The first album I ever bought with my own money was a cassette tape of Elton John’s The One. I thought it was pretty awesome, although I only liked maybe a third of the songs on it: “The One,” and that one about the guy dying of AIDS who gets visited by his dad in the hospital, and something more upbeat. I grew up listening to Air Supply, James Taylor, and Michael Bolton. The radio station my parents played in the car most often: 94.9 WHOM, soft pop 24-7. While most people my age were using singers and bands as merit badges on the path to personality, I was too busy reading books and playing videogames to notice. Looking back at the handful of tapes and CDs I got in my early teens is like going over a map of dead ends and detours: Spin Doctors’ Pocket Full Of Kryptonite, Michael Jackson’s Dangerous, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard, Genesis’ We Can’t Dance, The Crow: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack.
So now, in my early 30s, I’m still looking for great music I can pretend I’ve been listening to my whole life. I first heard about Big Star earlier this year: Alex Chilton, the group’s lead singer and co-founder, died on March 17, 2010. As with all major news these days, I heard about it on Twitter first, and then I read about it here at The A.V. Club in Keith Phipps’ write-up. I’d never heard of Chilton before then. I’d heard of Big Star, but in that way you can hear about something repeatedly, from people you respect, and still never have any urge to seek it out. But then Chilton died, only a few months before bandmate Andy Hummel, and those same people were really upset. I listened to “The Ballad Of El Goodo.” That sold me. It’s a really, really great song. iTunes had the double release of Big Star’s first two albums, #1 Record and Radio City, for cheap, so I spent the rest of the afternoon at work that day listening.
I’m not a music critic. I like music, really I do, but when it comes to writing about why I like it, I get finger-tied. This is why I don’t write album reviews; nobody wants to read “This is good” and “This is not good” and “Augh, when will the loud noises that make for the bleeding of my ears stop hounding me” over and over. There’s something in Big Star that I can connect with, though, and it’s easy to recognize that quality in the band’s music that makes it sound fresh today. The AllMusic.com review of the first album claims you have to “get beyond the style” in order to really enjoy the music, arguing that Big Star is so influential that it sounds predictable and stale to modern ears. Maybe I’ve been listening to the wrong bands—okay, I’ve pretty much definitively proven that’s true—but come on. No matter who you are, there’s nothing stale about this:
It sounds like summer, right? And not in that overly cheerful, “life’s a constant kegger” way you get from, say, Smash Mouth’s “All Star.” It begins hesitatingly with Chilton singing “Years ago, my heart was set to live, oh / And I’ve been trying hard against unbelievable odds.” Then it builds until the chorus, with lyrics that could’ve been defiant, but instead play as determined: “Ain’t no one gonna turn me ’round.” I like how it isn’t really an anthem, and yet it sort of is, how well—between Chilton’s voice and the harmonies, the guitar chords that chime instead of crash—it captures the optimism that comes when August bleeds into September, when the temperature fades and a certain tone in the sunsets announces fall is coming, and then winter. “El Goodo” hooked me because it was catchy—and Big Star does jam, but it’s mostly well-crafted pop with scribbling around the edges—but I’ve listened to it a dozen times since, and what I love is how it manages to combine experience with enthusiasm in a way that makes both sound appealing and unforced.
That tempered optimism runs through all of #1 Record, peaking with the ebullient “When My Baby’s Beside Me,” which sort of sounds like The Beatles’ “Good Day Sunshine” after a couple of beers and some cigarettes. “Don’t Lie To Me” is a grand fuck-you, sure, but it’s a hilarious one, and it’s weirdly upbeat. Ben Folds tried that kind of tone with “Song For The Dumped,” and mostly ended up coming off as petulant and smirky. “Lie” is more cheerfully pissed, and I can picture somebody standing up on a bar somewhere and shouting out the lyrics—it’s dysfunctional, but the anger hasn’t turned into bitterness yet, because there’s the sense that even if things don’t work out now, they’ll be right soon enough.
