The beauty of a little Big Star
Why the music of this iconic, underrated band still touches this fan
Alex Chilton, half the mind of Big Star — the other half being the emotive Chris Bell — died in March 2010. His death, which came three days before his scheduled appearance with a newly formed Big Star at SXSW, shook me hard.
I found Big Star during college. First I found Todd Rundgren, and tossed forward by “Couldn’t I Just Tell You?” I began researching power pop. Badfinger came next, then Big Star. Sophomore year of college. I was eighteen and nineteen and hearing “September Gurls” and “Thirteen” and “In the Street” and “The Ballad of El Goodo” for the first time. My heart jolted. Then my heart melted.
I would tell people about Big Star but nobody knew them, just as few people knew about Rundgren and Badfinger, the Flamin’ Groovies and the Undertones. I played Outkast and Gavin DeGraw and Maroon 5 at my college cafe job, blaring the radio during the early chicken finger and quesadilla rush. But later at night, as the pencils pushed slower and kids stumbled in wearing pajamas, I would play those power-pop artists. Big Star hardly ever got a cough, except one kid, a skinny and shaggy-haired sort who wore glasses, and on his shirt, the iconic “#1 Record” cover art. We acknowledged each other. That was that.
So Chilton’s death shook me hard. Rocked me.
At the time I was working as an arts editor at a newspaper, so I informed my editors that Chilton died.
“Who’s that?” they asked. My editors were born in the 1950s and ’60s. Some of them were the perfect age for Big Star.
“He was one of the leaders of Big Star,” I told them.
“Who’s Big Star?”
I asked another editor, someone who knew music more than others. “Not sure I’ve heard of them.”
I asked one of our prominent music writers, a deeply knowledgeable and sharp guy. “I think I’ve heard of them. I don’t really remember.”
I was the only person who knew Big Star, knew Chilton enough to grab the story from the wire. I was twenty-five.
Rock ’n’ roll became rock ’n’ roll because it harnessed a raw energy and emotion untapped by previous music. Rock ’n’ roll gave teenagers an escape. Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry weren’t pushing polished jazz fit for dance floors; they were wailing, singing blues, delivering messages of romance, rebellion and broken hearts. Elvis Presley, whose whiteness was essential to his popularity, added a sexual electron, pulsing kids to move their bodies in ways previously unknown. Rock ’n’ roll is a vessel for the the unhinged, the wild, the undefined. It exploded because half the young world didn’t know what to do, but the music at least led them to a shake they never realized could occur.
And then the layers. The Beatles and the Beach Boys, the Byrds and the Kinks, Bob Dylan and the Band, they all added pieces to the foundation. Some rock ’n’ roll spurred advocacy. Some rock ’n’ roll spurred long struts and pelvic thrusts. Led Zeppelin and the Who, Derek and the Dominoes and the Allman Brothers Band — they all played thick and winding music, lauded more for their instrumental talent than the very thing that started them playing: the basic, simple shake. By 1972 the whole ethos changed. People wanted more variety, more progression. It wasn’t just about harnessing raw energy and emotion. It wasn’t just about dancing.
The Big Star song “Thirteen” doesn’t make you dance. It is, however, really simple:
Won’t you let me walk you home from school?
Won’t you let me meet you at the pool?
Maybe Friday I can get tickets for the dance
And I’ll take you
That’s basically life at age thirteen. You like a girl, you ask her out. The second verse talks about rock ’n’ roll music:
Won’t you tell your dad ‘Get off my back’?
Tell him what we said about ‘Paint It, Black’
Rock ’n’ roll is here to stay
Come inside where it’s okay
And I’ll shake you
Big Star wasn’t about “Paint It, Black,” because “Paint It, Black” wasn’t simple rock ’n’ roll. Sure it’s about rebellion — or a lack of concern for tradition — but it’s influenced by Eastern sounds, drawn out into psychedelia. It’s not simply rock ’n’ roll by a base definition. But Chilton claims that rock ’n’ roll is here to stay, thanks to a song like “Paint it Black.” That’s not the truth, and I think Chilton and Bell knew that. I think they realized rock ’n’ roll resided more in their songs … songs like “In the Street.”
Coming early on Big Star’s first album, 1972’s “#1 Record,” “In the Street” could have been a Buddy Holly hit. Structurally basic and defined by chiming guitars and Bell’s high tenor, “In the Street” is simply about having a good time with your friends. It’s not ironic. It’s not sardonic. It’s a literal song about having fun. But rock ’n’ roll in 1972 was defined by Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” bombastic songs drenched in myth tailor made for stage theatrics and guitar smashing. “In the Street” is the sound of a guitar reaching for the sun. It did nothing on the charts.
The story goes that Big Star got lost in the shuffle. With barely any promotion, the band’s “#1 Record” and follow-up album “Radio City” failed to generate audiences. A third album was shelved. Bell recorded the powerful “I Am the Cosmos” and “You and Your Sister,” among other songs, then fatally crashed his car one California night. That was it. The third album came out as “Third,” (to some, “Sister Lovers”), and was Chilton’s dark and outstanding kiss-off to everyone who hadn’t supported Big Star. But nothing was really said or done. The band had evaporated as if it never was.
