UP IN THE COSMOS Chris Bell

The late Big Star founder’s legacy is
finally, and handsomely, reaffirmed.

 

BY ZACHARY
HERRMANN

 

In the treasure
trove of Big Star demos, alternative takes and other assorted artifacts on the
recently released box set, Keep An Eye On
The Sky
, there are plenty of revelations to be found. But one sequencing
choice in particular sticks out in Rhino’s grand anthologizing of one of rock’s
most beloved cult acts.

 

The set, and
therefore the entire Big Star story, begins with Chris Bell.

 

Icewater begot
Rock City begot Big Star, and all three groups were Bell’s bands, at least
until he left that final incarnation, following the release (and commercial
failure) of #1 Record.  Far be it from me to debate the genius of Alex
Chilton’s work with Big Star – after all, isn’t the raggedly beautiful Third/Sister Lovers practically a Chilton solo album anyway? But for many
reasons (some obvious, others less so), Bell
has never quite gotten the credit he deserves in shaping the so-called Big Star
sound.

 

After leaving
the band and contributing (work on) a (disputed) number of songs that would
wind up on Big Star sophomore effort Radio
City
, Bell managed to record an album’s worth of material before dying in a
car crash in 1978 at age 27. With the assistance of Chris’s brother, Dave,
Rykodisc assembled 12 of these songs into the 1992 release, I Am The Cosmos, named for the 1978
single, Bell’s only released solo cut before his death. 

 

More than just a
fitting coda to the towering Keep An Eye
In The Sky
set, Rhino Handmade’s two-disc deluxe edition treatment of I Am The Cosmos reaffirms Bell as every
bit Chilton’s equal. The de-facto album is certainly deserving of its separate
re-release, but with Chilton present on a few tracks and many mutual Big Star
associates in on the sessions, I Am The
Cosmos
is inseparable from the Big Star mythos.

 

During the years
represented across the two discs, Bell
was a man in turmoil. “Better Save Yourself” references both Bell’s attempted suicide(s) and his Born
Again Christianity. “I Am The Cosmos”, perhaps more subtly, captures where the
singer’s mind was at, vis-à-vis a recently broken relationship, in the
juxtaposed lines, “I really want to see you again/ I never want to see you
again.”

 

These were
clearly tough years, and for someone suffering considerably, it’s remarkable
how Bell conveys himself so clearly – “Every night I tell myself I am the
cosmos/ I am the wind/ But that don’t bring you back again.” Or even simpler –
“I never want to be alone.”

 

At times, the
lyrical simplicity (on “Make A Scene”: “You didn’t have to be so mean/ You
didn’t have to make a scene”) proves a little less memorable. But as with The
Beach Boys, or Big Star for that matter, Bell
had a tendency to put aside (over-) eloquence in favor of what felt and sounded
real. Nothing here is feigned, and therein lies the reason Chilton never
sounded quite right singing “I Got Kinda Lost” or “There Was A Light”.

 

However,
Chilton’s brief presence on I Am The
Cosmos
, is very much welcomed. In addition to the original album version of
“You And Your Sister”, on which Chilton plays and sings back-up vocals, we get
an alternative, looser version of  “Get
Away” with Chilton on guitar.

 

Generally
speaking, the original album tracks are tighter, but the bonus renditions
reveal a more guitar-centric approach to “Speed of Sound” and “Make A Scene”,
no less interesting or enjoyable. 

 

Focusing on only
the original 1978 single/b-side combo of “I Am The Cosmos”/ “You And Your
Sister” – the only cuts released before 1992, and two of the three Bell solo
tracks featured on Keep An Eye On The Sky – paints a softer, limited picture of Bell. And limited he was not. After all,
this was the guy who wrote the most menacing songs on #1 Record, “Feel” and “Don’t Lie To Me.”

 

This biting,
angrier side to Bell
has been restored in Rhino’s remaster, which gives the guitars their due. “I
Don’t Know” – with Bell tearing some vocal chords a la Paul McCartney – and “Make A Scene” rock as hard as anything
either Bell or Chilton ever recorded under the Big Star moniker. Not that Bell’s balladry should be
overlooked – few artists have written a song half as pretty as “Speed of Sound”
– but the guy exhibits an astonishing amount of versatility across one album,
plus bonus material.

 

While we’re on
the path of debunking Bell-Big Star related myths, this expanded I Am The Cosmos completely belies the notion
of Bell the Anglophile and Chilton the Soul Man. Sure, there’s a wealth of The
Beatles’ influence (a portion of I Am The
Cosmos
was recorded in George Martin’s London studio and mixed by Beatles
engineer, Geoff Emerick) across the album.

 

But what is
“Though I Know She Lies” if not blue-eyed soul? And there’s a lot more of what
Gram Parsons termed Cosmic American Music than anything else in bonus cuts of Bell backing fellow Memphis
musicians Keith Sykes and Nancy Bryan on “Stay With Me” and “In My Darkest
Hour”, respectively.

 

Viewed in rough
chronology, from the pair of Icewater tracks opening Disc 2, through the 1976
instrumental ending that disc, I Am The
Cosmos
gives the fullest picture of Bell imaginable. Fleshed out in style,
the set rises above the original album’s former status as an epic (but
masterful) downer.

 

Listening to the
album now, there is still a lot pain coming through the songs – even Bell’s strained vocals
can be unnerving at times. After a while, though, it’s hard to get depressed at
something as stunningly beautiful as I Am
The Cosmos
.

 

The loss of a
musician as talented and inventive as Bell
is a terrible shame. Putting Keep An Eye
On The Sky
and I Am The Cosmos –
Deluxe Edition
side-by-side, it’s hard not to play the what-could-have-been
game. Had things gone differently, we might have had something better than
2005’s Chilton/Jody Stephens/Posies-created In
Space
as the coda to Big Star’s discography.

 

In reality, Bell died and Chilton’s
solo career has been, well, uneven to say the least. Big Star, for most loyal
fans, only exists as an occasional live entity. But if you’re looking to keep
that Big Star buzz going, I Am The Cosmos is the Holy Grail, rediscovered and refurbished, better than ever.

 

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