by carl wilson

Big Star: For All You Sister Lovers

bigstar.jpg
The reformed Big Star, with Alex Chilton third from left. Photo by Tom Erikson.

That headline ought to generate some disgusting site traffic, but for those of you not seeking sibling-incest porn, it's actually a reference to 1970s power-pop band Big Star, who have just announced the release date for their upcoming reunion album, In Space - Sept. 27. Of course, by "reunion," they actually mean Alex Chilton, drummer Jody Stephens and members of the Posies, one of the most Big Star-influenced bands around, since key member Chris Bell is long dead. Still, it's the first Big Star record in 27 years, and in celebration I thought I'd post a piece about the band I wrote a couple of years ago when there was a Big Star tribute night being held in Toronto, recapping their career and the myth in which Chilton's enshrined in the "former child star" flame-out archetype. Eyeball it on the flip.

If you do not groove to the guitar-hooks-and-jangle-jangle, perhaps you would prefer some Veronica Mars news. (Also, the Mountain Goats return to Toronto on October 17!)

Entering the cult of the Big burnt-out Star

SCENE
CARL WILSON
20 November 2003
The Globe and Mail

Fittingly, it wasn't a hit. But the very existence of a Hollywood comedy this year called Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star proved the arrival of a new pop-culture archetype.

Reviewers mostly lauded the concept but panned the grating Saturday Night Live leftover David Spade. But what was so great about the concept, really? Somehow in the past decade the fates of ex-Diff'rent Strokes and Brady Bunch personalities have become totemic parables, orgies of schadenfreude in high rotation on the TV-bio hit parade.

What do the bedevilled lives of spotlight-burnt youth have to offer but a wallow in squalor and a cheap punchline?

You can compare it to the "lost genius" phenomenon in pop music. Some fans find nothing more compelling than a gifted artist who due to vice, madness, graft or dumb luck, went unheard and/or wound up in a pool of blood and/or vomit. There seems to be no song, inspiring or insipid, that is not improved by an accompanying fountain of bodily fluids.

In this luckless lottery, Alex Chilton holds a double-or-nothing ticket, as both lost genius and ex-underage star. How much does that bear on the Memphis-born singer's legendary status? What does it have to do with, for instance, the tribute his early-1970s group Big Star is being paid by Toronto bands National Anthem, the Carnations, Galore, Moe Berg, Mike Trebilcock, Precious Little, Gord Cummings and others at the Horseshoe on Queen Street West on Tuesday night?

Chilton is only 16 in 1967 when he suddenly finds himself with an international number-one record, the Box Tops' The Letter. With a voice part Delta bluesman and part teenybopper, gruff beyond his years, he sings "Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane" and becomes a rock star in perhaps the best year ever for rock stars.

A few more minor hits later, Chilton quits in the middle of a 1969 U.K. tour, frustrated at being the pawn of managers and producers. Back in Memphis, he hooks up with a young band led by guitarist Chris Bell called Icewater (now heard for the first time on a new reissue with Bell's earlier band Rock City, both of which stand up fairly well).

They re-dub themselves Big Star and make an album in 1972 called Number One Record. It's a glimmering thing of acoustic and electric guitars, in-the-pocket beats, yelping cries and smooth harmonies, a blend of roots rock with by-then-unfashionable British Invasion polish. But to call band and album ironically named would be an understatement.

Despite rave reviews, record-company troubles mean nobody can find it. Bell quits the band and spirals into depression (until his death in a bloody car crash in 1979). The three remaining members make Radio City, with if anything a finer, more soulful sound and if anything worse distribution. The final Big Star album, the wilder, spacey Third (or Sister Lovers), isn't even released for years. The band is kaput.

Chilton lapses into a decade-long alcoholic haze — cue the vomit — and records erratically. But the extant Big Star platters find their ways into select hands: Cheap Trick admits the influence and in the 1980s, Big Star is extolled by REM, the Cramps (whom Chilton produces), Tom Petty, Robyn Hitchcock, the Bangles (who have a hit with Big Star's most perfect song, September Gurls), the Dream Syndicate . . . and the Replacements, who fill college-radio airwaves with a near-messianic ode called Alex Chilton, in which "children by the millions sing for Alex Chilton when he comes round" — "the invisible man" with "a visible voice."

Eventually Big Star's spores scatter so far — from Teenage Fanclub to Guided By Voices and Fountains of Wayne — that they become their own subgenre of power pop. The now-sober Chilton accepts paycheques for occasional Box Tops and Big Star reunions, but still repudiates most of that work. In his own shambling performances he prefers to cover R&B; chestnuts and Italian lounge music. Big Star cruising anthem In the Street becomes the That '70s Show theme (an inferior adaptation for which Chilton is meagrely paid). And a bunch of Toronto bands decide to hold a tribute night.

Deservedly so. The Big Star catalogue is a crash course in the craft and emotional range of pop; the grownup (now 51) Chilton is wrong there. But it's not enough to explain why Big Star became a shibboleth, the name most compulsively dropped in guitar-pop reviews today — with the exception of fellow lost genius Brian Wilson, but at least readers are likely to have heard the Beach Boys.

Big Star is mentioned not just on its own merits but also for a more rarefied version of the frisson that surrounds Gary Coleman or ever-more-creepy ex-child-star Michael Jackson. There is human sacrifice in it, a price to be paid because talent is less alienating when it is punished. Chilton began his career in exploitation, and knows it never changed. He's smart not to play along, as I'm afraid we don't want the best for him.

In his lively book It Came from Memphis, critic Robert Gordon gets it right: "In Big Star's history, fans confront the fear of having something important to say that no one will hear." But then he gets too rosy, claiming, "It's taken 20 years, but Big Star has prevailed. The band's cult status helps listeners realize their lives are not in vain."

The cult would be disappointed to hear Big Star had prevailed; it would go looking for something more satisfyingly doomed. What we ask from our spoiled prodigies and debauched Dana Platos is not resolution or vindication. We look for a damnation nobler than earthly reward. Our lives, after all, may very well be in vain. That's why we're consoled when we hear the celestial hum of some big, distant, burnt-out star harmonizing back, Oh, vanity, vanity, all is vanity.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, July 26 at 4:53 PM | Linking Posts

 

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Zoilus by Carl Wilson