Editor’s note: Although the Memphis power pop godfathers might not seem, at first blink, to fit the accepted notion of “college rock,” which generally refers to groups operative in the ‘80s, after punk rock had exploded but prior to the alt-rock explosion ignited by Nirvana. Yet it would be foolish to ignore the sonic shadow—make that, glow—Big Star cast over the era, what with the likes of R.E.M., The dB’s, Replacements, Let’s Active, Miracle Legion, Dumptruck (the subject of our first installment in this series) and others so clearly beholden to the group. Ergo this story from my archive/ In 2005 I interviewed drummer Jody Stephens as well as Chris Stamey (who’d worked with Alex Chilton after Big Star broke up) and British journalist Rob Jovanovic (who’d published a Big Star biography), later talking to Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer about their involvement with Stephens and Chilton in the latterday incarnation of Big Star. To my deep regret I never got to interview Chilton—it was made clear to me during my In Space round of interviews that he was not going to be available—although as you’ll read I did have occasion to talk with him informally during his solo touring days. So I have that good memory (along with a somewhat odd claim to fame involving Chilton and my guitar; see below), along with my many, many musical memories of being inspired by Chilton and Big Star. I’m sure all of you reading this have similar musical memories. (ALSO: Go here to read our recent interview with Big Star documentary director Drew Denicola.)
BY FRED MILLS
Call it serendipity. I was listening to Big Star’s Sister Lovers (a/k/a Third) the other morning before heading out to grab some breakfast and go by my post office box to pick up the mail. And in the box was a review copy of A Man Called Destruction (Viking Press), written by acclaimed music journalist and author Holly George-Warren (whom I’m proud to call an old friend from my college days). Subtitled “The Life and Music of Alex Chilton from Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man,” the 370-page volume will undoubtedly wind up on 2014 music bio best-of lists; it’s a treasure trove of a Chilton compendium, so detail-rich I’ve found myself saying to myself, “How the hell did she discover that?” and so expertly rendered, tale-spinning-wise, that it had me staying up late then getting up early because I was hungry to get to the end. Holly—salute, from an old friend.
It’s an ending I already knew, of course: Chilton died of a sudden heart attack in March of 2010, right on the eve of an Austin event where a Big Star tribute concert was slated to take place during SXSW, and I mourned alongside most of the music world. Or at least the part of the music world that I care about. I found myself thinking back to the times I got to see Chilton play with his solo group—I never witnessed Big Star perform, but then, not many other folks did either—and in particular, one afternoon in Charlotte in the early ‘90s when I had wandered down to a club where Chilton was slated to perform that night.
There he was already, casually seated in a booth by himself, reading a book and smoking. As I approached he glanced up and eyed me somewhat warily, and I could practically see the thought bubble forming over his head (Oh god, another fanboy wanting to tell me how much he loves Big Star. Somebody get me outta here.) as I semi-blabbered at him.
“Hey Alex, welcome to Charlotte, you probably don’t realize this, but you were playing my guitar when you appeared on MTV…”
That did the trick; I’d roused his curiosity. And indeed he had played my old guitar on a 1985 episode of MTV program, I.R.S. Presents the Cutting Edge. Living in New Orleans at the time he’d been approached by MTV to be interviewed by host Peter Zaremba while the two wandered around a New Orleans graveyard, and since for some reason he didn’t own an acoustic guitar, he’d remembered admiring an acoustic owned by a friend of his whom he’d met through Panther Burns’ Tav Falco, and who just happened to be a friend of mine too, Melinda Pendleton, and to whom I’d sold my old Takamine a year or so earlier. She loaned him the guitar for the Cutting Edge shoot, and the rest is history, sorta, or at least history in my mind, but if any of you out there can make a similar claim to fame, I will personally shake your hand and buy you a beer if we ever meet.
Ice duly broken after I explained how he came to be playing my old axe for the cameras, he invited me to sit down and chat. “I remember that!” Chilton laughed, recalling the Cutting Edge segment. “That was a damn good guitar. I wanted to buy it from her.” And far from the oddball, guarded type I guess I’d expected him to be, Chilton was gracious and engaging, cracking small self-deprecating jokes as we talked about music and mutual friends we had in New Orleans and Memphis. At one point I boldly asked him if it was true he hated talking about Big Star, to which he emphatically said no, that it just depended on what he’s doing and who he’s with at any given time as to whether he’s into telling old war stories from the Big Star days.
