Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Big Star still shines brightly

If it's spring/summer, I must be in the throes of a new musical obsession, lol. (Cases in point: Raspberries, 2012;  the Rascals, 2013.) 

The difference this time around being that while I listened to both the Raspberries & the Rascals in my 1960s/70s youth, and then rediscovered them in middle age, I don't think I had ever heard of Big Star until I started watching "That 70s Show" -- in the late 1990s, lol -- and wondering where the kick-ass theme song, "In the Street" (also known as "That 70s Song") came from.

(After writing that, I Googled the show to refresh my memory exactly when "That 70s Show" began. Interestingly, the first episode aired August 23, 1998 -- about two weeks after Katie's stillbirth. I always got a kick out of the show & the memories it evoked of my own mid/late 1970s teenaged years -- Eric, Donna, Kelso, Jackie, Hyde & Fez would have been exactly my age -- and every character reminded me of someone I really had known in high school, lol -- but beyond the nostalgia factor, the show no doubt provided a welcome distraction at a time when I really, really needed one.)  

Anyway, I noticed the name "Alex Chilton" as the song's author in the credits & that sounded vaguely familiar. (The theme was originally sung by someone named Todd Griffin, but in later seasons by Cheap Trick, which definitely IS a band I remember well from my teenaged years. I found this fun video of them doing the theme song on YouTube.... for comparison, here is Big Star's original version... and a clip of a later incarnation of Big Star, featuring Chilton and original drummer Jody Stephens, doing the song on the Leno show in 1994 -- a couple of years before "That 70s Show" began.) 

When I rediscovered the Raspberries a few years back & started exploring links online, the name Big Star kept coming up -- both bands cited as prime examples of the "power pop" genre at its finest. So I started Googling Big Star and listened to some clips of their songs via YouTube. 

If you've never heard of Big Star or Alex Chilton, you're not alone (and welcome to the cult, lol).  Obscure as they may be, Big Star has a bigger following today than they did when they first recorded and toured in the 1970s.  It seems that most people who hear their music love it (then & now) -- but for a variety of reasons (including record company distribution problems beyond their control), they just never found an audience -- at least, not at the time their records were originally released.  Maybe they jinxed themselves -- after all, they had the audacity to call themselves "Big Star" (although they did lift the name & logo from a local supermarket chain) and their first album "#1 Record."

Before Big Star, Alex Chilton had been a member of the Box Tops, whose song "The Letter" -- recorded when he was just 16 -- was one of the biggest hits of 1967.  ("The Letter" is one of those songs I clearly remember from my childhood. In fact, I can remember being at my grandmother's & watching "American Bandstand" the day Dick Clark revealed at the #1 song of the week.) Saleswise, the Box Tops proved to be the apex of Chilton's career. After Big Star's first three albums flopped, he spent some time in New York, dabbling in the punk and indie music scenes (he was a regular at CBGB in its heyday), playing cover tunes in hotel bars and at one point washing dishes for a living in New Orleans, where he eventually settled. He was always more influential than commercially successful, but eventually did earn a comfortable living from royalties (including from "That 70s Show") and reunion tours with Big Star and the Box Tops.

Over the years, Big Star's music continued to find new audiences and be re-recorded by other bands and musicians. The Bangles, for example (another band I love(d)), recorded the Big Star song "September Gurls" in the 1980s.  I've read that when the Bangles met Chilton & learned he had never received a penny in royalties from their version, they promptly wrote him a cheque in gratitude. 

Chilton died of a heart attack in 2010 at the far too young age of 59, just before a reconstituted version of Big Star was supposed to play at the SXSW conference in Austin, Texas.  (Apparently he had been feeling ill for some time but had not sought treatment, in part because he lacked health insurance.) Not long afterward, original bass player Andy Hummel also passed away (from cancer), and I remember reading both obituaries in the newspapers at the time.

Then last year, a documentary about Big Star, "Nothing Can Hurt Me," was released to critical acclaim. (I have yet to see it, but the promo clips on You Tube are intriguing.) 

More recently, my interest in Big Star and Chilton was piqued anew when I found a new book, "A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton" by Holly George-Warren. There was also a book, "Big Star: The Story of Rock's Forgotten Band" by Rob Jovanovic, already in the music section -- recently updated to capitalize on the documentary -- and so I picked up both books and then read them, one after the other (with YouTube music clips as soundtracks).

There's aren't many books out there on the band -- so if you are into Big Star &/or Chilton big time, or want to learn more about them, both would be essential reading.  Both are well researched.  If you are more interested in the band as a whole, "Big Star" by Jovanovic is a good primer -- although I must confess I found the writing slightly flat. I did enjoy learning more in its pages about group founder Chris Bell, who tragically joined the "27 Club" in 1978 when he crashed his car into a lamppost, and whose huge contribution to the group has been overshadowed by Chilton's.  (Drummer Jody Stephens is the lone remaining member of the original lineup.)

"A Man Called Destruction" is primarily focused on Alex Chilton, and I personally found it to be the better written and more engaging of the two books. Chilton was a fascinating character -- gifted and talented, but also (like many geniuses, I suppose) conflicted and troubled -- an abuser of both drugs and alcohol (as well as, sometimes, women -- although he did eventually find marital happiness later in life) -- prone to undermining his own success,  and sometimes, yes, a bit of a jerk. 

While he & Big Star may both be gone, their legacy continues to grow as new generations (and those of us who missed out the first time around) continue to (re)discover their music. 

These were books numbers 6 & 7 that I've read so far this year (finished while I was on vacation).

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