The Big Star Paradox

Alex Chilton died ten years ago today at age 59. Here are some words about what he and three other Memphians accomplished in their twenties with a little help from their friends.

Big Star Photograph © Michael O'Brien

Michael O’Brien Photo (C-heads)

Recently, I’ve spent a lot of time listening to Radio City, the second (and arguably last) Big Star album. It’s my favorite thing they ever released, and it had me thinking: it’s almost paradoxical how beloved Big Star are. I find it impossible to parse whether Big Star were great because they were unsuccessful in their time. Would it cloud our cultural judgment if “Back of a Car” or “The Ballad of El Goodo” were on the same level of incalculable impact on Western society as the Beatles, Elton John, or Queen? If any of those three artists had been relegated to Big Star’s niche of history, would their music be so lionized? I understand that those are three imperfect examples, but no perfect examples exist. Had the Beach Boys not been in the right time-place when they changed their name from the Pendletons and hopped aboard the surf craze, would whatever they would have created in that alternate timeline (certainly nothing on par with Pet Sounds) possess such heavy caché today?

To add another layer to the paradox, Alex Chilton was a household name to baby boomers. When he died, a majority of the outlets I saw mentioned “The Letter” in their tributes, relegating Big Star – not to mention his influence on the late-70’s New York punk scene and his iconoclastic songsmithery throughout the 80’s – well beneath the fold. But, as the party line reads, Chilton’s decision to join Big Star was informed by feeling washed up by the time he was 20. He wasn’t the only teenybopper who pivoted into an artistic legend, but he managed to occupy such a unique space in both categories; millions more have heard the Box Tops, yet his unsuccessful second act has changed the world almost in spite of itself.

What these layers all reinforce was that Big Star were a generational band. They wouldn’t have reached the heights they did if Alex Chilton weren’t burned out by pop fame by age 18, nor would their songs be such a testament to the power of Memphis if they had blown up and transcended their hometown. One of my favorite anecdotes from Rob Jovanovich’s biography of the band was when a few North Carolina college nerds (who would eventually become the dB’s) took a pilgrimage to Memphis in the mid-70’s and found a despondent Chris Bell working at a fast food restaurant. They talked him into accompanying them to Ardent Studios for a meeting with Chilton. Within minutes, they could tell how little Bell wanted to be there.

I am not entirely sure why that anecdote stuck with me more than anything else from the book, especially since it puts such a tragic din on #1 Record. The album was a legendary flop, and Bell and Chilton grew apart almost immediately as a result. It was the most important thing in the world to the dB’s, but it was barely a footnote in the lives of the people who made it. This recalls what Chuck Klosterman wrote about a Guns n’ Roses cover band in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: “Paradise City care more about Guns n’ Roses than the original members of Guns n’ Roses care about the song ‘Paradise City.'” It also recalls an interview with Slash I recall seeing a little over ten years ago (perhaps with Larry King, as outlandish as that may seem), where Slash didn’t dodge a question about GnR reuniting but rather gave a perfectly straightforward answer: he and Axl just weren’t interested in trying to recreate the proverbial “that.” It struck me as surprising, since everything I’d heard since 1996 suggested that he and Bill Bailey hated one another. Whether or not they did share antipathy was immaterial; they had moved on, even if their fans hadn’t.

I suppose therein lies another layer to the Big Star paradox: speaking personally, I appreciate the ability to see that meaning-making at work from the level of the fans of an obscure band, rather than the insanely popular band curating their legacy, sometimes bitterly. The former is endearing, and the latter is usually uncomfortable. Thankfully, everything I’ve seen Jody Stephens (the one surviving Big Star member) curate has done nothing to tarnish the band’s legacy. It may owe a lot to the fact that he still lives in Memphis, keeps his drum kit at Ardent, and has no delusions of grandeur.

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Jody Stephens’ drum kit at Ardent Studios (Memphis, TN), July 2011

I felt the need to write all of this because (1) Big Star formulate a key part of any curriculum I compose about the strange (after)life of American Popular Culture, and (2) it’s a question for which I genuinely want to get other music fans’ perspectives. The Big Star Paradox dictates that it’s impossible to judge the band solely on their music in 2020, but no amount of post-whateverist academic thought changes the fact that I nearly cry whenever I hear “What’s Going Ahn.” Whether or not Big Star had ever become famous in their time, nothing can change how their music was just so, so, so, SO good. RIP Alex Chilton, ten years gone today, as well as to my fellow UTK attendee Andy Hummel, who died on July 19 of that same year.

Sonic Sunday 03.08: Read About Your Band on Some Local Page

I know this firmly places me in the “aging guy with advanced degrees who wears glasses” stereotype, but prepare for a deluge of pure, uncut love for the Replacements and Big Star over the next week or two. 

  • First and foremost, I discovered that this exists, and I’m going to have trouble thinking about anything else or accomplishing anything else on the internet in the immediate future.
  • Actually, just as foremost, my wonderful colleague Lola San Martín (EHESS) is organizing a new conference in Paris this summer entitled “Urban Nostalgia: The Musical City in the 19th and 20th Centuries.” I can’t think of a conference more curated specifically for me, but I hope to give it as big of a signal boost I can, because I love the work that Theatrum Mundi and EHESS do. The deadline is relatively soon (April 6th), and the full CFP is right here. Here is a nifty GIF advertisement for the conference, too:
    Urban Nostalgia
  • Here’s another conference in Paris that appears to have been curated exactly to my interests, happening in September. Something about Pop and Rock in the past two decades of cinema. Elsa Grassy will be there!

