Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Nurse the Hate: Big Star

I think I bought the first two Big Star records at Singing Dog in Columbus OH in the early 90s.  I had never heard the records but had read almost every musician I admired name check them in the press over the last decade.  If Paul Westerberg titles one of his best songs after you, that’s a pretty good sign.  I had some of those Alex Chilton records that mysteriously popped out while I was a radio station music director.  The punk rock anarchist in me liked those, and that song “No Sex” should have been a hit if it wasn’t about the AIDS outbreak and include the lyric “come on baby, fuck me and die”.  Somehow Big Star had passed me by.

There is a terrific Big Star documentary that came out and details their horrible bad luck regarding their “#1 Record” named debut release and subsequent records.  In retrospect, naming it “#1 Record” was likely a curse.  I appreciate the sardonic wit though, and understood that record to be the motherload.  Chilton and primary songwriter Chris Bell painstakingly crafted this record, each one of the songs obviously slaved over by a group of people intensely focused on the end result.  These are guys that spent every night in a studio trying different ideas and needing it to be absolutely perfect.  They came about as close as four young men left to their own devices in Memphis can probably get.

The distribution fell apart almost immediately.  They had a deal with Stax that went South.  Even the few people that had heard of the record couldn’t find it in stores.  It died on the vine without the public even getting a chance to hear it.  Chris Bell had a breakdown.  He knew he likely could never hit those peaks again.  He took his shot and it missed, despite it not being his fault.  That’s tough to live with…  Chilton kept the band going with the rhythm section for two more records.  “Radio City” is probably underrated and has more great rock pop songs on it.  “Third” is a difficult listen at first.  It’s these broken little fragments that Chilton gave to producer Jim Dickinson that somehow assembled this stark, apocalyptic sounding record.  It’s fragile and lonely.  It’s really a beautiful record with no commercial potential whatsoever.

When I first bought #1 Record and Radio City, I didn’t get it.  They sounded just like dated 70s radio songs to me that I had somehow never heard.  I listened to them a couple times and put them away.  They just didn’t connect.  Every year I would give them a spin.  Eh.  What was the big deal here?  Then, like most of the very best music, it hit me.  Holy shit.  These records are brilliant.  I am not sure why records that have the most impact are not the most immediately appealing.  They need some time to grow on you to reveal their depth.  I have had similar experiences with “Highway 61 Revisited”, “Mendocino” and “Raw Power”.  It’s the ones that find you when their time is right that become your friends for life.

I’m sitting here listening to “Third”.  It’s dark and raining.  I am glad I found that record, and I suggest you do the same.  You might not be ready yet, but you will one day.     


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