teen sensation. As a 16 year-old, Captain's gruff vocals retained a casual air, sending "The Letter" to in 1967, and yielding a total of seven top 40 hits, including "Cry Like A Baby" and "Soul Deep."

The quartet fell in with the budding Ardent Studios, then a relatively small facility and home o the now-defunct Ardent label. Chilton said at the time, "it was the only place in town that wasn't already locked up with a bunch of tin pan alley writers and these sterile musicians playing in the sessions." (Over the years, the studio has grown to become one o the most respected in the nation Jody Stephens is currently on their staff.) Taking their band name rom a nearby supermarket, Big Star optimistically titled their 1972 debut record #1 Record, though the bright future would only materialize after their break-up.

Shortly after its reissue, Ardent's distributor Stax (reeling from a succession of owners) affiliated with Columbia and #1 Record was lost in the shuttle. Critics who heard it raved, but a disillusioned Chris Bell left the group and Big Star recorded 74's Radio City as a trio.

The second album was also poorly distributed, the band's frustration heightened by more critical raves. Much of the praise was in response to the self-indulgent progressive rock then prevalent - songs that were too long, too meaningless, and too boring. Big Star's melodic yet aggressive pop distinctly defied the trend. They were likened to the Byrds and the Beatles; the WLIR disc jockey on this recording even asks Chilton if they are "anachronistic."

Before touring, bassist Hummel had departed, both to pursue his engineering desires (today he works for General Dynamics) and because Chilton was becoming increasingly difficult to work with; Memphian John Lightman is the bassist on this recording. Big Star had begun as a unit, but the band slowly crumbled. By the end of '74, Big Star was Stephens and Chilton, the latter a very depressed man.

A very depressed, very poetic, very musical man. And in the company of producer James Luther Dickinson, Chilton's emotions were transferred to tape. The result is the achingly beautiful 3rd, released four years later and re-released periodically since, sometimes under one of its working titles, Sister Lovers (Chilton and Stephens were dating sisters; Dickinson says that the album's layout was to be such that when both jackets were folded together, the photos of the two girls inside would kiss.) intensified by the lack of effects, Chilton's vocals become more audible, revealing the peculiar enthusiasm he puts into the lines: "You're gonna die / Yes you're gonna die / right now" Stephens anticipates this verse when he bangs the drum four times unaccompanied, you can hear death in the space between the notes.

The one song on this recording not previously released is a cover of Loudon Wainwright's "Motel Blues," an indication of the weariness and frustration which Chilton was feeling as a music veteran at age 22 This feeling is also evident in the interview which precedes his solo acoustic set DJ Jim Cameron begins by praising Radio City. Chilton is unmoved, answering snidely with a snort, "Yeah, that's uh nice, I hope it sells." Cameron forges ahead, asking about the Box Tops and "those days of rock and roll " "Pretty scummy," summarizes Chilton Cameron laughs politely and pauses, perhaps regrouping, so Chilton continues, 'About as scummy as now " He then falls into a pat description of the road, which applies almost word for word to his present life.

The influence of Big Star/Chilton on contemporary rock - twenty years after the fact - is remarkable. Given their iii-fated career, you'd think they would have been overlooked. Yet R.E.M, who constantly acknowledged them in their early career, is at the top of the charts: the Replacements, after first covering his material and then being produced by him, wrote an ode to Chilton; his/their name continues to dot music magazines in interviews, references, and allusions. There will likely be another burst of Big Star mania with the release of this disc (and Bells solo album and 3rd), and despite the shallowness of such hype, new fans will almost certainly be touched.

Alex Chilton remains active on the music scene, his career still a classic rock and roll saga, its elements a great novel He tours regularly, interspersing his club dates with oldies revues where he sings Box Tops hits. In the clubs, he has returned to R&B, soul, end some blues. When uninspired, his sets would enhance wedding receptions; the grind of the road removes the spark of randomness which fires him. Considering that there are a couple Big Star/Chilton tribute albums in the works, perhaps he should consider letting his fans sing lead on Big Star songs, the unknown variables providing an excitement from which he could work Seeing him play now, it's in anticipation of - hoping for - another musical epiphany. Even if they are rare, most bands never achieve them once.

Having watched his R&B persona develop, I interpret it as a variation on the classic soul singer who casually strolls onto the stage, works the audience to his liking, and leaves them wanting more. He's not out of the Otis Redding mold, the singer exerting the energy of a gospel church, the sweat a testimonial. Rather, Chilton is calm and cool, even smug and cocky, like a singer who just left the wife of the club owner in his dressing room, and now he's gonna give you some of what she got - but if he gave it all, there wouldn't be none left for her after the show, would there? it's a persona which can embrace his career from the Box Tops and Big Star, as well as his diverse solo endeavor. Also, it can be developed in the club as opposed to the studio, where one needs time which takes money.

A European deal gets Chilton in and out of the studio every few years; it's been nearly half a decade since he's had an American label, and more than twice that since he was given a budget that allowed him to really utilize his studio ideas. His documentary-sized budgets only allow for getting in, rolling tape, and playing. Though some say he's remained a minor artist because he's difficult to work with, anyone could name a dozen artists who are much more unpleasant and ornery, who have less of a vision and less to show for it. As of this writing, he's added new songs to his tired live set, and he says he's been writing more. But I wonder whether Chilton will ever be able to afford the studio time he needs to make another album that does more than replicate his live sound. And I wonder whether his muse still visits.

You find an old picture of your lover. It dates from before you'd met, and though you'd heard about this period in his or her life, seeing it adds a whole new dimension to the person who sits across from you at the breakfast table. You study the photograph and its wrinkles, looking for clues that might tell you more about this friend you know so well can you see anything in the pockets of that jacket, can you read any book titles on the shelf in the background. You think about an archeologist's work. When you next see your lover, you're struck by things you'd never noticed. The skin tone, the facial radiance - though the lamps in your house are all the same and the sun does not appear to be undergoing a supernova, he or she carries a different light. As strikingly similar as the way your lover has always appeared, he or she is also that different. You shrug and smile Whatever has happened, you like it.

That's what this recording is about.