Fair enough. And since this wasn’t an interview anyway, I had him autograph a couple of his solo records for me then wished him well and said my goodbye. He smiled and returned to his book. It was a terrific show that night, too. (Below: the aforementioned MTV clip, which is mistakenly labeled as coming from the 120 Minutes program. )
Cut to mid-2005. A regular contributor to (and, subsequently, Managing Editor) Harp magazine, I found myself interviewing Big Star drummer and co-founding member Jody Stephens, along with latterday Big Star members (and Posies braintrust) Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, about the band and, more to the point, about the new album they’d recently finished up, Big Star In Space, which would be released to generally enthusiastic reviews. Admittedly, Big Stars estimable legacy cast a massive shadow on any contemporary undertaking by the musicians, to such a degree that Alex Chilton had declined most interview requests, feeling he’d said pretty much all there was to say by that point. But they were lively and revealing conversations, and I also had both biographer Rob Jovanovic and musician Chris Stamey weigh in, Stamey of course being a lifelong Big Star fan as well as a one-time member of Chilton’s post-Big Star band in New York.
The fruits of my interviews appeared in the November issue of Harp, and since the magazine is long-defunct and its archives no longer available on the web, you’ve got the story here in front of you in expanded form as part of my “College Rock Chronicles”— Hope you enjoy.
Part One of The College Rock Chronicles: Dumptruck.
Memphis, Tenn., April 2004: Inside Ardent Studios a band is assembled in the control room where the engineer has just cued up a playback. It’s a scene that unfolds on a daily basis in studios everywhere. Except that this isn’t just any band. This is a band that comes with baggage. Rather weighty baggage at that. And as a result expectations are extraordinarily high. Because this is a band called Big Star.
About that baggage. There are the albums, of course, 1972’s #1 Record, 1974’s Radio City, and Third, aka Sister Lovers, belatedly issued in 1978 after the group’s initial demise. From the prototypical power pop of the first two to the druggy rock noir of the third, those records comprise one of music’s most storied trifectas. As British journalist Rob Jovanovic, author of the recent biography Big Star: The Short Life, Painful Death, and Unexpected Resurrection of the Kings of Power Pop, notes, “There’s a fascinating thread of disintegration from one album to the next. #1 Record was very polished, with four in the band; Radio City is starting to show some manic behavior, three in the band; and with Third, it’s down to two members and things clearly falling apart.”
There’s also the massively influential Big Star legacy which not only attract waves of new acolytes each year but has also generated an impressive roster of celebrity fans – among them, R.E.M., the Replacements, Wilco, Cheap Trick, the Bangles and the Posies. dB’s founder and producer/solo artist Chris Stamey elegantly describes Big Star’s enduring appeal this way: “I think 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. However Big Star got there, the fact that [the music] continues to have that effect on a lot of different people means that it will hang around for awhile.”
So surely Big Star Mk. ‘04 — founders Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens, plus Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer, who joined when Chilton reconvened the group in 1993 – was mindful of the legend its was competing against when going in to make the band’s first studio record in 30 years?
Big Star drummer Stephens chuckles, but holds firm. “I honestly don’t think anything we did with the making of this record was a response to those albums.”
It’s 2005 now. Stephens is speaking from Ardent, where he’s the facility’s Studio Manager, and we’re talking about the new In Space (Rykodisc) but of course those albums are bound to come up. (Chilton wouldn’t be interviewed for this article.) To hear Stephens tell it, ignoring the estimable Big Star legacy was part of what made the In Space sessions run so smoothly. “In fact,” he says, “I’m not sure if [making the album] was ever quite so definitive as someone saying, ‘I’m ready, how about you?’ 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 a plan to write and record a song a day, then do overdubs and mix. So it was literally us sitting down and somebody saying, hey, I’ve got an idea, we’d run through it a couple of times, and it would start to take shape and form. These songs really were created instinctually, as opposed to methodically thinking about them. And I don’t remember any reference to our past albums.”
