Alex Chilton, pictured in later years fronting the millennial version of Big Star. The twisted history of “The Greatest Band That Never Made It” is encapsulated in BIG STAR: NOTHING CAN HURT ME, the doc feature that opens this Thursday as part of the Summer Music Film Series at The ShowRoom.
It was during those still-smoldering weeks in the wake of September 11, 2001. While Bruce Springsteen began work on the big important album that America expected, nay demanded him to produce, Alex Chilton took the stage of a small downtown club for one of the neighborhood’s first sets of live music since the attacks. What he offered up to the modestly scaled crowd managed to sum it all up better than anything that wound up on The Rising.
“Let’s twist again,” he sang. “Like we did last summer.”
Alex Chilton, who left us at the age of 59 a few years ago, shared with The Boss that same encyclopedic skull full of music; that ability to pull THE right song for the moment and the venue from a mental file cabinet that featured everything from Marc Bolan to Michael Jackson; Ernie K-Doe to KC & the Sunshine Band; Sinatra to Slim Harpo; Johnny Burnette to J.S. Bach. Where the two veteran performers parted ways was in Chilton’s refusal to play the crowdpleaser; his dislike of touring or spending too much time in the studio; his general disinclination toward writing new material in the last couple of decades of his life.
It’s all part of what remains one of the most quirky and nonlinear histories in rock…maybe in all of showbiz. A Number One record on his first try, at the age of sixteen, as the hoarse-throated frontman on The Box Tops’ “The Letter.” A downward spiral as definitive as any on the books, and a Memphis-to-Manhattan shuttle that placed him on the front lines of the evolving CBGB scene. Gloriously sloppy, bracingly experimental solo recordings that were a pole apart from the bubblegum soul of his 60s hits. Projects with The Cramps, Tav Falco, Jim Dickinson, Alan Vega and Ben Vaughn. Life as a reluctant elder statesman; a period of spartan living punctuated by stints as a dishwasher and tree service guy, by The Replacements naming a song after him, by royalty checks from a sitcom theme (“In The Street,” adapted for That 70s Show), by a post-Katrina airlift from his New Orleans home, and by a series of increasingly relaxed sounding albums that found him lending his trademark scratchy guitar and conversational vocals to a panorama of soul chestnuts and songbook standards.
The last time we caught Chilton in live performance, it was at a smallish bar and restaurant in northwest Philly, where he led his trio through a good-humored set that boasted The Box Tops’ “Soul Deep,” an interpolated theme from “A Summer Place” and at least one 1960s Italian pop song. Compare and contrast with a gig from some ten years previous, just down the street at Asbury Park’s soon-to-be-disappeared Fast Lane — a combative Chilton, loading his own equipment in and out of a clapped-out old Buick, paused in the middle of songs to light cigarettes and razz the audience of too-cool collegiates and suburban squares.
In between all of that came the entity that, for better or worse, has come to be identified as Alex Chilton’s real lasting legacy — The Greatest Band That Never Made It, and the cult combo that inspired more impressionable youth to pick up guitars than anyone since the Velvet Underground — a little thing called Big Star.
Chilton had just come off a post-Box Tops year of recording country-rockish demos when he hooked up with fellow Memphis-based guitarist and singer Chris Bell, plus the rhythm section of Andy Hummel and Frampton-maned hunk Jody Stephens, for a loosely defined aggregation named for the Southern-states equivalent of the Grand Union supermarket chain. By the time the foursome completed their 1971 debut #1 Record, they had inadvertently crystallized the powerpop/ bubbleglam template for the next few years of AM radio rock, through glorious fuzzy-guitar stompers like “Feel,” “Don’t Lie to Me” and “In the Street,” an anthem that the 70s Show producers agreed summed up the decade like no other (this despite the fact that nobody actually heard it back in the 70s). The band also reclaimed the power of the finely wrought ballad from the wet-noodle singer-songwriter types who’d dropped it into Laurel Canyon to die…witness beautiful songs like “Give Me Another Chance” and “Thirteen,” a Chilton composition that regularly features, with typically admirable 20/20 hindsight, on the critical establishment’s All Time Greatest Song lists.
What the band didn’t manage to do was to get on the radio…or even to get their record into the stores, thanks to a distribution deal with the once-mighty Stax label that left them tangled up in the losing end of litigation with the Columbia conglomerate. The beaten-down band would break up for the first time; Chilton would mess around with some more rocked-up tracks sporting a different rhythm section…and Bell would go on to release one single (“I Am the Cosmos,” an indie classic that’s since been folded into the Big Star canon) and record an album’s worth of demos before dying, in almost total obscurity, in a 1978 car crash.
Still in a rare industrious mood, Chilton would re-up with Hummel and Stephens in 1973 to complete the three-piece sessions he’d begun work on — and the resulting “second” album Radio City, while far more guitarred-up (and lyrically biting) than its predecessor, is a way more consistent instant classic; equally weighted among the critics who, to their credit, jumped on this one as genuine voices in the wilderness (our middle-school self first became aware of it thanks to a review by a teenaged Cameron Crowe in Circus Raves magazine). The awesome “September Gurls” notwithstanding, the LP fell quiet victim to the same lack of support and distribution that shot the debut long-player in the cradle…and, with Hummel departing almost immediately after the album’s completion, there was little live activity to kickstart any interest. A reconfigured Big Star did manage to get in a handful of well-recorded gigs, and their eventual release showed Chilton, working as hard as he’d ever work onstage in his life, ripping through a set of never-was radio sweethearts, as well as engaging covers of things by Todd Rundgren, T. Rex and Loudon Wainwright III.
