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 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 Flaming Lips, Mick Cornett, and the Selling of Oklahoma City

[I wrote this a few months ago upon hearing about my former colleague’s passing. Due to travel and teaching commitments, I unfortunately never completed it. In the interest of getting this out of my drafts folder, I’ve decided to publish it and give you all some reading material for this Monday morning. This may become a paper about the US Mayors’ Conference and “the selling of” cities on day. We’ll see. – Tyler]


I received some very sad news recently from some colleagues from my DC life. John, our longtime Managing Director at the PR firm where I worked passed away from cancer at age 70. As tragic as the news was to hear, it was nice for us to share some memories of perhaps the best person I  ever have been so fortunate to work under. I went through old files to see if I had any mementos of John, with no luck. However, it did lead me down a rabbit hole of memories from my twenties, some stories which would find a good home on this site now. I don’t think I’ve shared this story anywhere online, either, so here we go.

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A good way to get a photo op with Mayor Steve Benjamin was to show up in the same suit. I had no idea that Columbia, SC would eventually become one of my favorite southern cities, and this photo would become a running joke between me and friends I would make there. Strange.

The best assignment I had for that job sent me to Oklahoma City in 2010 for the US Conference of Mayors. Twice a year (once in DC and once in a roving location), leaders of towns and cities from across the country meet to trade tips on civic programs, navigating political minefields, image curation, and other tacit knowledge. Despite the number of big-name politicians in attendance (some of whom are currently countenancing Presidential campaign rumors), I don’t remember the meeting getting much national media coverage outside of our radio campaigns. Since few of these mayors are real celebrities, it didn’t get the slathered attention of an election-year Democratic or Republican National Convention. That being said, CNN was on hand, going live with then-LA-mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who deflected rumors that his city was considering bankruptcy. What was going on in LA in 2010 that would have generated such rumors is beyond my immediate knowledge.

As one might expect, the host mayor is keen to show their city off to visiting dignitaries quite enthusiastically. Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett was that host, and show the city off he did. In 2010, he was in the midst of a banner era in his mayoral tenure. He appeared on Ellen in 2008 on the success of his anti-obesity campaign, giving Ellen Degeneres her own holiday in the city. The next year, the Thunder rocketed into playoff contention, bringing the city and state onto the national basketball stage and facing the Lakers in a contentious playoff series. What Cornett had going for his spectacle, though, was something intangible that his fellow Mayors would have killed for: the cool.

Most Mayors, especially for non-Major cities, are very down to earth. Their governance does not span an insurmountable area, so it’s easier for them to be on the street, interacting with their constituents and actually functioning like the citizens they need to impress. Though there are plenty of opportunities to get involved with corruption, the instances seem fewer and farther between; they are still beholden to their neighbors. It also follows that Mayors are predominantly Democrats, people of color, and in some cases LGBT.

CIMG7463Cornett was none of those things, but coming from within Red-State political hegemony didn’t prevent him from charming everyone by propping up his city’s greatest counter-cultural export: The Flaming Lips. His committee arranged for the band to play a private concert for the conference attendees and their families. All of the conference contractors got passes, too. As a music nerd who came of age when the Lips were at their creative and critical peak (1999’s The Soft Bulletin and 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots mobilize something of a consensus here), imagine my excitement when I read that they were in the program for the third night.

I’ll get to the concert shortly. On the first night, the coordinating committee set up a private tent near the Sonic headquarters in Bricktown, the finely redeveloped, expertly walk-able downtown area. The party’s location came at the hands of some meticulous planning. It gave them an excuse to show off the relatively flashy downtown district (which, according to members of Red City Radio, the city paid for with a 1-cent sales tax hike).

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On the river-walk next to the Sonic headquarters. I don’t remember what this band sounded like, but judging by the cargo shorts, I’d say Jimmy Buffett got covered at some point.

On the second night, the conference piled everyone onto chartered buses and, with an roving wall of police escorts, led us out to a big warehouse in the city’s hinterland. Before we got a taste of Cool Oklahoma, we were to indulge in every Cowboy stereotype imaginable. A country string band played on a stage built on the opposite end from the entrance. A electronic Buckin’ Bronco ride sat immediately to the right, and a set of lanes for tossing Horseshoes sat between bales of imported hay to our left. In all fairness, “played Horseshoe against my boss in Oklahoma” is a claim few DC yuppies ever got to make. The well-orchestrated hoedown was fun, between the two-stepping lessons, barbecue, and open bars that surrounded us. I vaguely remember having a wonderful conversation with Mitch Ward, a retired actor and then the mayor of Manhattan Beach, CA, while standing in line at one of them.

 

On the third night, everyone headed over to the Ford Center (then in its final year with that name; it’s now named Chesapeake Energy Arena). We waited in the concourse, where they set up snack and drink tables, along with (from what I recall) showcases of local students’ artwork. I snapped a photo of a big mural they had painted that said, in airbrush-novelty font, “Rock and Roll with the Flaming Lips.” At the time, it seemed somewhat tacky and off-putting, but in retrospect they probably employed a local artist and some printers for a few days in order to make it, so who was I to hurl judgment? It was eye-catching.

