Decided to forgo SXSW this year to save some $$$ and avoid that all around madhouse for a change. Turns out Alex Chilton couldn't make it either. He died of a heart attack Wednesday at 59, and was scheduled to play the fest Saturday night. According to WFMU's Brian Turner, Big Star played anyway -- well kind of -- with original bassist Andy Hummell, Auer/Stringfellow/Stephens (the remainder of Big Star's current lineup), John Doe, Chris Stamey, Evan Dando, Curt Kirkwood and others. Sorry I missed it.
When people ask me, as they still do time to time, "Just who the heck is your favorite band anyway?" 90% of the time I say, "Big Star, of course." I'm not going to go all into specifics as to why that is. It's all in the music, three remarkable albums released from 1971-'75 for Memphis's Ardent Records: #1 Record, Radio City and Third/Sister Lovers that capture so many conflicting emotions, sounds, styles and images of an era that's special for so many reasons, and not just because I was born right in the middle of it all in 1973. Music simply sounded better before the encroachment of the digital age. Let's just leave it at that, but I like a lot of the digital shit too.
"Nighttime," "For You," "Big Black Car," "Blue Moon," "The Ballad of El Goodo," "September Gurls," "Thirteen," "Watch the Sunrise," "I'm in Love With a Girl," "Way Out West," "What's Going Ahn," "Mod Lang," "Holocaust" and, of course, "Kangaroo" (to name just a few) define pop excellence that rivals and arguably surpasses heavy hitters like The Kinks, The Byrds, CSNY, Buffalo Springfield and The Who on some deeper, more achingly existential level. I may be a little biased, but I'd waver that less than ten bands in the rock world actually have a Sister Lovers in 'em. The Velvet Underground's self titled comes to mind. So does Chris Bell's I Am the Cosmos and maybe Tim Buckley's Starsailor. Very few others.
(A vintage clip, featuring Alex and Chris, from the #1 Record sessions)
Rhino released a new Big Star 4CD box-set recently, Keep an Eye on the Sky, which consists mostly of early alternate takes and live material from the '70s era, but I've only just started digging into that stuff. Then there's Chilton's work as a teenager with soul garage teen idols The Boxtops, and his later more discordant solo work of damaged post-punk abandon. The Big Star story could probably be converted into its own HBO miniseries, complete with all the layered revelations, unexpected reversals and ironic ambiguities that make something like The Wire so profound. It can be heard in a song, such as Chris Bell's "You and Your Sister" on which Alex lends a harmony vocal long after the two had had their own version of the typical rock band falling out. It's the kind of healing that has to be sung instead of spoken. And for me that's what the music of Big Star is really about -- poems of hope sung in the darkest hour, just before the crack of dawn when the night is chased back into the dusty corner where it belongs. It's questionable whether Chilton or Bell ever really made it through to that bright morning, but then that's the point. It's not about getting there. It's about going as far as you can as long as you can, and maybe feeling a little love along the way.
Here's a recollection from an email of a Big Star/Posies concert I was lucky enough to attend on New Year's Eve Y2K in New Orleans just over ten years ago now. Jesus, where do da time go, mah peoples?
I saw Big Star play the Y2K New Years Eve show w/The Posies at the Howling Wolf in NO and for some reason it felt like a golden moment. My friends and I had rolled into New Orleans a few hours before and made the mistake of hitting up Pat O'Briens for a Hurricane or two. During most of Posies set we were irredeemably sloshed. I was afraid of this too, shooting our collective wad to soon so to speak. My friends actually dared to suggest an early retreat before Big Star even took the stage. How dare they! Ever the rocker soldier than I was (and still am), I insisted that if they could just hold on a little longer, that the band would start and the resultant power of the music and those classic melodies would revive the spirits of all in attendance (and kick in the endorphins too) and all would be well. And all was well.
After the Posies agreeable, low-key all acoustic set, it was time for the main event. As I said before this night felt special. One night you see a band firing on all cylinders/not missing a beat, the next you see a bunch'a pissy crybabies throwing things and blaming the sound man. But more than that it felt like seeing a boxer or old cowboy who'd come to terms with an affliction and slowly wrestled his way back to a place of contentment and even temporary nirvana. They were well rehearsed yet loose, exploding like it was 1972 all over again -- Jody's drums as crisp and metronomic as in the old days, Alex's guitar reverberating out across the packed house and filling the room like a chorus of church bells. He was all smiles too. He drank a toast from the stage at midnight and then broke into an appropriately stumbling version of "Auld Lyne Sang." Probably played close to 2 hours, nothing but hit after hit -- pow! pow! pow! Hadn't seen such a consistently enjoyable pop type set since Nirvana in late 1993, and let's just say Chilton looked like he was having a lot more fun that night than poor ol' Kurdt did back in '93. I've seen Big Star since and it was, dare I say, one of those sloppier, phoned in kind'a gigs. The kind of gig that has to get worked into the mix every once in a while so that the good ones burn so brightly. But that night, amid all the paranoia of impending doom and so forth revolving around Y2K (what a joke that was, right?), it was the stuff of rock 'n' roll dreams and a genuine life saver. So thanks Alex, Jody and the Posies for one of the best shows and most memorable nights of my life, and a lot of great music besides.
From Boing Boing, via Moistworks:
Ben Greenman remembers singer and guitarist Alex Chilton, who died tonight at age 59.
Alex Chilton, who died, wrote songs. He recorded songs. He made songs. He unmade them. In the end, the life was largely in song, and the songs all had life, and that's all there is to say, and there isn't anything that can be done. Once he covered "Let Me Get Close to You," which was Goffin-King via Skeeter Davis:
How long I'll never know
I've waited to tell you that I love you so
Now I have finally said it
Come on baby don't make me regret it
"It's Your Funeral" is an instrumental. There are no words.RIP, Alex Chilton