“That’s true,” confirms Auer a few days later, speaking from London where he and Stringfellow are on the road with their other group, Seattle’s Posies. “We really didn’t talk about how we could uphold the supposed legacy. And Alex, I don’t think, is very concerned about whether there are things that might remind people of what Big Star sounded like. Most of [the recording] was just kind of letting it go where it went. We didn’t have a graph chart on the wall. We weren’t saying, okay, we have this kind of song, now we need another ballad, or dammit, we gotta make sure we have something that sounds like an outtake from #1 Record.”
Adds Stephens, “And in some cases, other people also had ideas. Not completed ideas by any stretch of the imagination. Like “Dony,” if I remember correctly, was Jon’s kind of idea musically, but I’m not sure how far along that idea was, and Alex came up with the lyrics. What I remember about most of it was that somebody would have a basic idea and we go run through it a couple of times, and it would start to take shape and form. These songs would be created more instinctually, as opposed to sitting down and methodically thinking through them.
“Later, it was all mixed here at Ardent – it was mastered in Los Angeles – and Alex and Jeff [Powell, co-producer on the album] sitting down to mix it. They’d get a mix done and call me, I’d go back in and listen, and most of the time it was, ‘Hey, sounds great!’ There were a couple of times when I thought maybe it needed more vocal. But I’d listen once or twice then go out, so it wasn’t like I [got burned out], because mixing can be pretty tedious. By the time you’re through with that process it’s hard to be objective about the songs that you are hearing. But Alex really put a lot of time and effort into this record, and stuck in there. And everyone that heard it had some great ideas and contributed to the mix process.”
The goal for In Space was simple, Auer says: to create a solid batch of new songs – nevermind the old ones – that all four men could say they were proud of. “Although I’ll admit it, I personally felt a little concerned. You know, I’m a fan of those early records too. There were things that I contributed that I think were my take on what Big Star would sound like, based upon the first two records in particular. But I wouldn’t say it was like trying to pander to that type of expectation.”
In Space is no Radio City redux, that’s for sure. Big Star hardliners may find themselves grumbling over the record’s pointedly eclectic sound which encompasses everything from R&B to a hard rock jam to a somewhat dubious diversion into disco. But it also sparkles with sweetly-wrought, harmony strewn pop, notably opening jangler “Dony,” the Beatlesque “Best Chance We Ever Had,” and baroque ballad “Lady Sweet” — sung, respectively, by Chilton, Stephens and Auer (true to the democratic process outlined by Stephens, songwriting credits list all four members for most of tunes). Overall, In Space feels fresh while retaining many of Big Star’s most endearing qualities.
“I always like the passion and the human elements in records,” Stephens says, “and on In Space, there are some pretty emotional moments, and there are also moments when there’s a cool sense of humor about it. I think it will be a surprise to some people.”
Big Star certainly came into this world surprising people. Just the very notion of a group of British Invasion-worshiping popsters coming from Memphis (R&B City USA) and in 1972 to boot (when the Allman Brothers et al ruled in the South) was enough to pique the critics’ interest. To some, Big Star was the pop equivalent of the Second Coming. (The First? The Beatles, of course.)
The band formed in 1971 after Alex Chilton, late of the Box Tops, returned home to Memphis and struck up a songwriting partnership with an old associate, Chris Bell. As Bell had already been working with bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens (Rock City and Icewater were two notable pre-Big Star combos), the band fell into place quickly and Big Star was soon recording its first album at Ardent Studios.
#1 Record, released by the studio’s eponymous in-house label, reflected its creators’ influences – Beatles, Beach Boys, Kinks, Who, etc. — yet was immaculately crafted and utterly unique, key tracks including the anthemic “In The Street” (years later known as the opening-credits theme for That Seventies Show), sturdy chugger “When My Baby’s Beside Me” and the dreamy/acoustic “Watch The Sunrise.” Its followup Radio City, recorded in ’74 by Chilton, Hummel and Stephens after Bell quit to go solo, was rawer but no less a revelation to fans who zeroed in on such power pop templates as “Back Of A Car,” and “September Gurls.”
