The Glory and Grandeur That Is Defeat
The Music of Alex Chilton
by Michael BakerI. Entrance: On the Slopes of Parnassus
Hold up your head, and don't let your conscience get you down
Hold up your head darlin', don't let your conscience get you down
If you never lie to me, I'll always be around
"Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide," Sonny Boy Williamson
There have been so many mistakes spawned on the banks of the swollen and slow-moving Mississippi near Memphis that any partial litany brings sorrow, if not nausea: slobbering, drugged Elvis, in a white jump, leering at our blue-haired grannies; Cybil Shepard's acting career; Jeff Buckley's leap; Reverend Al Green withering under the weight of smothering, boiling grits. Perhaps the gravest veering from normalcy is the artistic arc of Memphisian singer-songwriter, Alex Chilton, vocalist of the groovy Box Tops, co-founder and leader of the legendary, incandescent Big Star, famed eccentric producer and sideman, and memorable author of thirty years of solo projects that more often than not defy definition, taste, or rationality. His contrary nature, lack of public acclaim, partial solutions to uncertain and ambiguous pop song compositional conundrums, and occurrences of greatness, even genius, make Chilton the most compelling American singer/songwriter of the last thirty-five years. Watching and listening to Alex Chilton traverse, often shakily, the complicated labyrinth of Western pop music is watching ourselves grow uneasily into our own adult skins, beer bellies, STD's, and blackened hearts and all. Stumbling upon Chilton's music for the first time, especially the three Big Star albums, is like watching, heart fluttering, a perfectly awful army advance across a field of May chrysanthemums carrying banners proclaiming the British Invasion, youthful liberty, and the soon-to-be doomed.
Born in Memphis on December 28th, 1950, Chilton, like every musician born in that uglybeautiful town during the post-war years, was given the Stax/Sun/Hi imprint, as if Jackie Wilson, Jerry Lee, and Bill Black were his original whooping crane mothers. His music is as complex and multifariously linked to the past, moreover, as if the body of water more resembled the Thames or the Mersey or the Pacific, than simply the brown god Mississippi. His music, what is more, seeks conflation of shorelines, not imitation, nor a single swatch of a musical landscape. Most of these influences, targets of adulation, and steady rhythms were, to be sure, gleaned from British Pop in its heyday between 1965 and 1969, with lilting flourishes from America's West Coast. Chilton has never been a Memphis musician per se, although the majority of his work has been produced there. And even as he ages, he does embrace more readily and enthusiastically Southern Soul, usually downriver to New Orleans. He often has eased his Memphis origins, all the while living or recording there, after his work with his first group, The Box Tops, like he was a Gatsby.
In fact, similar to that mystery man who pleaded innocence and virginal genesis, Chilton's narrative is murky and muddled. We know the following: he was in the Box Tops for four albums from 1967-1970; he was co-founder, with the tragic Chris Bell (dead at 28) of Big Star, then leader for the last two of the three albums, all recorded between 1971 and 1975; he was associated as a performer with such odd, if minor, greats like Tav Falco, Alan Vega, and Paul Haines; he has produced brilliantly even odder fringes of rock's hierarchy: the Cramps, Gories, and Royal Pendletons; he has, and will apparently continue to do so, release loose, baggy monsters of solo recordings, a dozen or so. There has been regretfully little commercial success; his work, moreover, must be viewed in totality, even if it is an impossible task to connect all the career dots. He is a chameleon, a sponge, a recluse, a belligerent, a revolutionary, a crany artist suffering from Bladerunnerian accelerated decrepitude: by the age of twenty-five he could sing, without contempt or shallow irony: "Please don't say a word/ Get me out of here/ Get me out of here/ I hate it here/ Get me out of here." If there were no enemies, Alex Chilton would feel compelled to invent them.1 And here I am, idiot writer, wanting, needing to be his true friend.
II. Box Tops: White Men Can Jump (and Shout)
It is wrong to think the task of physics is to find out how natureis. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.
