HOWEVER THEY GOT THERE Big Star

“Music’s always gotta
connect with you emotionally”: that, in a nutshell, is the story of the Memphis power pop
godfathers.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

So it all comes down to this, all you long-suffering Big
Star fans: boxed set, remastered reissues, permanent enshrinement into the collective
consciousness, under-served no longer. Rhino’s rarities-stuffed, 4CD Keep an Eye on the Sky is an exquisitely-packaged
marriage of comprehensive career overview and collector/critical catnip – it’s
reviewed in the new print issue of BLURT; tracklisting and more details here  – while the recent reissues of the #1 Record/Radio City twofer (read here) and
Chris Bell’s I Am The Cosmos (read
here) additionally round out the picture.

 

Some are calling 2009 The Year Of Big Star, in fact,
although if memory serves, 2005 brought similar hosannas when a long overdue
biography of the band appeared along with the first Big Star studio album in 30
years, titled In Space and featuring founding members Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens
plus Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer (replacing Andy Hummel and the late Bell;
starting in 1993 with a reunion show, the two Posies rounded out the band whenever
Chilton and Stephens had the time or inclination to tour). I profiled the band
in the November ’05 issue of BLURT predecessor Harp magazine and it was a particularly gratifying story to file as
Big Star had long been one of my faves ever since discovering the first two LPs
in the mid ‘70s.

 

I wasn’t alone in my love for the band. Rob Jovanovic,
author of the 2005 biography Big Star:
The Short Life, Painful Death, and Unexpected Resurrection of the Kings of
Power Pop
, told me how he first encountered the group in the late 1980s via
vinyl reissues of the first two albums. “I couldn’t believe they hadn’t been
massive and started wondering why I hadn’t heard more about them,” said
Jovanovic, adding, of Big Star’s enduring appeal, “I’m not an expert by any
means when it comes to the guitar sounds, but, especially on the first two
albums, it always seems to be the guitars that people come back to with Big
Star’s music. The exquisite songwriting merged with those guitars are what have
endured for 30-plus years, and I don’t see why that would change in the foreseeable
future.”

 

Chris Stamey of the dB’s also enthused, saying, “‘When My
Baby’s Beside Me’ [from #1 Record] got reasonable airplay in Winston-Salem when we
were growing up. And I think it went straight to that ancient part of my brain
– it was just amazing to hear it. It’s my impression that at a certain point
Big Star was really trying to emulate the Beatles. But I heard “When My Baby’s
Beside Me” as a very American kind of record. And for Radio City, you know, it seemed like it wasn’t trying to be
something it wasn’t. It was Southern American guys like me trying to say
something about their lives.

 

“But I don’t know if it really matters which album is
‘best.’ Because it was all a part of an experience, and also [based] around a
recording studio, you can think of them as just individual songs. I think of
them more as a collection of however many tracks – 40 tracks or as many as
there were…. Something about the way air moves and makes your eardrums vibrate
seems to get at you deeply. And this is something that a lot of people
experience. And however they [Big Star] got there, the fact that it continues
to have that effect on a lot of different people means that it might hang
around for awhile.”

 

However they got there, indeed. Keep an Eye on the Sky helps illuminate the path that Big Star
took. Given the group’s star-crossed history, one could say that path wound its
way towards obscurity, but as both Jovanovic’s and Stamey’s comments suggest,
time has a funny way of transforming “obscurity” into “longevity.” I also
talked to drummer Jody Stephens, and though exceedingly humble as an
individual, he was clearly aware that his group carries with it a very special
legacy. Some of the following interview with Stephens appeared in the original
2005 Harp article, but most of is
previously unpublished.

 

***

 

BLURT: What got you
interested in music?

 

STEPHENS: Oh, the Beatles! The Ed Sullivan show. There was
nothing quite like it: You just wanted to jump out of your skin. And Ringo was
such an amazing drummer… Influences on me as drummers were usually drummers you
could spot after hearing a measure, like Ringo or Charlie Watts or Al Jackson,
with Booker T and the MGs. Even BJ Wilson from Procol Harum. Keith Moon. John
Bonham. All those guys played a role in influencing me. And I’m sure Beatles,
Badfinger, a lot of pop stuff – Terry Reid and others that we actually played
as [Big Star precursor] Rock City.