That is, when fans could actually get the albums. Ardent was distributed by Stax Records, which, suffering from near-terminal financial and distribution woes, was unable to place the records into stores with any consistency. This effectively deep-sixed the group’s chances in the marketplace, and soon Hummel, too, left, opting to return to college while Chilton and Stephens, with replacement bassist John Lightman, toured sporadically during the first half of ’74. (A radio broadcast from that tour was unearthed and issued by Rykodisc in 1992 as Big Star Live.)
Chilton and Stephens spent the rest of the year working with producer Jim Dickinson and a revolving cast of players on what was to be the group’s next album. Third, however, was never fully completed, due in large part to Chilton’s erratic drugs-and-boozed-fueled behavior. It did have its gems, such as the devastating “Holocaust” and the sonically buoyant/lyrically scathing “Thank You Friends,” and with its string arrangements and spooky vibe it stood apart from its two pop predecessors. But by the record’s eventual release in 1978 the group was already history; Big Star played its final gig in the fall of ’74 and Chilton and Stephens formally interred the band for good a few months later.
Stephens went to college and eventually wound up back at Ardent as Studio Manager (he would also work with other groups, notably Golden Smog). Chris Bell, despite myriad personal issues, had recorded a number of tracks for his own album and released one single, “I Am The Cosmos,” in 1978 before dying, tragically, in a car accident. (In 1992 Rykodisc collected the Bell solo material on CD as I Am The Cosmos).
And Alex Chilton, well… that’s an entire article unto itself. Suffice to say that the songwriter who once titled a solo album A Man Called Destruction spent his time in the wilderness, eventually overcoming his personal demons and making a string of uneven but intriguing solo records. Along the way he adopted a perversely disdainful attitude towards his old band even as his profile steadily rose; a new generation of fans was discovering his back catalog via reissues and through the proselytizing of bands influenced by Big Star. So what came next, while unexpected, was probably inevitable.
In April of 1993 the stone was rolled back when Chilton agreed, after years of ignoring the overtures of promoters, to a one-off Big Star reunion. Stephens recruited Auer and Stringfellow, whose work as the Posies made them perfect fill-in candidates for Bell and Hummel, and the group played at the annual Spring Fest bash at the University of Missouri at Columbia
“I was pretty nervous the whole show,” recalls Stringfellow, “and I remember feeling pretty relieved after we got off the stage!” Ragged or not, the reconfigured ensemble clicked. Periodically over the next decade Big Star would tour, performing songs — of Chilton’s choosing – culled primarily from the first two albums.
The matter of recording new material, however, never came up seriously until 2003 when the group was rehearsing to play the opening of the Stax Museum in Memphis.
Explains Auer, “The setlists had remained pretty static so Ken and I wanted to look at doing some [different] songs. I think we worked up ‘You Get What You Deserve’ and ‘Life Is White’. After we finished Alex said that while he appreciated our wanting to try some other songs, he felt like the songs we were already playing were the strongest in the back catalog.”
“In his opinion the songs we hadn’t been doing weren’t at the level he is at now, that their lyrics were stupid and immature and primitive,” adds Stringfellow.
“But,” continues Auer, “then he said, ‘I really love playing with you guys’ and indicated that he would like to do some new stuff. Well, he’d never said that directly before. And at that point Big Star really felt like a band.”
One new tune surfaced soon after on 2003’s Big Star Story anthology, a ghastly funk-flavored tune called “Hot Thing” that, in the company of classic pop, stuck out like a lawn jockey in a blue-state neighborhood. But by the spring of ’04 Big Star had its studio mojo back, and by all accounts it was Chilton who kept In Space moving forward as a contemporary recording unencumbered by old ghosts.
“Alex is pretty much into whatever’s happening here and now,” Stringfellow says. “I think he did what, in his mind, he set out to accomplish. Which I assume was to capture the vibe of this current lineup in the studio.”
The personal legacy question, though: Don’t even American presidents ponder it upon entering their second terms?