Because the Mississippi River at Memphis is philosophically, if not topographically, the mid-point in America's eastern half it has a gallimaufry of influences bearing upon it. Deep soul music of the backwoods and of the juke joints; gospel music of the Southern Baptists, both black and white; mountain music, with its frenetic picking, lonesome wailings, and rhythmic tightness; crazy jug music that would make a logical man break down in his lover's shitty living room; Delta blues, just down the road apiece—America's outstanding contribution to world culture, along with college basketball, gangster films, and Twentieth Century American poetry; urban blues, nearby at the nearest Memphis intersection; New Orleans jazz moving towards Chicago, and Chicago soul moving down towards that evil and pugnacious town. From these hybrid sources and influences, or because of the river's amoral and free flowing and non-judgmental thereness, remarkable music was happening in Memphis, Tennessee in the late 60's, much of it at three studios. Hi Records boasted the remarkable talents of this terrific trio of singers: Al Green, Ann Peebles, and O.V. Wright. Sun Studios—yeah, that studio—claimed Elvis, Jerry Lee, Carl, Johnny, Merle, Conway, Patsy, and Roy. No last names, please. Over at Stax, and nearer Chilton's heart, was a studio that changed America's listening ways as much as any other label: Isaac Hayes, Sam and Dave, Booker T. and the MG's, the Staples, Johnny Taylor, William Bell, and Otis, the greatest of them all. I hear the church and country blues in these recordings; and likewise in the greatest of Chilton's songs I hear these field hollers, with even more electrified nastiness; in all this music, from W.C. Handy to Chilton's latest gig, there are moans of ecstasy, cries for help, grown men and women swearing off sinning, the bottle, the opposite sex, only to go out on Saturday night, chasin' the devil down. But most of all, I hear America singing and swinging: secular, sacred, profane, proper—this is a world celebrating the past and present, hoping for better days, coming from a town, not to mention its citizens, searching for second and third chances.
When listening to blue-eyed soul of the sixties, especially from the latter half, you are faced with formidable, life-altering contrasts on the black side of the street: James Brown, Aretha, Otis, Wilson, Smokey, or David Ruffin, just to name a half dozen obvious stalwarts, objects of understandably fierce and religious devotion by their younger, paler counterparts. One Laura Lee morality play, or one warning about layin' off his woman from James Carr, or one litany of sexual conquests by Clarence Carter, bone-chillingly deep as they were and are, would be enough to tell this whitey, me, to pick up an instrument, or to go home, or certainly to step off the mike. And so often the best white soul singer in town is like the best Hungarian cook in Paris, or the best looking chick in Canton, Ohio—who gives a flyin' Philadelphia? But 16-year old Chilton, front man for the (mostly) studio band, the Box Tops, was one of the select few who could belt, plead, cry, and make our knees weak, our pelvises grind. His voice was rock steady: lower than his natural tones, it held to a center of gravity that caused double takes at dances: That kid just wailed about two-timing broads? The Box Tops' music, often ordinary, often engineered as if fresh air or oxygen would destroy the mix, reached heights of empathy and sorrow simultaneously, at times, thanks to Chilton's confidence, performance, and invocation of a world in need of two more cocktails, please, Mr. Barkeep. Other sterling blue-eyed devils from that era included The Action's Reg King, Righteous Brothers' Bobby Hatfield, Spencer Davis's Stevie Winwood, the Rascals' Felix Cavaliere, and Scott Morgan—Yeah, baby!--from Michigan's the Rationals. But I think Chilton was the most honest, the most singular, and the least slavish. At sixteen, Alex Chilton had the musical world's throat wrapped tightly in his slim and vulgar white fingers.
Two of the songs will live forever on Classic Radio: 1967's "The Letter" and the next year's "Cry Like A Baby;" produced by and overseered by soon-to-be-legends, songwriters Chips Moman and Dan Penn, who had spirited Chilton from the Memphis band, the Devilles. In little longer than two years, and with Chilton increasingly chaffing under these dual Svengalis—the writers picked and wrote the music, designed the charts, ran the studio, instructed the musicians-for-hire—the band managed to also release odd mixes of trippy Southern good time music: "Neon Rainbow," "Happy Times," and the amazing "Soul Deep." Chilton's voice is strong, low, and purposeful, a teenager feeling, then feeding upon his oats, securing his chops more assuredly with each passing 2:34 composition, a wunderkind cantor aware of sorrow and eternal torture, a veteran participant of the "Sweet Cream Ladies Forward March." Often his raw vocals are simultaneously sandpapery and honied; always there's pathos, pain, and always, for the listener, there's fascination. The material cooks, even if the recording levels bury the rhythm section, or the session cats are simply clocking in. But oddities abound: covers of "Wang Dang Doodle," "Flying Saucers Rock n Roll," Eddie Floyd's monster "Bird Bird," and the Gentry's "Keep on Dancing." Even though reports vary as to whether there was even a band not in name only, the latter song was covered because the Box Tops purported guitarist, Gary Talley, came from there. But the magic, asides from hits or misses on the four albums, centers around Chilton: not blue-eyed nor giddy, as befitting of those heady days of Aquarius, he and his voice sound illegal, intoxicated, away from the music, talking to itself and singing for itself, with frayed and failing emotions. His singing here, gruff, world weary, would emerge dominant in his later work, when there was no pretense of disappointment or failed expectations.