 

Was it inevitable
that four Anglophiliac musicians would find each other in an R&B-fixated
town like Memphis?

 

I don’t know if it was inevitable we’d find each other. I
met Andy Hummel through a friend of mine in 7th or 8th grade. Andy and Chris were a year older than I. And when I was a senior in high
school, along with this band I was in with my brother, we auditioned to be the
band for the first off-Broadway production of Hair, at Memphis State.
I’ll be damned if we weren’t all selected. Our lead singer actually played the
role of Berger in that. So there I was – talk about my eyes being wide open!
I’d had a pretty sheltered existence. And towards the end of the run of that
play, Andy Hummel came onstage during the grand finale. We reconnected and
talked and he invited me to a jam session.

 

Andy and Chris went to school together so there was that
connection, and both of them had been in bands. And Alex and Chris got together
too. Memphis,
you know, wasn’t so big; it did have a music community and a bit of a
networking thing just because you were always going out to see bands.

 

Big Star’s records,
of course, eluded a lot of people first time around…

 

We got a lot of press back then, but nobody could buy ‘em!
We got letters and phone calls like, “I’m in New York City and I would like to buy your
record…”

 

Was that key in Chris
Bell’s decision to leave the band?

 

I don’t know. My perspective on Chris leaving the band is I
always thought as Chris not wanting to live and create in the shadow of Alex.
You know, Alex actually joined Chris and Andy for the band, and Chris Bell,
really, if you had to select a creative director for the first record, he would
have been it. I know Alex contributed a lot, but a lot of it was Chris’ vision.
It was a collaboration, but Chris was way into doing all those kinds of
harmonies, those sorts of things, and he had some studio chops and was
developing kind of as a producer. So he played a major role in that first
record, and then we got the reviews and everybody was talking about Alex. It
was just a bridge builder of course: “You haven’t heard of Big Star but you
have heard of the Box Tops, and this guy Alex Chilton was in the Box Tops…” But
still…

 

It was a drag to see that come to an end. Because the
material on that first album really meant a lot to me. I was just talking to
someone about how we rehearsed for that record and worked the songs up, at
least some of them, and I can remember working up “The Ballad Of El Goodo” and
just getting a big rush out of it: “Damn, I can’t believe I’m actually a part
of this band and this incredible song!” I gotta admit, a lot of times I almost
felt like I was part of the audience. Because we’d finish these records and I’d
be just completely floored!

 

So that was a big drag to see that come to an end. My career
had never even gotten off the ground! I’d always been in bands, and bands
always broke up. It’s hard to find people that you really connect with
creatively like that, and play songs that inspire you and, you know, fill a
void. But at that point in time, from my perspective of a 20-year old, I’d
never planned to be in a band all my life anyway. I just didn’t see it as a
possibility. I never really saw Big Star making a lot of money.

 

But you still were
able to keep going as a three-piece to do Radio City.

 

I think that point did come at the Rock Writers’ Convention
[Memphis, May
1973]. There was a helluva lot of encouragement from the guys in the audience –
it was pretty fascinating! The list of people that were there – Cameron Crowe,
Bud Scoppa, Richard Meltzer, Dave Marsh, all those folks. And I guess there
were fewer of them back then, and there was more focus on music as a whole. There
weren’t 18 billion factions in music and there weren’t 150 different kinds of
music magazines. I could see how writers would have followings and a little
more clout back then.

 

I don’t remember rehearsing the second album like we did for
the first. It was a lot simpler, a bit more raw, whereas there were a lot more
overdubs on the first record. All that was pared down on the second. A lot more
spontaneous than the first. We’re all music fans, and to that extent there are
going to be influences, but for me, there wasn’t that studied approach to doing
that record so much as it was just letting go, getting inspired by the music
and playing.

