Radio City

January 01, 1970

(33 1/3)

 

www.continuumbooks.com

 

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

The Big Star story has been recounted in great detail over
the years, most recently by British journalist Rob Jovanovic, whose 2005 biography
Big Star: The Short Life, Painful Death,
and Unexpected Resurrection of the Kings of Power Pop
is a must-read, so
it’s not as if these characters are the same hazy figures they were back when I
first discovered them. Amazingly, then, a new book ostensibly about the making
of the second album takes the story to an entirely new level: practically from
day one Chilton has resisted the overtures of journalists, consistently
downplaying Big Star’s overall importance both in the larger sense and how it relates
to his particular musical vision. He’s consistently been “not available for
interviews” during Big Star’s periodic revivals (for example, in 2005, when a
reborn Big Star featuring Chilton, Stephens and two members of the Posies
issued In Space, Stephens assumed virtually
all the media-fielding duties), so writers have generally had to rely on the
reflections of Chilton’s friends, former band members and even other writers to
cast an impression of the man.

 

But in Radio City the
book – the latest installment in Continuum Books’ 33 1/3 series on classic
albums – author Bruce Eaton pulls a bonafide rabbit out of his hat, and Big
Star devotees owe him an immense debt as a result. Not only does he get Chilton
to go on record about the band, he coaxes in-depth commentary out of the
notoriously elusive musician, who holds forth on everything from his childhood
and experiences with the Box Tops to his relationship with Chris Bell (good, it
turns out, and not adversarial as has often been reported) and detailed
descriptions of Big Star recording sessions. Eaton, it should be said, was
holding one card that all the other journalists who’ve picked away at the
Chilton monolith didn’t: based in upstate New York, Eaton, a musician himself,
found himself, through a series of coincidences, playing in one of Chilton’s
early eighties bands, and although the alliance was short-lived, the
relationship was friendly enough to allow the two to remain in occasional
contact. When Eaton decided he wanted to do his book, he was able to tap that
friendship, Chilton apparently trusting that Eaton’s agenda was neither
self-serving nor exploitative but rather a sincere desire to set the Big Star
record straight. (Memo to fellow journalists: yes, despite all our
protestations of doing what we do because we love the music, we can come across as self-serving and
exploitative to musicians.)

 

The best titles in the 33 1/3 series tend to be
making-of-the-album stories (sorry, but the ones that read like novels or
fantasies or a protracted exercise in autobiography are rarely engaging), and
when the author is fortunate enough to conduct interviews with the principals
themselves, the books can become invaluable reference works. That’s Eaton’s Radio City,
in spades. He frames his main narrative with a intro relating how he discovered
the band and why he thinks it’s noteworthy, and a closing section outlining how
he wound up playing with Chilton (which itself is insightful as it provides glimpses
into Chilton’s mercurial personality and musical modus operandi).

 

But the bulk of this 144-page volume is given over to the
events leading up to the formation of Big Star and those surrounding the first
album, followed by a blow-by-blow breakdown of Radio City. In addition to Chilton, Eaton’s respondents include
Stephens, Hummel, Fry, Ardent engineer Richard Rosebrough and Ardent label boss
John King, plus the late Chris Bell’s brother David who pitches in on the pre-Radio City section, and they all supply
incredibly detailed descriptions of who did what, when, where, and how. Even
when memories get slightly fuzzy – for example, as it was the musicians’ habit
to record late into the night at Ardent, often without a producer or engineer
on hand (the Big Star members all had keys to Ardent studio), specific session
details sometimes didn’t get transcribed – the reader still gets a vivid sense
of what it must have been like to be part of the Ardent inner circle.

 

Fry’s recollections tend to be the most reliable, summoning
up specific notes on how he placed the mics on certain songs, how this
particular take differed from that one, even how he approached mixing the
album. Yet the three musicians are generally clear-headed in their
reminiscences, and as noted above, Chilton supplies his share of invaluable
anecdotes, even talking a little about the Radio
City
aftermath in 1974-75 and the Big
Star Third
sessions. (Countering another journalist-spawned misconception,
Chilton states unequivocally, “[Stephens and I] never saw it as a Big Star
record. That was a marketing decision when the record was sold in whatever year
that was sold.”) For his part, Eaton structures his book as a semi-oral
history, interspersing sections of expository narrative as needed between
blocks of quotes – many of them quite lengthy, such as nearly ten-page passage
dictated by Chilton on his life prior to Big Star. Oral histories can be risky,
but in this instance the editorial decision was sound; perhaps Eaton sensed
that after all the telling and retelling of the Big Star saga, maybe it was finally
time to let the men get it down in their own words, without journalistic
filters.

 

Plus, one mark of any great music bio is that while you’re
reading it you want to listen to the artist or album in question. When you get
to the Radio City song-by-song descriptions, I guarantee you’ll be compelled to cue
up the record and listen for the parts that Fry, Chilton, Stevens, Hummel and
Rosebrough are describing. It’s as close to a fly-on-the-wall experience as
you’re likely to get with Big Star.

 

Incidentally, Eaton has his own this-is-what-I-was-doing
epiphany on Big Star that he relates. Coming across a used copy of Radio City in the bins of a Buffalo, NY,
record store one afternoon in ’76, he was struck by the William Eggleston
lightbulb/room photo gracing the sleeve. “Curious, I picked up the album,”
writes Eaton. “The sturdy cardboard cover sheathed a nice thick slab of wax.
Like a vintage Blue Note jazz LP, it felt like a record made by people who
cared about the music and knew what they were doing.” At home later that
evening, Eaton put the album on while he sat down to write some letters:

 

Song by song, it
pulled me in until by the end of the first side I had stopped writing and was
propped back in my chair with my feet on the desk, listening as the sun set
behind the woods outside my window, feeling the June breeze blowing in through
the window screen. I flipped the record over to Side Two, and by the time the
needle reached the middle of ‘September Gurls,’ five cuts in, I was riveted…”

 

Across the land, over the years, a similar scene would
continue to repeat itself. So I ask you, dear readers: where were you when you first heard Big Star?

 

 

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