These moments of discord were to blossom brightly for the rest of his career. Chilton, a reformed drinker and drug taker, was in the '70's and beyond often described as dipsomaniacal and semi-deranged; we know with whatever certainty that he has always been unhealthily victimized by Don Juanism, astrological "philosophizing," and feisty standoffishness. Infantile behavior, in adults, is marked by lack of stability, by peacock preening, by temper tantrums. We have to play their way, or they take the recording studio back home, sulking and stewing with liquor and paranoia. Infants do not like to take orders (Box Tops), share credit (Big Star), or follow orders (solo recordings); they are arrogant and willful, performing "Volare," or deliberately mistuning guitars. They hold grudges. For centuries. Children live for the moment; they cannot sustain relationships or plans; dialogue is out of the question, as is reflection; spontaneous and active, child-like adults who live in the ahistorical moment do not appreciate advice, sage or otherwise; they do not tolerate rules, nor suffer fools; their sandbox is permanently demarcated territorially. But in this case the children's garden has been the fertile source for Chilton's unyielding faith in his voice and his message. For a musician who has taken heat for years for following others, or for influencing so many, Chilton is rather so iconoclastic, both in songwriting and guitar playing, that he more properly should be defined as captain of his own ships, waving—goodbye or hello-- during their sinking, as admirals invariably do, or must.
In the early years of the 1970's the pop music world was unsteady. Not quite yet discofied, or incorporated fully by AOR MOR, or almost single-handedly destroyed by either Frey or Frampton, the scene could, moreover, take no solace from the front pages. Protest was inert; experiments were flushed down toilets. In a short span, Kent State, Watergate, the failure of King's vision, and my wife's entering into kindergarten all spelled some sort of tragedy for truth and expression and personal liberty. Even sadder, the Partridge Family replaced the Manson Family in our fragmented minds. On the radio it was much worse: what was certifiable was that the heyday of the now dilapidated, almost anachronistic, dinosaurs of classic rock from the halcyon days of experimentation and vigor and pants stuffed with erections was over, shards of skeletal remains flung upon the seedy shores of commercialism, littered with artists guilty of lack of foresight, minute-by-minute greed, and drug-taking excesses. The prodigious power of these life-altering behemoths was fading, from death, desertion into timidity or monasteries, break-ups or breakdowns, and apathy. The bands—anyone out there remember the Stones, the Kinks, Dylan, the Beatles, Zeppelin, the Velvets, Beefheart, the Temptations, the Who, the Beach Boys, the Byrds, the Move, or the Band?—were no longer that what taught people how to walk and talk and fuck. Thank Jesus—the older one, not Mel Gibson's—there were solo artists with wondrous, idiosyncratic, soulful voices to be sure, most of them in the midst of their waxing and storied careers: Van Morrison, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Richard Thompson, Curtis Mayfield, Rod Stewart, Neil Young, Gene Clark, and Gram Parsons. Chilton belongs here, of course, near or at the top, and they all wrote and performed intense arty pop songs of adamantine beauty, retro sheen, with exploratory vignettes of intrepid selves diving into wrecks. These singer/songwriters, and their brilliant, brittle arrangements and playing, often carried back to a pre-Sgt Peppers of emotional honesty and stripped-down instrumentation. The songs were slashing, oblique, buoyant, and indefatigable. Big Star was all this, but also a working band, and the only other band of the new order to match them in originality, chops, songwriting, and rule breaking was the German experimentalists, Can, or maybe Pere Ubu- bands, if you can imagine, who sold even fewer records than Big Star here in America. All three bands, although with admittedly different artistic intentions and musical histories, changed the insides of their songs, tearing out banal clichés of cemented structures and replacing them with bent psychedelic twistings, minimalist bass lines, mesmerizing and stunning drumming, creating new ambiances of narcotic power rock and roll. Big Star was the best band, however, to emerge from the Stone Age. They are my Bo Diddly, my Ezra Pound, my soul's salvation. As Schoenberg wrote to Mahler after hearing the latter's Third: "I saw your very soul naked, stark naked….I suffered the pangs of disillusionment; I saw a man in torment struggling towards inward harmony... Forgive me, I cannot feel in halves."