This is my favorite song off that first album:
This would’ve slain me when I was a kid. It slays me now. I wouldn’t have been able to relate to any part of the song when I was younger, not directly, but that melancholic, romantic swing—not like dancing, exactly, but how I always imagined it would be holding hands with someone, or tracing my finger down someone’s spine—it’s nice having that in a song, isn’t it? But here, the melancholy threatens to take over by the end. “If it's 'no,' well, I can go,” Chilton sings, asking “Won’t you tell me what you’re thinking of?” It’s an early relationship, and it won’t last long. Again, there’s that understanding how every good moment means one more treasure you can lose.
I got #1 Record and Radio City as one big album, so whenever I listened to one, I’d listen to both. They’re separate entities, but it’s hard for me to make a distinction between them, because by the time I realized there was one, I was already used to viewing them as a whole. Still, taken separately, Radio City has the melancholy gaining ground. Chilton’s writing partner, Chris Bell, quit the band after Record, and while he still contributed to a couple of the songs, most of City is Chilton. The last song, “I’m In Love With A Girl,” is sort of a “When My Baby’s Beside Me” sequel, following up that same joy, but with a sweet, disarming amazement, less a boast than a honest admission of astonishment. The rest of the album isn’t quite as hopeful. Check out its most popular song:
It’s as wistful and catchy as “Thirteen,” but the lyrics are more despairing. It sounds less like a passing relationship than an unstable obsession: “I loved you, well, never mind / I’ve been crying all the time / December boys got it bad.” There’s enough of a patina of craftsmanship and melody to cover the despair, but the despair remains. These are the thoughts of someone who’s starting to suspect that life isn’t going to play out the way he was hoping, and now clings to the few goods things he can find before they, too, slip away. The optimism hasn’t died, but it’s curdling, and the contrast between the two albums, while subtle to my generally numb ears, remains affecting.
This is probably why I shouldn’t be a music critic, though, because I’m almost certainly ascribing more psychological connection between musician and music than I have any right to. Chilton wasn’t the only member of Big Star, though he wrote or contributed to nearly all of its music. And while the band struggled with the double damnation of critical acclaim and public disinterest—surely few things are as painful to an artist as being told you’re great, only no one cares—trying to find that in the music is as foolish as it is disingenuous. But when the music is this intimate and warm, it’s hard not to read too much into it. While books and movies are always going to be my preferred art forms, some albums have a sensual, personal quality that no other format can really touch. If a great novel is like reading someone’s mind, a great song is like reading their heart.
Big Star’s third album, Third/Sister Lovers, is the sound of that heart when it’s broken, and the sound of a few other mutilated organs. Recorded in 1974, but not released officially until 1978, three years after the band broke up, it takes all the messy, raw feeling of the first two albums and strips away any hope of reconciliation, love, or peace. The music is still amazing, but it’s harder to embrace, like a suicidal best friend who keeps trying to make you understand why the world is shit, nothing’s worth the effort, and the worst time of the day are those 30 seconds every morning when you think maybe you’ll be okay, because you won’t. Listen to this cover of The Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale”:
The original version is smirking, snide, a little campy. This version is wasted and lost. It’s a car wreck waiting to happen. The whole album, a few bright moments aside, is like this. It’s incredible, because each track seems as if the album can’t possibly go on any further, and Chilton and the others can’t possibly hold this much antipathy and loneliness and contempt together as a unified whole. And yet they barely make it.
The band reformed in 1993, and released In Space in 2005. I haven’t listened to it yet, but none of the reviews I read considered it worthy of the originals. Put together, the three albums from the original incarnation of Big Star tell a story. If you listen to them in chronological order, #1 Record, Radio City, and Third, that story isn’t pleasant. It starts off full of righteous passion, only to have that passion first tempered, then broken by experience. When I listen to Big Star in the future (and I will), I think I’m going to re-arrange the order—start with the debut, but play Third in the middle. It’s cheating, but the story there stays truer to the promise of the band’s best music: hope, first broken, then re-forged into maturity and joy.