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After an incongruously formal dinner program, a succession of mayors took the stage to make a succession of presentations. By this point, many of us were excited for the musical program to begin, so it started to feel as if it was dragging. Granted, it was entertaining to see public officials let loose and make speeches at varying levels of intoxication. Once the dinner program ended and the staff cleared the tables up front, Cornett got back onstage to introduce the band. The Oklahoma City Philharmonic filed into their seats. My coworkers and I migrated towards the stage, hearing a commotion coming from the bleachers a couple stories above our heads. We looked up to our left to see the 300 level filling up with hundreds of people who had just been unleashed from the concourse.

It had somehow eluded me that so many of the volunteers we had met in the course of the three activity-filled days, the local welcoming committee and the cogs who made it possible for Cornett’s machine to operate through the conference, were paid with free passes to this show. “Huh,” I thought, “That’s actually kind of brilliant.” I felt guilty being on the floor while the volunteers were sequestered up in the nosebleeds, but at least they all had a clear sight line down to the stage for what would be a 20-minute set. Also, the band (Coyne and Drozd, at least) came down to hang out and take photos with conference attendees for a long while after their set, so it would have been chaos if they’d allowed all of the volunteers onto the floor, too.  There were already enough indie dorks telling Wayne Coyne about how long they had been fans, how cool it was that the band did this gig, and other niceties. The best part was that Coyne and a couple of his band mates were so nice to everyone, no matter how monopolizing particular fans attempted to be.

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Just a couple of similarly dressed guys with ambiguously pronounced last names.

My boss and I got to chat with Steve Drozd, and we both took photos with him and his baton. He had just conducted an orchestra for the first time, and the excitement that he radiated was hilarious. My favorite moment of that whole week came when he looked at my name tag and asked me how to pronounce my last name. “Sonic-sun,” I replied, “How do you pronounce your last name?” “Draw-zid” he replied, answering a question I’d had wandering in my head ever since I first read his name in the pages of SPIN a decade earlier. Drozd’s prior decade, given his recovery from a somewhat well-documented heroin addiction, represents one of indie rock’s great redemption stories.

I witnessed an even greater fan-moment nearby a minute later. My friend/coworker Rebecca got Coyne to pose for a picture where they were both running a hand through their big, curly manes. There was nothing of deeper significance to this, but it was satisfying how Rebecca saved the rock star from a trio of bro’s who were monopolizing his time, prattling on about their cultural capital as Lips fans.

Whenever I’ve recounted this weekend to friends, I often pinpoint a few specific moments of epiphany, and Mick Cornett featured in all of them. After the concert ended, they arranged for a private after-party on the roof of a highly-regarded Italian restaurant in Bricktown whose roof patio overlooked Flaming Lips Alley. Later in the night, I wound up chatting with Cornett’s son (around my age), and Mick came over to join us. Within a few minutes, Cornett was proudly telling me how he pushed to help both name that alley after the Flaming Lips as well as help name “Do You Realize!?” Oklahoma’s State Rock song, both in the face of adversity from some real squares.

This made perfect sense. I wouldn’t be surprised if his kids left for college in the late 90’s and reported back to him about this band from OKC that everyone loved.  Additionally, The Flaming Lips are nothing if not prolific collaborators. Wayne Coyne has been vocal about his dedication to Oklahoma City, too, fighting to make the it less of a flyover and more of a destination. Conference attendees walked away with a free copy of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots on CD, left in our hotel rooms by the local welcoming committee. The committee also left us limited edition copies of No Fences. I never imagined that I would own a Garth Brooks CD, but here we are. It’s good; I understand why it sold over 10 million copies.

Anyway, here is the video I discovered in the course of my archival search that sent me down this detour of memory lane. Wayne Coyne thanks Mayor Cornett, has the crowd congratulate Steven Drozd on his orchestra conducting debut, and introduces the Yo La Tengo cover. Enjoy everything coming together in a strange way.

Brain Massage: The Radio Dept. and Fan Videos

The Radio Dept. are Swedish band who make perfect soundtracks for riding trains into stations at dusk, wandering around a beautiful city far from home, or just flipping through old photo albums and wondering where the years have gone.

When I come around to my unit on Sweden and the pop music industry in GEOG 371: Exploring Europe, narrowing down the bands I want to sample in my lectures is nearly impossible. Choosing one artist to represent a country,  language, or nation is always daunting, but for Sweden, I need to content with a nearly overwhelming volume. Stockholm and her smaller urban counterparts have been consistently grinding out both chart-topping hits and beloved indie pop gems for as long as I can remember. I remember seeing Refused destroy their instruments in the octagon back in 1998, which blew my teenage mind. In college, I sold some friends on Randy by simply naming off their song titles. Although I was reading Rolling Stone and devouring MTV news documentaries as often as they would air them at the time, I somehow missed that Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, and many others owed their platinum success to Max Martin and the late Denniz Pop. Over the years, I would fill in these gaps in my knowledge while keeping tabs on the hottest Swedish artists diligently packaged and sold by indie labels. From what I remember of late 2006, it was impossible to go out anywhere in the DC area without hearing Peter, Bjorn, and John at some point.