III. Big Star: Feeling in Wholes
The time has passed for our sensations in painting to be whispered. We wish them in future to sing and re-echo upon our canvas in deafening and triumphant flourishes. Your eyes, accustomed to semidarkness, will soon open to more radiant visions of light. The shadows which we shall paint shall be more luminous than the highlights of our predecessors...
F.T. Martinetti, "Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto"
After walking out on the Box Tops and after hanging out in New York, cutting an album's worth of discombobulated, spastic jams, later to re-surface as 1970, Chilton returned to Memphis, to home, to our real story, and to everlasting greatness. Before joining a trio called once Rock City, then Ice Water, he had been experimenting up North with folk song structures, but more significantly, possibly, was his closeness to soul mate and fellow prankster, and future esteemed engineer, Terry Manning, whose involvement with the demos helped to persuade the Beach Boys to possibly release them, because of Chilton's respect for Brian Wilson. Luckily for our novella here they passed. By the time Manning and Chilton got home to Memphis, Manning had two significant mixing/engineer gigs at Ardent Studio: the Bar-Kays, a sound certainly found on the Big Star's up-tempo rockers, and the knockout Led Zeppelin III, with its pastoral poignancy and supersonic snare drumming sound. Particular interest are both the ballad, "That's the Way," which without the mandolin would have fit nicely into Big Star's aims, and the power psychedelic of some of the cuts, echoing T. Rex, another huge influence upon Chilton. His joining of Ice Water—renamed Big Star after a neighborhood supermarket-- teamed him with three extraordinary musicians, all of who were old friends, all of who in their early twenties could bang their axes with ecstatic and communicable faith, all of who loved British rock, Memphis soul, and good times. Put together, fellow songwriter and sad-eyed Chris Bell on guitar and vocals, Andy Hummel on bass, Jody Stephens on drums, with Chilton on guitar and vocals, smashed together in the early fall of 1973 a recklessly aggressive, exuberantly brilliant album--#1 Record--that is the greatest power pop album since Revolver, the fourth greatest rock debut (Jimi, Velvets, Television), and the album that has haunted my waking moments for thirty years.2
The earlier Rock City recordings—Thomas Dean Eubanks on bass and lead vocals, Manning on keys, Stephens on drums, and Bell on guitars, background vocals, and occasional lead vocals—are not some primitive or foundational or nascent Big Star. They show that if Chilton is the guts and desires of Big Star, Bell was the architect, the heart and the teacher. Chilton's school bully playing with the teacher's pet, in a saber-rattling contest of border crossings between the past and the creative present. Bell's guitar on Rock City slices through the heavy, swirling density; no weepy George Harrison solos here: it's Badfinger on steroids. Eubanks' songwriting and singing, especially for "Think It's Time To Say Goodbye" and "I Lost Your Love" and "The Answer," are mature, tender, percussive, and soaring. Think Moby Grape, or Beau Brummels, or Emmit Rhodes, with McGuinn and Dave Davies playing lead guitars. Imagine a ballsier and blusier Big Star, but lacking both Chilton's tightness of composition and Hummel's rounded, expert bass notes. Some of the songs get washed cover by hazy hippy yearnings, with "experimental" time shifts, sweeping keyboards. Against this prog folk/rock excess--don't Bogart that joint, Terry!--the recordings sometimes remind me of a bad Moby Grape live gig, or a first-rate Love cover band. But when clicking, this is one if the best bands in America during the late 1960's. Two future Big Star songs, "My Life Is Right" and the Chilton-Bell masterpiece "Try Again," are stunners, with the second featuring Alex fresh from his Manning/1970 work. These are Bell's first recorded vocals and, as with John Fry's genius engineering here at his own Ardent Studios, there is nothing tentative, nothing shallow. If Alex Chilton had moved to Russia after the Box Tops and committed a life's work to a new Trans Siberian Railway, Rock City and their hypothetical future recordings, not Big Star, would be making Paul Westerberg both wet and jealous. As it is, Eubanks moved to the periphery, Manning went to the booth, Chilton pushed his way in, and with those two songs and Bell's "Feel," Big Star decided to change history.
