The long-awaited documentary on the quintessential American power pop band, decoded. (Above: Big Star Mk. I: Chilton, Stephens, Bell, Hummel)
BY DANNY R. PHILLIPS
Big Star. It is truly a bold choice to name your band as brazen as Big Star. It is an even bigger gamble calling your first LP #1 Record. The band and album title should have been a more than accurate prediction. With all the talent packed in the band, coupled with the great material lining Big Star’s three now classic and coveted releases (#1 Record, Radio City and 3rdare all included in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All-Time list) that notion should have been absolutely accurate. It was not.
When Memphis, Tennessee band Big Star came together in 1971 it was as if lightning struck. Made up of Chris Bell (he only appeared on #1 Record before leaving the band, later to record the phenomenal “I Am The Cosmos”), former Box Tops front man Alex Chilton, bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens, the group produced a body of work that drew from all types of music. The Beatles, The Zombies, The Staple Singers, The Animals and Simon and Garfunkel style harmony interplay between Bell and Chilton, as well as the soul music coming out of their hometown label Stax, all played a part in molding the songs of Big Star.
All the pieces were in place for Big Star to dominate the musical world: Chilton and Bell are widely considered suffering, sometimes difficult musical geniuses, Hummel was a quality, understated bassist in his own right, and Stephens commanded the drums with a reserved power and grace, knowing just when to add something or pull away.
However, Big Star is one in a long line of truly great bands that were screwed by labels, circumstance or poor management (in their case, poor distribution practices by Stax) only to find success later, thanks to a curious, adoring public and musicians singing their praises both publicly and in their songs. In the case of Big Star, bands like The Replacements, Meat Puppets, Lemonheads, R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub, Elliott Smith, Wilco and Matthew Sweet have all helped bring their cult heroes back into the light for a younger generation to love, look upon with wonder and reverence.
Now, it was director Drew DeNicola’s turn to give them some notice with Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, film telling the history of the band. Now enjoying a theatrical release by Magnolia Pictures following a series of well-received festival screenings, Hurt Me is an exceptional documentary in both quality and scope of detail, laying out the life, times and travails of power pop’s forgotten sons. A four-year labor of love, Hurt Me is packed with interviews with Stephens, Sweet, journalist/Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye, Norman Blake, Chris Stamey, Ardent Records owner/engineer John Fry, promoter John King (the man behind Big Star playing the National Rock Writers Convention Memorial Day weekend 1972, a gig that led to Radio City) and countless others.
The film is both funny and moving. Discussion of Chilton’s sometimes difficult, aloof personality leaves you wondering how Big Star ever got past the demo stages; the buildup to Chris Bell’s departure from the band, decline, his faith in Jesus and death in a car crash at age 27 may bring tears to eyes and a lump to your throat. Hurt Me is a real look at four men who loved music more than anything and wanted nothing more than to garner notice through their craft and doing what they loved.
Nothing Can Hurt Me is an unvarnished look at a band that should have taken over the world with songs like “Thirteen,” “In the Street,” “Daisy Glaze,” “The Ballad of El Goodo” and “Give Me Another Chance” but luck was not on their side. Perhaps the documentary and exceptional accompanying soundtrack, released by Omnivore Records, will change all that. (Go to: www.bigstarstory.com.)
Blurt spoke with Big Star drummer Jody Stephens and Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me director Drew DeNicola as they prepared for the film’s release.
Blurt: Was it easy to get people to talk about how much they love Big Star?
DeNicola: Yeah for the most part. Although, people are very protective of their Big Star. A lot of people were skeptical. Most of the fans have been holding onto this band for a long time. For the most part, the Big Star fan is one of discriminating tastes. [They] are very protective of “their band.”
What drove you to do a documentary on Big Star?
DeNicola- I guess it just seemed like an obvious documentary topic. I was shocked that no one had really tried before. I guess people had tried; John Fry had been approached by a few people before but nothing really materialized. Really, if you want to do a documentary on Big Star, John is the first person you have to talk to, not only for his role in the story, (Fry is the engineer/owner of Ardent Records where the Big Star records were recorded) but for the archives, he has everything. That was one of the nice things about doing the documentary: going to the studio, everything is still there. Jody’s there, you can see the original amps, mellotron, everything. Getting to know Jody and John was great but getting my hands on the tapes was amazing. Seeing Andy Hummel’s doodles on the boxes, hearing the demos. To me, it was like laying my hands on Sgt. Pepper’s. The story of Big Star is really the story of Ardent. I think I knew that’s how it had to be from the beginning.
Jody, what did you think when you were approached about the documentary?
Stephens: The idea was brought to me by John Fry. John liked the idea, sent a van to pick them (the filmmakers) up at the airport, took them to spots around Memphis and showed them where we all hung out. I thought if John was fine with it, that’s all I needed. You know, somebody wants to basically make a video scrapbook of a huge part of your life. It was strange and interesting at the same time.
How did it feel for you to re-live some of those things, those moments?
Stephens: It was fun. You know, there were semi-tragic moments to Big Star but for the most part, it was an incredible time. It was an incredible creative dream. The demos we were doing, Alex joining the band, seeing all that again in the beginning of the film was the reward of the project.
How do you think Chris (Bell) and Alex (Chilton) would feel about this project if they were here today?
Stephens: Well, Alex was alive when the idea of the documentary was underway. Alex certainly would’ve seen the humor in it. I think Chris would’ve been very proud of the recognition Big Star is getting now.
When watching the film, it seems like Chris had a really hard time with #1 Record not being a success. Listening to it now, that record should have been a #1 record.
Stephens: He may have had trouble with it and it’s certainly reasonable for him to feel that. He put himself into that record, Alex had had a number one with “The Letter” when he was with The Box Tops so you may not know who Big Star is but probably know who Alex is. Alex in the band there certainly was a bridge there but with Chris and Alex it was more a friendship then anything. They wanted it to work together.