“It’s funny, the legacy was defined in our first term. So I hope we don’t screw it up in our second!” laughs Stephens. “In some people’s eyes, in a very cult, private way, Big Star means a lot; it’s defined by those first three records. They’ve been living with those three records for thirty years. So how do you introduce [a new record]? It’s like introducing a new puppy to a dog that’s ten years old. It takes a while, you know? The puppy challenges the older dog, the older dog growls and snarls, but sooner or later there’s an appreciation.”
He’s right; a lot of people have made those records a part of their lives for a long time. And the band’s story – as the recent biography’s subtitle so perfectly puts it, “the short life, painful death, and unexpected resurrection of the kings of power pop” – is fascinating. Filmmaker Scott Edmund Lane, of L.A.-based InVision Motion Picture Group, was so taken by the Big Star tale that he optioned Jovanovic’s book for a biopic he hopes to begin shooting next year. “What appeals to me,” says Lane, “are the fable elements – the tragedy and failure and the redemption of the music and the artists. The growth of the legend and the discovery and appreciation of their art many years later. It’s like opening a treasure chest and finding the Rosetta Stone or the Holy Grail.”
And as noted previously, the music continues to gain new converts, a point Jovanovic makes when he says, “The mythology works because the songs are good. The exquisite songwriting merged with those guitars – especially with the first two albums — are what have endured for thirty-plus years.”
Chris Stamey recalls the initial shock of hearing Big Star in ’72 on a local radio station in his hometown of Winston-Salem, N.C. “’When My Baby’s Beside Me’ — it went straight to that ancient part of my brain. I bought one of the promo copies of the album from the DJ and I remember pushing that on everybody – I guess I was trying to put the ‘fanatic’ back in ‘fan’! Then when I got [Radio City] it seemed like another level, just much more chemically active: a more urgent record, and a very unusual sounding record. [With Third] I was used to the notion of ‘progress,’ bands making a leap from record to record and making that leap maybe in five or six months. So it made sense to me — the idea of taking it further and learning more and sharing a discovered vocabulary in the work of other musicians.”
Stamey, who toured and recorded some with Chilton in the late ‘70s before founding the dB’s, likens discovering Big Star all those years ago to the opening of a door, saying, “I remember reading about when the first and second records by The Band came out and how Eric Clapton thought, ‘I’m making a fool of myself. I’m going to cut out the fuzz and everything…’ And I guess I felt the same way at the time. I heard these records and I thought, ‘Whatever I’ve been doing, there is a way to be very direct and honest and American.’ Radio City wasn’t trying to be something it wasn’t. It was Southern American guys like me trying to say something about their lives.”
For his part, Jody Stephens simply expresses satisfaction that for whatever reasons, Big Star touches people. “Music’s always gotta connect with you emotionally,” he says. “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.”
SIDEBAR: JODY STEPHENS ON BIG STAR IN THE ‘70S
FRED MILLS: What got you interested in music?
JODY STEPHENS: Oh, the Beatles! The Ed Sullivan show. There was nothing quite like it: You just wanted to jump out of your skin.
FM: Was it inevitable that four Anglophile musicians would find each other in an R&B-fixated town like Memphis?
JS: Well, I don’t know if it was inevitable. But 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. 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. He and Chris had a band. And Alex [already] knew Chris.
FM: Big Star’s records, of course, eluded a lot of people first time around…
JS: We got a lot of press back in ‘72, ‘73, and the press has always been really good to us. And that’s probably why were back together again, at the end of the day – well, it’s why there’s an audience for us. But nobody could buy the records! Not that a lot of people got turned onto ‘em, but we got letters and phone calls like, “I’m in New York City and I would like to buy your record…” Places you’d think that there would be records.
FM: Was that key in Chris Bell’s decision to leave the band?
JS: Chris, really, if you had to select a creative director for the first record, he would have been it. I know Alex contributed a lot and it was a collaboration, but a lot of it was Chris’ vision. Then we got the reviews and everybody was talking about Alex. So I think Chris was just trying to step out from under the shadow of Alex.