It is safe to say that without the first Big Star record, the following bands and soloists would have had drastically different, if not also inferior, careers: Teenage Fanclub; The Posies; Marshall Crenshaw; dB's; Tommy Keene; Richard Heyman; Weezer; Replacements; Spongetones; Dramarama; Sloan; and Shazam, just to list a few of the hundreds.3 And the record crackles with wit, electricity, three-minute overtures to teenage lust, kids sitting on top of the world, with the careening, celebratory excess of soiled t-shirts not large enough to hold in the ripples. It is a masterpiece. The band screams with cocksure reductionism: "Don't need to talk to my doctor/ Don't need to talk to my shrink/ Don't need to hide behind no locked doors/ I don't need to think/ 'Cause when my baby's beside me, I don't worry." And nothing before this album, not the soulful Box Tops, or the wild NYC sides, could explain the quantum leap into greatness found in Chilton's voice, guitar, songwriting, and confident, sneering swagger. Except, maybe, for Chris Bell's active imagination.4
Most atoms and molecules are electrically neutral in their normal states; however, when there is a large range of new sources available, these atoms and molecules become unstable, and then acquire an electrical charge. Bell's sweetness and tenderness (he co-wrote 10 of the 12 songs with Chilton) when coupled with the enigmatic, deep-bottomed restlessness of his partner enacted a process similar to ionization. In other words, they needed each other, fed off the contrasts, and reveled in their simultaneous pursuit of perfection, as if complimentary, not supplementary, was the prevailing ethos. It is not that prior to this a team of rock musicians, whether working together or in proximity, did not synergistically potentiate with the odd coupling of the sweet, ramshackle, plaintive side with a grittier, bluesier angsty persona; simply look at: Lennon/McCartney; McGuinn/Clark; Lane/Stewart; Cale/Reed; the Davies brothers; Ham/Evans; Mick and Keith; Robertson/Manuel. Big Star's contribution—because they came later and revered at least the pop side of those binomial equations—was the intensity of the interweaving; their creations of accessible allegros of spirit chant like a drunken choir of ascending angels.
Neither Bell nor Chilton can be credited with the power pop revival; as with punk rock and its murky antecedents, the revival—Raspberries, Badfinger, McCartney's solos, stirrings in and around L.A.--of power pop certainly was filling a post-White Album void; to these strands Big Star dragged into the mix, however, such oddities as Texas garage, the baroque fragility of the Left Banke, and Southern Cal coolness. Bell and Chilton, furthermore, may be credited with the evolution of a power pop language appropriate to a Byrds/Beatles matrix now gone forever. The boys did not build the first skyscraper, but the facades of their overreaching songs are better articulated than the others. The recesses blend better with the excesses, and the origins of the tunes are now organically terminated, without a second to spare. Big Star gave us both the expressive syntax of a new era, but also the outline of a precise geometry. And they become free in their mathematical grid, like Isaac Newton discovering calculus.
I see these Big Star songs as structures, and not flimsy artifacts that will easily blow away or leave our minds: I see pitched roofs and recessed colonnades, providing sturdy exterior protection. These layered external constructs contrarily mirror the insides: simple staircases of elegance; two stories of functionality, with bright, clean fenestration. In these masterworks it is obvious that both men heavily influence each other, Bell the planner, Chilton the builder. The sequence of songs on the first Big Star record are calculated, it seems to me, not to elevate one singer/songwriter over the other, but to allow the single projects to invent in their own articulated spaces, without didacticism or jealousy. The songs are plastic and sturdy, Southern vernacular and universal, contemporary and nostalgic. They resemble civilization.
In a favorite game for critics, Chiltonions, or solitary-for-good-reason geekers walking around with shit stains in their drawers, individual Big Star songs are backwardly traced to potential sources, as if, by the way, most pop songs don't share similar lyrical themes, chords, length, bridges, and harmonies. Suffice to say, without being Linnaeus or a member of some suicidal rotisserie league trading obscure 60's Danish b-sides for bootlegs of live Apples in Stereo, I venture that the first Big Star feeds off Rubber Soul's alternative slow/fast order, the Kink's love of dissonant dynamics, the happy-to-be blonde harmonies of the touched Wilson clan, and the quirky fifths, glissandos, and pummeling drumming of the Small Faces—power popster Richard X. Heyman told me he initially noticed the shared battering ram glee in the two bands, and that and the near falsettos, the quickening to the exposition, and the unity of the individual songs makes me think this is true. Lately I hear The Who Sell Out more often, if not in style, than at least in brashness and production. If I may betray my idiot roots for a moment, instead of direct links to bands, it is better to think of these shimmering, iridescent expressions as not caught in a web of paralyzing Oedipal struggles with Prince John or King Paul or Lord Ray, nor Harold Bloomian struggles forming serious paralysis or trembling because of anxieties of influence, but rather playgrounds of healthy influences, expanded and contracted, hinted at or directly stolen. These are goddamn kids, after all, not Alan Lomax or Harry Smith or Brown graduate students. Thank God.