Then, about a decade after Bell died, musicians started writing and performing spare rock ’n’ roll, not unlike Big Star. The Replacements’ Paul Westerberg wrote the rock rush “Alex Chilton,” which included the line “I never travel far without a little Big Star.” And all these bands cited Big Star as a big influence. They were the kids who bought the albums. Big Star finally had a place.
Yet when Chilton died in 2010, I couldn’t find one co-worker who could recall this musical genius, this man who wrote a heartbreaking piano dirge called “Holocaust,” an industrial slog called “Kanga-Roo” and a completely literal and lovely ode to Christianity called “Jesus Christ.”
But that’s fine. In fact, the day I found myself alone in acknowledging the death of Alex Chilton was a day I felt particularly proud, in some odd way. I’ve never been one for bandwagons and phenomena. I like the unknown and under-appreciated. I enjoy that “Arrested Development” and “Chappelle’s Show” stopped after three seasons (OK … I choose to remember it that way). And I enjoy that Big Star released two traditional albums, and a third post-break album that wasn’t quite prepared for distribution. The Big Star story is obviously tragic, filled with death and depression and an unfair dearth of success, but it’s the one story like that. It didn’t attempt to come back a dozen times, shoving disco and punk and new wave and grunge and classic dinosaur rock down our throats. The Rolling Stones, they of “Paint It, Black,” did all of that. That’s why the Rolling Stones aren’t rock ’n’ roll, at least not anymore, and probably not since 1966, and maybe a little around 1971 and 1978. Big Star, with their tragic tale and unclaimed treasure, is real rock ’n’ roll, blindingly brilliant and blissfully unbearable rock ’n’ roll.
Big Star is my band. It’s the band of the skinny, shaggy haired guy wearing the “#1 Record” shirt. It’s the band of the lonely and searching, the wailing and weird. Fans of Big Star think about their love of Big Star. The music is lyrical and layered despite its surface simplicity. The guitars chime and pin over booming and foreboding drums. Basslines stir underneath the din. Bell and Chilton’s vocals rise far above the gray clouds while somehow spreading an obvious pain.
“You Get What You Deserve” sounds like a surfer song, but it has these frightening harmonies, rattling the object — “You get what you deserve, you oughta find out what it’s worth, and you’ve gotta have a lot of nerve” — with the harmony singing higher. Then the bridge, this jerking depression of a few bars, just slapping you in the temple repeatedly. That’s one song.
Or “Feel,” the first track the band put out there, with a pinata of a drum beat, screaming lyrics about complete heartbreak, warm and blanketing harmonies soaring above the concrete damnation. Then there’s a sax solo!
“The Ballad of El Goodo” is the anthem for anyone who loves Big Star, lives misunderstood and lacking accomplishment, pining for something more perfect that they know will never be, because nothing can ever fulfill. Life is imperfect and incomplete. Life is a battle. And you want to be happy, and you can’t be upset, but damnit, every new obstacle and lost love, every small mishap and big fight inches you closer to that end:
I’ve been built up and trusted
Broke down and busted
They’ll get theirs and we’ll get ours
Just if we can
Just hold on
Then the luscious chorus:
It gets so hard in times like now to hold on
But I’ll fall if I don’t fight
And at my side is God
And there ain’t no one going to turn me around
Big Star is my band. It’s been there during the wandering moments, the troublesome moments, the unknown moments. It’s there to comfort me, to wrack me, to make me cry and sigh and even smile.
It’s comforting to know there aren’t many of us. Billions love Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga. That’s fine. That’s for them. And millions love Elvis Costello and the Police and artists like that, and I love those artists, and that’s fine too.
But not so many love Big Star because not so many know Big Star. And even if they knew Big Star, I’d venture most people would maybe enjoy the music, maybe like it for a spin, but then toss it aside and find something else. And that’s great. I really love that. It comforts me. Big Star is special. It’s for only that small pocket of us that need and want and pine and hope and long and search and pray. We are the optimists. We are the wanderers. To take from Chris Bell, we are the cosmos, we are the wind.
If you peruse the songs of Big Star on YouTube, you will find comments of wild praise. “Real music right here.” “One of the best songs ever written … ever.” “The most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever heard.” It goes on and on. Just about every song.
“Wondrous. Hope and love expressed in just under 4 minutes.” That comment is for “Watch the Sunrise,” a song late on “#1 Record.” It’s gorgeous.
I can feel it
Now it’s time
Open your eyes
Fears be gone, it won’t be long
There’s a light in the skies
It’s okay to look outside
The day it will abide
Watch the sunrise
This is a gorgeous song. It’s a favorite song of mine, and I’ve heard thousands upon thousands of songs. But “Watch the Sunrise,” I would agree, is hope and love expressed in just under four minutes.
The best part: There are forty-one comments for the song. And under 100,000 views total.
Big Star is our band.