 

Big Star didn’t
really tour all that much – did you prefer the studio?

 

Interestingly enough, it wasn’t by design, but the simple
fact that we couldn’t find a booking agent. Nor did we ever really have a
proper manager. [laughs] And those
are two key elements to being able to go out on the road. Really, it’s as
simple as that. The tours that we did were set up by the record label. We went
up to New York a couple of times, we’d play
Max’s Kansas City.
It would be just for 3 or 4 days at a time; we’d play Max’s for 3 or 4 nights.
One time it was with Ed Begley Jr. on the bill, although he doesn’t remember
it! But I saw an ad for it in some magazine I’d saved. The other time we were
on with the Butts Band and that was fun.

 

It would have been fascinating to see what could have
happened had we had a proper booking agent and gone on the road a bit. There’s
nothing like going on the road to prove your chops as the band plays together.

 

Big Star Third: Chilton solo project, or a true Big Star record?

 

You know, to a large extent it was an Alex solo record. But
I think the bridge between that thought and it being a Big Star record was just
the fact that I was present. So yeah, I consider it a Big Star record because I
played a role in it. It just fit in the general lifespan of the band in terms
of how things evolved.

 

The three albums are really the Big Star evolution story.
From this kind of innocence on the first record to this sophistication and edge
to the second to the really dark, raw sort of emotion on the third. It kind of
spanned the same sorts of emotions that, as humans, we all have.

 

That’s a good way to
put it. Even as unsettling as the third album is, people respond.

 

It’s odd that people will tell me that they went through a
rough period and the third album helped get them through it, because it’s such
a dark, melancholy record. But maybe in the melancholy moments we have in our
lives, maybe you tune in to somebody to share that thought and feeling with
them. It kind of lightens the load.

 

How did you know when
the band was over?

 

Well, Alex and I were doing a radio show for a college radio
station [Memphis’
WLYX, in early 1975]. And I don’t know if there was a specific moment or a
specific action or anything. But I just thought, “This is it for me.” You know,
I’m not a dark person. And there was certainly a lot of darkness there. At the
end of it I’d just kind of figured out I wasn’t comfortable with that and
needed to move on.

 

Was there ever an
actual phone call from Alex – “I’m ready; how about you?” – regarding making a
new album with the latterday Jon/Ken lineup of the band?

 

I’m not sure if it was ever quite that definitive. We really
just casually walked into it. I wish I could remember what the actual turning
point was! Maybe he did call me one day and say, “I’d like to make another
record, and here’s the plan.” Alex had made an announcement about doing one from
the stage of the Mean Fiddler in London
[in 2001] and we talked about it, but what brought it into focus was the fact
that Alex had a plan, and that was to write and record a song a day. Do, you
know, 15 songs and pick 12, then do overdubs on those and mix. That gave it a
real meaning – it took it beyond just a sort of daydreaming thing [into] something
that we thought might happen.

 

Here’s a twist on the
usual “legacy question”: with the new record, is there a conscious notion of getting
past the legend to make sure that you’re remembered for something other than
those three albums?

 

Well… [long pause]…
I don’t remember the thought of getting past legends. I do remember a thought
about people’s perception of Big Star pre-this record, and then what this
record might do. At the end of the day, it was what the hell, let’s do a new
record.

 

I mean, because in some people’s eyes, in a very cult,
private way, Big Star means a lot to a lot of people, or at least a certain
group of people, and it’s defined by those first three records. They’ve been
living with those three records for 30 years. So how do you introduce – it’s
like introducing a new puppy to a dog that’s 10 years old. It takes a while,
you know? The puppy challenges the older dog, the older dog growls and snarls,
but sooner or later you know there’s an appreciation of it even though you
don’t want to let on.

 

And then to the actual “legacy question”…

 

You know, music’s always gotta connect with you emotionally.
And it is emotional communication –
it’s music that sticks with you and moves you passionately enough to go out and
turn somebody else on to it.

 

 

[Photo Credit: John Fry]

 

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