Hey! Wait just a minute! What the fuck is power pop? Two guitars help, snarling and whippet fast; a rhythm section of strong armed mutes, not afraid to glower at fans, grinding it out like the Move, on the snap, crackle, pop of every 4/4 beat. "Catchy, short melodic songs" sounds like a description of Pepsi commercials. How about: hooks big enough for Aretha Franklin to hang her bras upon. No? Try: driving riffs, both Byrdsy jingle jangle and "Taxman" spikiness. The major tone is required, emphasizing odes to joy and college girls from University of Nebraska. Speed is not that important; more of a stately quickening is preferred, with swirling dynamics, head-pounding chords on bridges, guitar solos walking above the gaping circus crowd, background voices complexly filling in between the twin maestros on lead guitar. Deathtrap desires should be bemoaned immediately—no time for reflection, regret, or perspicuity. Cleanness of production, single-minded pursuit of melody, and love-sick tenors wailing about last night's loves are germane here. In fact, smiling wouldn't kill any of you out there, from time to time, unless you are a glum Albanian or nasty German. Moreover, the librettos are mid-period Beach Boys, without the sun glare. The songs are sweet, simple, and short, played as if those are the most important chords and notes ever played or dreamt of, and that that final cymbal crash will be the last heard on this god damned good green earth. Add a Townsendian punch in the stomach, some glee from "Ticket to Ride," and a singer, in spite of absence, who does not celebrate loss, sickness, or depravity, but cries, "Ready for another?" Power pop music is ebullient, trippy, dense, assertive, and ringing with clarion severity: it is the anthem about hopeful eternity in the arms of a leggy teen brunette.
In fact, if Bell is the design behind Big Star, and Chilton the vehicle, then British Pop is the fuel of this secular and corrosive and tender machine/band. As Proust, noted partier and poof, wrote, "The question is not for Hamlet, to be or not to be, but to belong or not to belong." And belong they did: Bell to the Beatles and their Black and White worlds of action verbs, and Chilton to the Kinks and Who, and their Black and Black worlds of ambiguous nouns. Not yet bored with clichés, Chilton was censorious of any music divorced from the soundscape of the late '60's.5 The fundamental tenets included furious and frenetic drumming, filling out the shocking silences, as on the Who's "Call Me Lightning" or their "I'm Free," the acoustic/electric dueling, with jagged, stinging guitar work, bent, but not bluesy, as on the Kinks' "Lola" and "A Long Way From Home," the jerking, robotic minimalism of T. Rex; ragged and boisterous background singing, as on the Kinks of the early '70's; the thundering tom toms of "I Can See For Miles," the tenderness of standard folk/rock structures made quicker and harder by slamming acoustic riffs: the Who's "Tattoo," "Sunrise," the Kinks' "Apeman," and "Get Back in Line." And although the songs detail the dailiness and deadliness of life, and rarely afford penetrating observations, the music itself, through the steady aggregation of galvanizing influences, becomes rapturous excitations; the self discipline needed to balance these emotions is found in the susceptibilities and vulnerabilities of Chilton's tenuous grasp of his world. He is never this cocky again. The second album, as Chilton begins to stalk himself for the first time, seeks treaties with the Brits and then opposes their influences. The lingering connections to the past are there, of course, but the hues and shapes are darker, and faith in the power of the invasion has waned. That record celebrates poker players and rapscallions, not slaves nor sycophants.