Though it wasn’t a major hit, #1 Record got great reviews pretty much across the board. Did you feel any pressure to make #1 Record part 2?
No, I don’t really think we thought about what the next record should be. After the first record, we all kind of drifted apart so there was never any certainty that there would even be a next record. John King (radio/promo head for Ardent) organized the Rock Writers Convention in May of ’73 and wanted us to play. That’s what really brought us together and the material seemed to immediately connect with them so we just followed that.
DeNicola: When you say “Was there pressure to make another record?” the beauty of Big Star is the fact that they were immune from that, thank God. Maybe there was some idea in someone’s mind what a commercial record should sound like but there was no expectation for another Big Star record when Radio City came out. The beautiful thing about Radio City was that it was so organic as opposed to being controlled by Chris’ vision like #1 Record was. With every record, they were taking apart the “clean” concept and experimenting. They had that freedom.
Jody, do you think being from Memphis leant itself to you all being open to different styles of music and doing what you wanted to do?
Stephens: I think being at Ardent and working with John Fry allowed us to be what we wanted to be. No one ever said we couldn’t do something. I got dejection from some members of the band but nobody said you can’t do that. Sometimes ideas worked, sometimes they didn’t but nobody said you can’t do that, it’s certainly evident by the third record. I can’t imagine what major label execs would say about it now. Certainly there’s an independent spirit in Memphis and always has been but mainly my influences were British invasion bands and the Stax stuff. They are worlds apart in some ways but at the end of the day, for me, it’s all soul music. Whatever engages you, influences you.
How did it feel at Rock Writers knowing that you had the attention of everybody in that room especially knowing that rock journalists are historically a jaded lot?
Stephens: Well, they didn’t appear to be a jaded lot on that night. (laughs) You know, I’ve heard different stories but my recollection is Big Star drifted apart, John King, who was a radio/promo guy with Ardent and responsible for putting Rock Writers together, asked us to play and honestly, I felt more like the underdog, not the featured band. There were two other bands that weekend so that took some of the pressure off. By the time we got onstage, it was about having a good time, at least for me and that’s what we did.
DeNicola: We really tried to capture it in the film. That show was the closing night of a very raucous weekend. By the time Big Star played, everyone in the room was so plastered. At one point, John Fry was so wasted he smashed the soundboard. It was just a party at that point and they were the perfect band for that.
Jody, the first time you heard “Thirteen,” a song that has been called one of the greatest ever written about young love, did you know it was something special?
Stephens: I knew instantly. The first time I heard “Ballad of El Goodo” I knew instantly. “Thirteen” captures that moment in time, young love, for a lot of people and the way Alex delivers it is just remarkable. He’s got this way of making you feel what it’s like to be thirteen, to have this girl/boy relationship. He just captures it perfectly.
DeNicola: The thing about Alex’s songwriting is that he had said in BOMP! magazine that he wrote with nostalgia for those times because he had missed out on his teen years and wrote with this almost sentimental point of view because he was out on tour with the Box Tops when he was 16. I think he played with idealization versus reality all the time, slowly reality crept in.
Drew, you said you talked to Alex before he passed on about the movie. What was his feeling on it?
DeNicola: He was bemused just like he was every other time someone approached him about Big Star, it’s a little too much, too late for him I think. I think he felt like he had moved on; I just don’t think he wanted to talk about Big Star anymore. If he felt charitable, he’d talk about it and if he didn’t, he wouldn’t. I don’t think he was ever going to be charitable about our movie. I even said, “We can film you playing music at a piano in your apartment.” He just said, “We’ll see. Come to New Orleans and hang out.” It didn’t happen. I told Danielle, “Let’s get out our credit cards, go there with the camera in a bag and see what happens.” Honestly, I think we would’ve went there and got nothing on film. (Below: Big Star Mk. II: Hummel, Chilton, Stephens)
Jody, in the last twenty years or so, bands from the Replacements to Jesus and the Mary Chain have sighted Big Star as a major influence. Do you feel like this a vindication of sorts for what you did as a band?
Stephens: It’s always great when people really like what you do. We all put a lot of time and effort, heart and soul into it and its great when people embrace it. Anytime anyone is creative, they are opening themselves up to being hurt I think so, we just happened to do something that worked. It was valuable to me, we wrote great songs and it’s completed to me. I feel good that people love it.
DeNicola: To me, it seems that they actually succeeded at the real point of making music and the rest of it is just decadence and window dressing.
What was the feeling like playing Big Star songs at SXSW just after learning of Alex’s passing?
Stephens: We were all emotional drained just fresh off learning of Alex’s passing but there was never a sense of not playing amongst John (Auer), Ken (Stringfellow) and I. I mean, what better way to honor and pay homage to Alex then by playing his songs?
What do you hope people draw from Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me? In addition, Jody, what do you think the legacy of Big Star is or will be?
Stephens: I’ll have to leave the legacy part to the people who love the music and how they respond to it. What do I hope they draw from the documentary? There’s certainly corny answers but I’d say, think of the possibilities for kids that are 17, 18, 19, 20 years old if they are inspired to pick up a musical instrument especially if you have someone like John fry to provide and outlet for it. What John added to the music sonically and to the mixes in terms of balance, putting frame around the painting. John was great at that. Did that answer your question? (laughs)
DeNicola: This band was an unquestioned member of society in pop music history when I was in college and I just want to re-acknowledge or place them back in that context again. I think that even by me revisiting the music over the past couple of years, they really do have a very special place; they’ve been retroactively inserted in the rock music canon, it’s been a gradual gestation period like it took us 35 years to recognize that.