Here’s Paul Westerberg playing my favorite Replacements song to close out a solo set on KFOG-FM in 1996. Have a great week, everyone!

Just Another Sonic Sunday (03.01.20) – VHS and Vintage Games

And just like that, it’s March already.

  • Cool Maps on Instagram
    I haven’t really taken time to express how many fun maps I’ve seen on Instagram (and really, why would I?), but it’s definitely a fun-map-lover’s dream over there. Here is one particularly head-turning one for those of us who haven’t visited South Asia.
  • Shudder to Podcast
    Craig Wedren, who spent his teens through mid-twenties helming Shudder to Think and much of the past two decades scoring almost every show on television, is starting a meditation/ambient music podcast that sounds just as interesting as everything else he does. You can read about it here.
  • Bad Brains and Defiance
    Speaking of DC punk veterans, The Root published a great little piece on how defiance crafted Bad Brains in honor of Black History Month.
  • The Wild World of VHS Digitization
    A piece of non-journalism on VICE (which I’ve already RT’d; they don’t need any more exposure) clued me into The VHS Vault. Everything from the extremely copyrighted to the mundane. Further verification of my opinion on just how much data and media exists outside of the internet, especially given the way the home video market blew up in the 1980’s. What a time to be alive.

While we’re on the topic of the weird early-80’s techno-glut, I had the rare opportunity recently to visit a friend in Ohio who is a brilliant archivist, coder, and trader of vintage video game equipment. It was remarkable, given the legendary Video Game Crash of 1983 (Wikipedia), to be able to play some of the flopped systems and realize, “Oh…that’s why it happened.”

Here are a few of the digital antiques.

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A fluffball named Lucky poses with a pair of early Apple Computers. If I’m not mistaken, the one on the right was the model I used in elementary school in 1988.

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The Timex Sinclaire 1000. This thing was just the worst.

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A floppy disk with games coded for an old Commodore system.

Sonic Sunday Clips 02.16.20

Happy Sunday. I don’t know why, but I almost missed it! It’s still technically Sunday here in Eastern Time. Here are a few things.


Ben Irving Updates
I haven’t been able to write much about any of these, but if you use Instagram, head on over to the Postcards From Irving page, give it a follow, and see the latest updates from Austin, Louisville, Tampa, Flint, and more.

Robert Forster and Peter Paphides on “G Stands for Go-Betweens Vol. 2”
I bookmarked this video ages ago, and just got around to watching it. I had the rare opportunity to see Forster play on his first US tour in 11 years, and I’ve gone on the record here (often) about how important the Go-Betweens are to me. Under most circumstances, the idea of two older men sitting at a table and talking for an hour would sound boring, but Robert Forster is someone I could listen to talk for hours on end. If you’re intrigued, check it out. Sadly, the box set is already sold out (of course).

Experimental Persian Music
The Unexplained Sounds Group is at it again! I don’t remember how this came across my desk, but it’s very cool.

Sonic Sunday Clips 01.26.20 (MLK, Istanbul, and Stars)

Happy Sunday. I’ve got about 3 new posts brewing at the moment, but returning to a regularly scheduled life has been my first priority of late. I’ll get those out soon, though. For now, here are a few things of interest from this week.

  • Derek Alderman on MLK Streets
    My friend and former PhD Adviser Dr. Derek Alderman has made yet another major news appearance talking about the geographic legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. Obviously, this segment aired last Monday on ESPN. Derek shows up at 2:02, right after RFK announces MLK’s assassination.
  • History of Geography & Gender Conference, Istanbul
    This conference in August looks great, and it’s in Istanbul, too. Easily in one of my top ten cities yet-to-visit. Either way, if you’re able, drop a submission, and even see if you qualify for one of their paper awards.

Here is your weekly affirmation: a teenage choir from Vancouver that covers of Canadian indie rock anthems. This one may be my favorite.

 

‘The Last Scene’ Documentary Interview Filming

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Kyle Kilday checking levels before our interview for ‘The Last Scene,’ 12/30/19 Burbank, CA. This accidentally looks a bit like an emo album cover. 

Recently in LA, I sat down with Kyle Kilday, the director of the forthcoming documentary The Last Scene. Kyle invited me to talk about the turn-of-the-millennium burst of mainstream interest in pop-punk, hardcore, emo, and “emo.” We had a great conversation, and I’m looking forward to seeing the final product. If you’d like to support or learn more about the project, you can do so at the official website, here.

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Kyle Kilday, which you can’t spell without DIY.

Of Course Geography Matters (Nathan Rabin)

There was an instant chemistry between us [strangers at a Phish concert], both because we were fucked up and because we were all from the Midwest. I had once believed that the Internet had rendered geography irrelevant. If you can send ideas and energy out into the world, then why should it matter where you are physically?

That now seems naïve. Of course geography matters. Cities matter. Cities get in your bloodstream. They tell you who you are. They’re in your soul. They define you.

Nathan Rabin, You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me: Phish, Insane Clown Posse, and My Misadventures with Two of Music’s Most Maligned Tribes. 2013, Scribner.

Really enjoying this book.

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MetroTimes.com