Before I get to the music—have you bought the albums yet, you lazy sods?--and completely lose my audience, a troubling aspect of Big Star's career is not Bell's departure after the first, nor Hummel's after the second, nor the drunken psychodramas on the third album, but rather how in a short span Chilton could embrace distinct, particularized worlds and various emotional, compositional, and sonic tonalities, without going crazy, or sacrificing value. The full blush of youthful glee of the first and its outrageous harmonies, turn to a more fierce hectoring tone on the second, Radio City: strident songs of spiky colorings, and then become abject resignation on the third, variously called Sister Lovers/Thirds, a harrowing maelstrom of self pity, perplexing torpor, bitterness, musically countermanded by banshee pyrotechnics and sloppy DIY awkwardness, often weirdly on the same song. In a few years, the clamoring heavenly harmonies of the first become shadowy, echoic laments, songs that canonize solitude and disrepair on the third, with a title replete with vague suggestions of both incestual darkness, and sloppy late sexual thirds. Freud's tripartite topography of the mind begins as does the first album: an Id that seeks instant gratification, primitive forces ruled by the pleasure principle, with no parental intervention, no sibling rivalry, no sense of loss. This promise of youth needs no guidance: girls are always around; cars are always faster than your friends' cars; gins and tonics are eternally served in India. And if the urge is not immediately discharged, you can move to the next 3-minute vignette of your life, with a god silently sitting in the engineer's chair, cleaning out his toe jam. In this world, desires do get sated, often. The id is voracious, without self-reference or self-cognition. Who cares about libraries? Driving home in a convertible with your tape deck on, you know a lactating tit is always lurking under mommy's sheets.
The opening sounds on the first album are tentative, murky, as if the deadhead clichés of the early 1970's have to be swept away; on "Feel," the band employs blunt attackings, Badfinger-like tirades against loping, intimate songwriting. Some Memphis Horns help sustain the suspense, getting the groove on; the ringing guitar at the end is a prettified rave-up; and the singing is celebratory and worrying, minatory and tense. The guitars here, and elsewhere, are in the foreground, a note beyond the thundering pulse of the great bass/drum duo of Hummel and Stephens; their syllables are smashed, disrupting the mood of the beautiful harmonizing of the singing. In fact, even if the conventional structure of the songs is based on audience expectations of Top 40 Radio, the stability of the rhythm is often askew, the singing more often than not careens from identifiable dance rhythms, as in an ostinato, to the wild guitar major-minor pitch variations. But this is music you can dance to, and unlike the mutinous, aphoristic melodies of the third album, this music, even in the gorgeous ballads, are mobile and dynamic building blocks of the future of American rock and roll. Although bent by the British Invasion, and although fertile because of the two songwriters' disparate preoccupations, the music on the first is not bound to history, nor buried in the present. It is music of the now—rock, steady, go. Chilton's singing is tender, fragile, and heartbreakingly economic and swinging. There is a loose-jointed, comfortable sway here: if the songs lack occasional elegance and polish, they make up for it with verve, both soothing and harrowing.
The guitar of Chilton snakes through this bright world, grimacing like a potential arsonist around the corner. It rings high, it muddies from beneath. The melodic flow is interrupted by his outlandish string work: the solos are often sectionalized, segmented. He wants to get to the point, and he is haply trapped in the sub-three minute mile of pop song length; and sometimes the flash and dash becomes startlingly bold, eviscerating the form itself. He always swings madly, like a lovesick Quasimodo. The ambience becomes jagged, immodest mumblings of ordinary stories, told by twitchy novitiates. The heat is on high, but the effect is calmly affirmative—what were rational song structures become tiny vistas for boys in blue jeans, drinking, stealing cars, living lives of "lonely days of uncertainty." To God, Bell pleads in his song, "Try Again," "Lord, I've been trying to be what I should/ Lord, I've been trying to do what I could," but Memphis is dying, and God moved north right after Sherman's March. Chilton's singing and guitar disown revival-style public utterances: each high note captured in voice, each quirky pop detour from a Harrison-like solo, are journeys that disembark soon enough in the middle of the night, seeking the present, and there, id-like, Chilton thumps his chest. These are dramatic monologues that are of bottom-feeding natures trying to get laid, and Chilton's guitar, curvy and oblong, tries to get to the next mattress. We cannot ascend to Chilton's vision: by accepting the singular loveliness of the songs, we are rejecting the possibility of our joined trip. The music is plain about this: this is our gig, and watch us work.