In late 2010, I discovered Lund’s The Radio Dept. and wondered why it had taken me so long. Songs like “The Worst Taste in Music” and “Pulling our Weight” were exactly what my brain-soul Venn diagram needed at that time in my life. I included their music on my podcast (I believe they concluded an episode where I interviewed Harry Shearer, making for an odd but good juxtaposition), and sent their songs to anyone who would listen. I got one chance to see them at the Rock n’ Roll Hotel in Northeast DC on February 1, 2011. I was just out of touch enough with indie music trends to sleep on getting tickets; the show sold out fast. Fortunately, I found a face-value ticket on Craig’s List. The show was pretty good. No fireworks, no “duuuuuuuuuude you have to see this band before you die” sentiments, but pretty good. They took longer to come back for an encore (a ten minute wait for the demure and sweet “1995“) than any band I’d ever seen. I suspected that their blogger-bred reputation of being somewhat elusive and cranky was well-earned.

Recently, my friend in Long Beach sent me photos of The Radio Dept. playing a gig in Los Angeles, and I then spent the better part of the week catching up on the group. I was sizing up their music videos on YouTube for possible use introducing my Sweden lecture in a few weeks, and I discovered (or was at least reminded that) they have relatively few for a band of their renown. Again, this may have to do with their introverted, pointedly non-corporate approach to making and releasing music (see: their long gaps between albums).

In the course of this search, I found a handful of fan videos set to Radio Dept. songs. Fan videos, in a similar vein to fanzines, are publications created outside the artist’s purview. They use a particular song as a soundtrack to accompany film footage, and the Radio Dept. make exquisite music for this. Their dream-pop aesthetic, especially their more instrumental songs, creates a beautiful bed for equally dreamy footage.

There isn’t a heavy academic underpinning to this entry; I just wanted to revive my habit of spreading The Radio Dept’s musical love. I can see myself making something this an assignment in a future class, incorporating production, music, and geography. If I had a computer that could better handle video editing, I would start making these all the time, to procrastinate, inevitably.

Sidetrack: Pavement and California Anti-Geography

As a thirty-something white person who wears glasses and has been to grad school, I love the band Pavement. I’m taking a quick break from my California Excursion updates (I have a massive entry coming soon for Part III) to bring back up one of my favorite Geography 101 assignments. I had the opportunity last night to see Spiral Stairs (aka Scott Kannberg) play a great set of songs with his current band that mixed Pavement classics on which he sang lead like “Date with Ikea,” “Two States,” and “Kennel District” with songs off his two solo albums. It had been a little while since I’d properly geeked out over Pavement, and last night’s show gave me a perfect excuse to, so thanks to Jason Boardman and the Pilot Light crew for that.

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As I alluded to in my entry two years ago, Pavement were hard to pin down geographically. The two founding members of the band, Kannberg and Stephen Malkmus, grew up together in Stockton, a Central Valley city that has become infamous over the past few decades for blight and poor urban planning around its social issues.  The other three members who rounded out the classic lineup of the band came from scattered points on the East Coast, which ultimately spelled the end of the band in 1999 when distance between them all made it unsustainable to keep going.

I just found this relatively new lyric video somebody made for their song “Unfair,” an album track on Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (Matador, 1994) which runs through points on the California map similar to how Damon Albarn sang Blur’s way around England on “This is a Low.” I’ll embed it here for your enjoyment.

As I was telling my friend last night, one thing I really have grown to appreciate about Pavement over the years is just how overwhelmingly ordinary the five of them are. None of them really look like you’d expect them to be in a band, much less one of the most genre-defining of their era. To this day, I still get skeptical when I see a band who look like a band; take that for what it’s worth. Either way, my friend asked me which album to start out with, so I had to be honest and just rank their five studio albums for him rather than single one out in particular…

  1. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994)
  2. Brighten the Corners (1997)
  3. Slanted & Enchanted (1992)
  4. Wowee Zowee (1995)
  5. Terror Twilight (1999)

Outside of Terror Twilight (which is still very good, don’t get me wrong) being last, I feel like a lot of indie rock fans would disagree with me on that order, which is encouraged here. Also, some of the band’s non-album tracks like “Frontwards” and “Debris Slide!” (which may be directly inspired by CA… hard to know) are essential as well. And though it isn’t one of my favorites, Pavement also contributed a single “Painted Soldiers” to the Kids in the Hall movie ‘Brain Candy,’ which leads me to end this entry and tease my upcoming one on the California trip: Scott Thompson will make an appearance.