It was a drag to see that come to an end. The material on that first album really meant a lot to me. We rehearsed a lot for that record. I can remember working up “The Ballad Of El Goodo” and just getting a big rush out of it. It’s hard to find people that you really connect with creatively like that, and play songs that inspire you. 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!
FM: And you still were able to keep going as a three-piece to do Radio City.
JS: Well, I think that point did come at the rock writers’ convention. 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. It was 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 what I wanted to play.
FM: Big Star didn’t really tour all that much – did you prefer the studio?
JS: 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. 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.
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.
FM: The third album: Chilton solo project, or a true Big Star record?
JS: 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 played a role in it. So yeah, I consider it a Big Star record. 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.
FM: That’s a good way to put it. Even as unsettling as the third album is, people respond.
JS: 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.
FM: How did you know the band was over?
JS: 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.
SIDEBAR: CHRIS STAMEY ON BIG STAR AND ALEX CHILTON
ON BIG STAR’S LASTING APPEAL:
I think 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. You know, with classical music, Beethoven scribbles down some symphony and it gets played for centuries. Rock music, you know, that doesn’t really happen.
ON THE THREE ORIGINAL BIG STAR ALBUMS:
“When My Baby’s Beside Me” 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. And then I bought one of the promo copies of the album from the DJ. I think I got all the 45s too. I guess I was trying to put the “fanatic” back in “fan” so I wrote Ardent and maybe mailed them a dollar and asked if they could send me any 45s.
I heard these records, and particularly Radio City, and I thought, “Whatever I’ve been doing, there IS a way to be very direct and honest and American.” My impression is that at a certain point Big Star was really trying to emulate the Beatles. But I heard it as, like, “When My Baby’s Beside Me,” as a very American kind of record. Radio City, you know, it seemed like it wasn’t trying to be something it wasn’t. It was Southern American guys like me – not really like me, but I thought at the time – trying to say something about their lives. And they didn’t need to be listening to The Move to get there. When I finally got [Radio City] it definitely seemed like another level. Radio City, you know, it was just much more chemically active: a more urgent record, and a very unusual sounding record, and it seemed like they definitely had something that they needed to say.
[Regarding Sister Lovers/Third] I was used to the notion of “progress.” I was used to bands making a leap from record to record and making that leap maybe in five or six months. So it made sense to me – the idea of taking it further and learning more and sharing a discovered vocabulary in the work of other musicians.
ON MEETING AND WORKING WITH ALEX CHILTON:
First impression? He seemed — very wise! How’s that? [laughs] When I spent a couple of years around Alex in New York we would record and he was very detailed in how to use the gear and how to achieve certain effects – where to put the microphone. It was a masterful use of technology to achieve a definite thing. And you know, we’re also led to understand that Chris Bell was very good at that stuff, too.
My experience with him was like I treated him like a mentor and tried to learn as much as I could, and in the short time I was around him it was great. It was like going to graduate school.
ON CHILTON’S MERCURIAL REPUTATION:
I was talking to somebody about the White Stripes. They were saying it’s hard to promote their record, in a way, because they’re about the only people left, at that level, who don’t whore themselves out and do every possible promo thing, every free concert for radio stations, that you can. And you know, it used to be, being a musician, that wasn’t really part of it. I mean, Alex is not Charlie Parker, but people don’t criticize Charlie Parker for – it’s like the role of selling yourself shouldn’t necessarily be part of the role of creating. And maybe Alex is like the Brian Wilson song: “I Guess I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.”
I think Alex has a hard time singing things that don’t feel real to him. It makes more sense to him to sing “What’s Your Sign” than to sing some of the Big Star songs that maybe don’t speak to him anymore.
[Also] he lived in absolute, abject poverty when he lived in New York. It would be nice to be in a society where, you know, you were able to make your paintings. But it was awful poverty. And it must have seemed really kinda comical to have someone tell [him], “Yeah, you’re great!” You see, there’s a lot of work, a lot of craft, a lot of dedication. And the fact that some of the emotions that were being expressed really strike deep chords, people are very possessive about the artist. You know, you go in and try to make a good record, and then you’ve got a bunch of people who want to tell you how it changed their lives. And if it was me, I would run! But I think the Big Star stuff really got under your skin.