Sad news this week with the passing of Alex Chilton of Big Star, who was just 59.
Chilton had one of those blessing and a curse kind of lives. He created music that practically created a blueprint for a host of amazing 80s alternative bands—R.E.M. being his most prominent disciple. And while Big Star never had much commercial success, Chilton at least got to bask in the glow of his critical acclaim and extensive influence (unlike, say, Nick Drake). We should all be so lucky as to have Paul Westerberg write a kick-ass song about us.
At the same time, he suffered from the early genius curse. His best creative output was top heavy, and he spent the rest of his life living in the shadow of what he’d done in his 20s. That happens to a lot of artists, but it’s especially endemic to rock musicians. I think it’s because, when they hit their mid-20s, they still have the teenage fire that fuels rock music, but they’ve acquired enough maturity to articulate ideas that can remain relevant long after adolescence ends. It’s a perfect storm of creativity for rock music, and it’s almost impossible to reproduce when you get older, because seeing someone in their 30s and 40s trying to rock out the way they did when they were 22 usually looks embarrassing. That means they either risk that embarrassment or have to move on, and in moving on they often lose what made their earlier music so captivating. I think that definitely happened in Chilton’s case.
However, how many bands can connect with people the way Big Star connected with me: nearly 30 years after they recorded their last album.
I had a very circuitous route to Big Star. Being a music nerd, I’d heard groups like R.E.M. name-check them, but also being a young doofus, I’d never looked into them because I was too busy doing things like air-guitaring Dio songs.
Ten years ago, when The Lovely Becky and I still lived in Chicago, our apartment was burglarized. We came home from an exciting evening of going to the movies and then late-night shopping at Jewel. Walking up the back stairs with the groceries, I noticed that our back door was open, and not just open, but missing a pane of glass and the deadbolt that normally kept intruders at bay. After calling the police and then entering the apartment, we found it ransacked. Among the many items taken were most of my CDs—about 250 at the time.
Here’s where the curse turned into a blessing. In my aforementioned air-guitar doofusing years, my record collection contained things like Lita Ford’s Greatest Hits, four words that have no business being grouped together. Thanks to renter’s insurance, I got a pretty fair amount of compensation for my CDs, without any judgment on their artistic merit, and also without having to spend the money on the exact same crap that was stolen.
We embarked on the greatest weekend of music shopping in my life, taking our insurance money and buying about 150 discs in a couple of days. I took the moment to upgrade my collection and add at least a few things that TLB would not mock me mercilessly for owning (there are few things as withering as hearing your spouse sarcastically sing, “Kiss me once, kiss me twice, come on pretty baby, kiss me deadly” and having absolutely no counterattack). One of my targets was Big Star. I found a CD of their first two albums, #1 Record/Radio City. Curious about all the fuss, I moved it to the front of the 150 disc listening queue.
I’ve had a few moments in my music fandom where I hear an artist and wonder why in the hell I didn’t listen to them sooner. Nick Drake was one. Graham Parker was another very recent entry. But Big Star was the biggest of the where have you been all my life albums. I was hooked instantly by the mix of instantly catchy melodies and warm jangle pop coupled with the little bits of chaos in the background and fraying at the edges. And while I loved the songs by the late, great Chris Bell on #1 Record, it was Chilton’s voice that was the final hook pulling me into the Big Star boat, so much that if my boat ever gets stranded on a desert island, that #1 Record/Radio City album is coming with me.
So, despite peaking early and never being the big name he should have been, it has to be satisfying to know you had that kind of impact on people.
1) “Back of a Car,” Big Star. I have to start with my personal favorite Big Star song, because it combines the pop sweetness of the first album with the rougher edge Chilton brought when he took over on Radio City. What cements it for me are the big fat drum fills. Everything’s better with big fat drum fills.
2) “All My Best Friends Are Metalheads,” Less Than Jake. Hey, remember the six months where ska punk was
3) “Let Them Eat Rock,” The Upper Crust. The best conceptual gag I’ve ever seen for a band. A bunch of nerdy white guys dress up like 18th-Century French aristocrats and play AC/DC style rock music with titles like, “Once More Into the Breeches,” “I’ve Got My Ascot ‘N’ My Dickie,” and this song. As a bonus, this song seems absolutely perfect for the current economic climate and especially the conservative response to it. Fun fact: one of the guitar players who went by the stage name Lord Bendover later worked for the Clinton Administration and was a Harvard history professor.
4) “We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions,” Queen. iTunes is apparently aware that March Madness is going on. Despite my sports blood bleeding the blue and orange of the Chicago Bears, the opening weekend of the NCAA basketball tournament is the greatest sports day of the year, and frankly should be a national holiday for men. I tried to coin a name for it yesterday, and I thought of Manukah, but that makes it sound like a holiday for the NBA’s Manu Ginobili. So maybe Bracketmas. Oh, and my Final Four: Kansas, Syracuse, Kentucky, and Baylor.
5) “10 Gallon Ascots,” Tapes ‘n Tapes. Two ascot references in one Random 11? What are the odds of that happening? Well, higher than 14th-seeded Ohio University kicking Georgetown in their third-seeded Hoyas yesterday.
6) “Is There a Ghost,” Band of Brothers. Not to get too much into NCAA stuff, but this would be perfect for a March Madness promo, with the slow music going with the slow-mo montage of hoops, and then the fast part kicking into the quick-hitting montage of game-winning shots throughout the years. Even the lyrics work because, “I can sleep” could relate to the sleepers of the tournament. Note to CBS: My rates are quite affordable. I also love how, in this video, the lead singer looks like he was rushed on stage an hour after being rescued from a four-year exile on an uncharted island. "Hey, man, sorry, no time to clean you up, we gotta gig on Letterman. Just change out of that loincloth."
7) “Moby Dick/Bonzo’s Montreux,” Led Zeppelin. From the Department of Terrible Ideas: let’s take arguably the most classic of drum solos and add some really annoying heavily processed drums to the drum solo part.
8) “I’ve Made Enough Friends,” The Wrens. A perfect song for the Facebook-weary.
9) “Colony of Birchmen,” Mastodon. Metal today is definitely cooler than when I was a teenager. Fun fact for certain Genesis-loving readers: the title is an homage to “The Colony of Slippermen” from The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Although I’m pretty sure no one in Mastodon is dressing up like a flower, unless it was a flower that eats people.
10) “S.O.S.,” ABBA. Look, I’m not going to shit all over what people like. Well, okay, I will, but at the same time I respect that we’re all like snowflakes and that some of us like music that others find as memorable as an IKEA nightstand. But ABBA in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Really? Sure, they’re the fourth-biggest-selling group of all time. But hey, Celine Dion’s in the top 10 of all-time album sales, sandwiched between the Bee Gees and Elton John (which also sounds like a song from another top 10 seller, AC/DC). So does that mean she’s destined to get in? And, no, none of this stems from bitterness over a certain Canadian power-trio being snubbed again. Not at all.
11) “Punkrocker,” Teddybears (feat. Iggy Pop). My acquisition of this is an irony train wreck. 1) It’s a song called “Punkrocker,” that I thought was an Iggy Pop song but is really from a group with the unpunk name “Teddybears”. 2) I bought said “Punkrocker” song that I thought was by the original punk rocker because I heard it in a TV commercial. 3) Rather than taking the punk route of downloading it illicitly from the Web, I went to iTunes and purchased it in an orderly fashion…with credit from an iTunes gift card. I am so not punk.
Have a great weekend, and I’d like to give a shout out to the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos, because we all could use a little more Gaucho in our lives.