If the guitar lines are chiseled and angular, like Monk, and if the singing is full-throated and carefree, and if the five or so rockers that pierce our spines changed the way intensity could alter convention in bands like Cheap Trick and the Pixies, the ballads on the first album provide meditational counterpoints to the accelerated pulsations of the fury and fire. We are quieter now, gazing upon the dreamy world of heartache, unrequited love, and long distance runarounds. The messier overlapping of the twin guitars is gone; the vocals are mixed down to merge with the standard folk/rock arrangements of the Mersey or L.A. Love/Byrds scene. But the visceral impact remains. The delicate arrogance of the scorchers ("Feel," "Don't Lie to Me," "When My Baby's Besides Me," "My Life is Right") is asymmetrically argued against the ballads and the mid-tempo blends of the two camps; the casual noise is replaced with soaring sadness, alienated landscapes, and bittersweet, narrowing melodies. In the faster songs, Bell and Chilton generate expectations based on pop music's historical-culture climate: they confirm the Kinks and the Beatles; they modify the Kinks and the Beatles; they delay, then deny the Kinks and the Beatles. But in this slavish environ of the power pop, expression and emotions are fettered. The releasing unleashing comes from the ballads—the tenderness of Bell, his cracking beauty of his nervy voice; the gruffness of the world-weary, lower-registered Chilton, already once a rock "star"—where the band moves beyond the past without repudiating it in the name of the rejection of silence and monologues. They are radicals, and they are the oppressed; they reach back to yesterday, recognize today, and sneak upon tomorrow. These boys, on this album, reach for their mothers' and girlfriends' hands, and say no to their sweaty, broken-backed fathers.
What is mostly true of rock's lingua franca is an ahistoricism, or inability to emerge from present time, but the challenge of history is confronted, engaged, and resolved, here by Bell and Chilton, mostly, I think, by our hero, as a chance to forge a new epoch. He argues with the past, then walks away wiser. The slower songs—the lush ballads, "The Ballad of El Goodo" and "Thirteen"—and the triptych of driving folk-rock mindblowers near the end ("Give Me Another Chance," "Try Again" and Watch the Sunrise") are characterized by a youthful series of aspirations, values, and concerns in search of fulfillment. The songs, without pity, without melancholic cliché, seek the generative power of depth and connections, with a respect for musical communities. The subjects of the songs are no longer objects: "Sun, it shines on all of us/ We are one in its hands/ Come Inside and light my room." "I've been looking for to find/ Something to believe in my mind/ And it was you." Change, the collapse of darkness, and solitude are no longer piercing: harmonies abound, light and sunrise and faith are present. These mid-tempo ballads can be traced from a variety of sources-- although as mentioned, they seem new, polished, almost born perfectly perfected—such as Lennon's "You've Got To Hide This Love Away" married to Gene Clark's "Set You Free This Time" on the Byrds' Turn! Turn! Turn! In turn they then give bastard birth to the Love's "Andmoreagain." Bell's and Chilton's work here is true collaboration, involving engagement on the same tasks, correcting to one another, swapping ideas, exerting combined force. Their collaboration, therefore, involves both unity and critiquing conflict. And if the second half of that ratio caused Bell to leave for presumed poppier fields and more control, here on #1 Record it gave us joy, fluidity, with the moving of planets, and life and birth.
The greatest song, because it is Chilton's greatest singing, because of the interplay of acoustic and electric, and because of the affirmation of love and life--pass the Kleenex, dear cousin Matilda--is the eighth of twelve tracks, "Give Me Another Chance." It is probably the least imaginative song in terms of studio technology or virtuoso musicianship, but those are plusses, as is Bell's obvious delight in the role of second banana: his background singing, his steady strumming on the acoustic, are what gives the song its fragile beauty, and secondly, its steady heartbeat. There have been thoughts and sounds like these countless times before, but not becoming full-blown meaning like here: what were teenage kicks and action for action's sake are now contemplation and repose, a Narcissus staring at the pool, a Sufi walking around with a damaged flower. The Id has become a creator, the Ego, a constantly composing and re-composing and de-composing agent in the world, generating truth though rhythm, compositional rigor, and style.6 The song moves us.
The album, recorded at Ardent with Chris Bell handling primarily the producing, was released on Ardent in 1972 who in turn hired the immortal, but dying, Stax label to distribute; they didn't, and Bell left around Christmas, soon for Europe, misery, the I Am the Cosmos recordings, and tragedy. Bell and Chilton came in as a quartet, knocked a few songs together, and Bell left, leaving traces of his songwriting on at least three songs. The others stayed together, sort of, played a few dates, sort of, and then re-convened during the following fall to record in short order one of rock and roll's masterpieces, Radio City, an amalgamation of bristly and brittly defiance, monster, mature guitar riffs canceling each other out with even greater imagination and intensity, and some of rock's finest vocals. Without Bell's placating tendencies or a bat in hell's chance of rock stardom, Chilton changed rock and roll.
See part two of the Alex Chilton article
Also see our other Big Star articles:
Jody Stephens interview
Andy Hummel interview
Chris Bell tribute
Big Star 2019 reissues
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