Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Dead Rocker Returns to Underground Roots

Actually, Alex Chilton never really made it above the underground. He was the co-leader of Big Star, the Velvet Underground of the 1970s, after all. So I guess it’s fitting his corpse becomes a permanent fixture of the underground (or maybe Al was cremated — which means this stupid little thing I’m writing might be a tad inaccurate). Since I’m a little late to the funeral on this one (Alex's heart quit beating on March 17; he was 59), I won’t belabor the greatness of the Alex Chilton, solo artist and singer, songwriter and guitarist of Big Star, a band that stands as the second or third most overrated underrated band in history (after the Velvet Underground, of course).

I wrote the following Big Star puff piece for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer almost 10 years ago. Alex said it was one of the best stories he ever read about his band. No joke. OK, you got me; Alex never read it.

Big Star a little band that shined brightly, briefly
Friday, December 22, 2000

By Joe Ehrbar
Special to the P-I

VH1 couldn’t have scripted a better story.

In the era of the sensational “Behind the Music” rockudrama, the legend of Big Star would make great TV. The Memphis band of four gifted, visionary musicians—guitarist/vocalist Alex Chilton (more famously of the Box Tops—“The Letter”), guitarist/vocalist Chris Bell, drummer Jody Stephens and bassist Andy Hummel—conspired to make a trio of brilliant albums in the early ’70s, but were derailed by bad luck, bad habits and bad timing.

Yet the chances of VH1 telling Big Star’s tragic tale are slim, since no film or video footage of the band exists. Just a handful of photos and the band's recordings are all the artifacts remaining of its brief career (1971–75). Not to mention the group had no radio hits, sold hardly any records and was largely unknown outside Memphis.

It’s been said of the Velvet Underground that the few people who bought its records during the band's lifetime either formed a band of their own or became a rock critic. The same thing can be said about Big Star. Its influence, although insubstantial in the annals of pop music, has revealed itself in the music of others. Artists such as the Posies, Jeff Buckley, R.E.M., the Bangles, the dBs, the Replacements and Elliott Smith have all seen Big Star's light and been forever changed.

“Hearing that music the first time, it really felt like a better executed version of what [the Posies] were trying to do, with possibilities explored that we hadn’t even come close to imagining,” said Posies guitarist/vocalist Ken Stringfellow in a recent e-mail conversation from Australia, where he and Posies co-founder Jon Auer were touring. “Big Star definitely opened up some doors in our heads.”

Later, it also opened the door for Stringfellow and Auer to join Chilton and Stephens in a reincarnated version of Big Star for a reunion appearance at the University of Missouri in Columbia in 1993 (released on CD as Columbia: Live at Missouri University). The two have since remained onboard for subsequent reunions, including this year’s Bumbershoot concert and tomorrow’s much-anticipated Big Star appearance at The Showbox (9 p.m.; $20 at Ticketmaster).

Big Star recorded just three albums during its principal run: the ironically titled #1 Record, Radio City and Sister Lovers (alternately known as Third). In that tiny window the band conceived a glorious sound, music that was as fragile as it was formidable, as forlorn as it was joyous, as raucous as it was melodic. It was power pop the likes of which no one had ever heard.

Like the Beatles, this fab four dared to take rock 'n' roll down new artistic avenues. But in a region that was all Skynyrd and Allman Brothers, Big Star fell on deaf ears. It didn’t help that the band was signed to Stax Records, an imprint famous for its output of soul music (Isaac Hayes, Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Booker T. & the MGs, etc.), not rock ’n’ roll.

Making matters worse for the band was the strain of inter-band turmoil and personal demons. Bell and Chilton had engaged in a battle of the egos during and after the recording of #1 Record. Bell, struggling with drugs and depression, quit the band and died a few years later in a car crash. Chilton, meanwhile, forged his own path of self-destruction and debauchery, which he parlayed into a wrenching, if superb, record titled Sister Lovers, an album every bit as poignant as Nick Drake’s Pink Moon and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.

Despite going boldly where few bands had gone before, Big Star collapsed (though the end was more like a prolonged dimming than a supernova). Hummel quit after Radio City and dropped out of musical together. Stephens remained until the bitter end, before pursuing work as a studio engineer. And Chilton went his own erratic way with a prolific, if elusive, solo career.

In the 1980s, the band’s music was unearthed by musicians and rock journalists. The Bangles recorded “September Gurls.” R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Chris Mills were singing the Big Stars praises in the press, as were the dBs’ Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple. The Replacements put a song called “Alex Chilton” on 1987’s Please to Meet Me. And then the Posies happened across Big Star’s albums.

“In 1989 Jon was working in a record store in Seattle [and] discovered a vinyl copy of Radio City ... so he checked it out. At the same time, Rick Roberts and Mike Musburger, our bass player and drummer at the time, were turned on to #1 Record by their co-workers at another record store,” Stringfellow explained. “If only I had worked at a record store then, I could have been turned on to Sister Lovers.”

Not surprisingly, the sublime cascading Chilton/Bell harmonies were assimilated into the Posies’ punchy power-pop, becoming one of its vital signatures.

Big Star may never gain wider recognition, but its extraordinary work continues to influence modern music. “Big Star aren’t important to everyone, and never will be,” Stringfellow said by way of summary. “But anyone who hears them really holds them close to their hearts. What I love about the records is the heartbreaking aspect ... the emotions expressed are really affecting. Listen to almost any multiplatinum record of today, and try to tell me what the performer is feeling—or if they are feeling.”

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