Wrassling by this point with his own set of demons, Chilton turned a corner in his public life…and when he and Stephens reconvened in the studio in 1974 it was under the quasi-official identity of Sister Lovers (the two Big Star vets happened to have been dating a couple of sisters at the moment). A cast of characters that included legendary session man Steve Cropper and madman producer/Chilton pal Jim Dickinson would drop in; Stephens would bring in a string section before dropping out of the project himself. The untitled, never truly completed sessions variously known as Sister Lovers and Big Star Third were not intended to see release under the Big Star brand — and while there are brief flashes of the Chilton/Bell songwriting style in evidence, the results ranged from sincerely quirky (“Jesus Christ”) to chillingly somber (“Holocaust”).
Issued a few years later (against Chilton’s wishes) as a Big Star artifact…and re-released on many labels, in many different configurations, over the subsequent decades…Third/Sister Lovers is as devastingly, intriguingly bipolar a piece of work as anything ever committed to tape; ricocheting from barely controlled chaos (“You Can’t Have Me”) and exuberant trainwrecks (“Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”), to bitterly tainted pop (“Thank You Friends”), dissonant dirges (“Kanga Roo”) and a series of songs so muted and depressed-sounding that one cannot help but believe that this is the sound of a personality coming apart at the seams.
What this recording actually represented was the beginning of the next chapter in the Chilton saga — an uncertain period that saw the grown-up teen hitmaker inject himself into the burgeoning downtown NYC scene, making fast friends with the dBs and The Cramps, releasing an EP on the Ork label, working on an uncompleted LP and some astonishingly sloppy sessions that would see later see issue under the title Bach’s Bottom. In 1979, Chilton and Dickinson would hole up in the old Sun Studios to work on the ultra-indie album Like Flies On Sherbet — a truly insane experiment in sloppabilly, psycho electronic FX, big heart and colossal attitude that remains for some the most controversial thing in his long and spotty Chiltonography, and for others (like us) the tarnished standard against which all past and future efforts shall be judged.
It was a version of Alex that could not be sustained with any hope of personal survival, and following the release of Live in London (an underappreciated retrospective set that found him incorporating stuporcharged takes on Box Tops and Big Star nuggets), Chilton took a big step back from the dimmed spotlight for several years; putting his available energies into his sideman stint with pencil-moustached loungeabilly lizard Tav Falco. By the time Alex Chilton re-emerged as a raggedly soulful interpreter of R&B porchburners (“Make a Little Love,” “Tee Ni Nee Ni Noo”) and his own rock novelties (“No Sex,” “Dalai Lama”), a cottage industry in Big Star Appreciation had taken root, thanks to the enthusiasm of influential devotees like REM, The Replacements and The Flaming Lips.
Among that new generation of wannabe Stars was The Posies — and it was the Posie partnership of Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow that would convince Chilton to reconnect with Stephens for a set of reunion gigs and foreign tours that would come to be encapsulated on the 1993 live album Columbia. The millennial Big Star quartet would reconvene for the stray studio track “Hot Thing,” and for the full-length studio album Big Star In Space — an unnecessary but entirely welcome 2005 release that represents Chilton’s last original songwriting efforts, and indeed the last new record of Chilton material released in his lifetime.
The 2009 multi-disc anthology Keep Your Eye On the Sky boxed up the myriad loose ends of the Big Star Story in a way that’s become more or less frozen into place in the years since Chilton’s passing, just days before the band was to have played a high-profile spot at the SXSW fest. Drew Denicola’s documentary feature Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me continues to work that now-established orthodoxy, positing the barely noticed group as “a seminal band in the history of alternative music,” and forming a line of musical acolytes and well-wishers who are benefiting from this screen exposure far more than the original combo (from which Jody Stephens is the last man standing) ever would.
Packed with priceless footage, illuminating interviews, real perspective and a lot of timelessly fascinating music, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (up on iTunes as of July 3) is of course everything a fan could have asked for, short of having the guys all back and working this side of rock and roll heaven — and, perhaps inadvertently, an addition to the vein of “lost hero” rock-docs that have included Searching for Sugarman and A Band Called Death. But Chilton, who’s no Rodriguez — and who always kept his involvement with this “touchstone of the rock music canon” at an arm’s length (a one-foot-in, one-foot-out attitude he maintained simultaneously with the reunited Box Tops) might arguably have remained cautious about having his legacy co-opted and re-defined almost entirely within the parameters of a stony face on the Mount Rushmore of jangle-pop.
So, celebrate Big Star. And fuck Big Star. And make sure to see Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me when it plays The ShowRoom; part of the 10/10/10 Summer Music Film Series at the Asbury arthouse screening space.
BIG STAR: NOTHING CAN HURT ME plays at 10 pm on July 18, 19, 20 and 22 at The ShowRoom. Take it here for advance tickets. And keep in mind that the author of this blog has lot of Chilton music to share, trade and discover.