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.

The Ben Irving Postcard Project: West Tennessee

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Lazy Sunday in Humboldt, TN, March 31, 2019. This and all images below belong to SonicGeography.com (All Rights Reserved).

Tennessee’s insane width (against its North-South length) presents a weird conundrum for anyone representing the state. Shortly after I moved to East Tennessee in 2013, a friend from Los Angeles surprised me with tickets to see FIDLAR at Exit/In in Nashville. I gave him a call on the long, winding, hour-losing ride home after the show to thank him, and he and I made vague plans should he ever come to Tennessee.

“If I ever get out there,” he said excitedly, “we’ve have to go to Graceland. I can’t miss that!”

I told him, in terms that wouldn’t put a huge damper on our conversation, that a trip to Graceland would require plastering at least three additional days onto his visit. For the amount of time we would spend in the car driving to Memphis (assuming some delays on I-40), drive to Tybee Island and jump in the Atlantic Ocean.

Largely for these reasons, my visit to Memphis for the wonderful Balancing the Mix conference at the end of March formulated my first trip to the Birthplace of Rock n’ Roll since 2011. For those doing the math, that was two years prior to my relocation to Knoxville. I’ve been a Tennessee resident for almost six years without one visit further West than Nashville. It’s disappointing, since I’ve met several visitors from Memphis, and I’ve been looking for a reason to get back out there. My 2011 visit, as brief as it was, clearly inspired me early in my geography career. One of the header images I use on this website is a photo of me standing outside of Sun Studios, after all.


Downtown Memphis (1935 / 2019)

Downtown Memphis, like I noted in my recent entry about re-tracing Ben Irving’s postcards in Nashville, reinforced a blanket notion about how increasingly privatized American cities have grown over the past few decades. Compared to when Ben mailed his postcards from Memphis (1935 and 1940), even the landmarks depicted have become surrounded by locked down landscapes.

MEMPHIS PARK

Before I made the (questionable) decision to check out Beale Street on that very cold and windy Saturday night, I stopped by Memphis Park, formerly Confederate Park, as seen in this postcard, mailed at midnight on March 16, 1935.

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Obviously, the park is still there. I stood at the corner of Front St. and Jefferson Ave. and snapped this, the only shot anywhere close to recreating the postcard image.

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Yeah, I’m fairly disappointed, too. The wind and cold were unbearable that night, which made even holding my phone-camera still enough to get the streetlights into focus nearly impossible. You can see the building in the background of both images. Today, it’s listed as the Cecil Humphreys School of Law (University of Memphis). In 1935, it was the Front Street Station US Post Office. The Court Square area was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in the early 1980’s.

In an attempt to subject myself to even more bitter winds at a slightly higher altitude, I looked around the intersection to see if I might get a superior angle. The first thing I noticed was a prominent parking garage opposite the intersection. Here’s a photo, which is actually ten times better than the above photo I took of the park. Figures.

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‘Ooh!’ I thought. That upper level appears to be wide open, maybe I can just walk up the steps if it’s a public gara-NOPE, SORRY, TYLER, EVERY BLOCK OF EVERYTHING WITHIN 20 MILES OF ANY AMERICAN CITY’S CBD IS PRIVATIZED AND GUARDED 24/7 BY (probably underpaid) ON-SITE SECURITY CONTRACTORS. HERE’S A GATE IN YOUR FACE NOW PLEASE LEAVE WITHOUT A FUSS, SIR:

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I’m sure my reaction wouldn’t have been so visceral had it not been miserably cold, but I would not have been any less disappointed. I was grateful that the twenty-first century had at least dumped the ‘Confederate’ from the park’s name in 2013. You win some, you lose some. Moving onto the much sunnier and less windy Sunday afternoon…

HOTEL CHISCA

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Thankfully, this one was a cinch.

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Hotel Chisca, considering how MLK’s assassination occurred a few blocks down the street, had been in a decades-long decline before it was restored earlier this decade into the modern apartments that opened in 2015. The building itself first opened in 1913 and was in full operation as such when Ben mailed this postcard on March 16,  1935. Historic Memphis has a good overview (with a great catalog of artifacts preserved) on their website, including this tidbit about the hotel’s role, like so many places around the city, in Rock n’ Roll history.

The hotel’s historic significance comes mainly from its connection to Elvis Presley.  From 1949-56, its mezzanine was the broadcast base for WHBQ radio’s “Red, Hot, and Blue” program.  It was from there that Dewey Phillips broadcast Elvis’ first record July 7, 1954.  And Elvis’ first radio interview was also conducted in the hotel by Phillips.  

While the streetcar lines seem to function mostly to carry tourists up and down Main Street, I was glad to see they were in operation, unlike the Desire line, which had been long since ripped out of Royal Street in New Orleans. Here are some pictures I took of the current iteration of the Chisca building on different sides.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. Well, Sage Francis said it a while back, but I’ll borrow it from him in light of my experiences recreating these images of urban spaces in the United States: “the only thing that stays the same is change.”


Downtown Humboldt (1935/2019)

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One of the more obscure locations from which Ben sent a postcard was Humboldt, Tennessee, a small down located on State Road 79, about 20 miles North of where I-40 runs today. As is my bad habit when leaving anywhere, I pushed the beginning of my (very long) drive home well beyond the time I originally planned. I’d say it was well worth it after finding an old, dusty copy of Booker T. and the MG’s’ Green Onions (Stereo press from 1968, not the original 1962 Mono… I’m not a millionaire). Still, the sun was quickly caving into the horizon on my back when I rolled into downtown Humboldt.

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From what I understand (and according to the Humboldt Historical Society), the town was on the L&N Railroad line. I think that Ben drove on most of his Depression journeys, but the railway still influenced his decision to pass through. I can only imagine how much Humboldt suffered following the demise of that line.

Since 1935, at least Main Street installed signal lights to handle the “onslaught” of traffic, and street parking had been sectioned off. Some of the buildings depicted in the gray-scale black and white postcard had also been knocked down and replaced. I walked up and down E. Main Street trying to figure out where, exactly, this original image had been taken. Thankfully, Sunday afternoon was relatively slow so I could stand in the middle of the street and not get run down. I made it all the way to the point where you can see those trees on the horizon of the postcard, where I found a small, public green space at the corner of Central Ave.

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The Humboldt Plaza 3 cinema didn’t appear to be doing heavy business, but it was open and people were wandering in and out of it. According to the best website on the internet Cinema Treasures, the theater opened with 800 seats in 1942, seven years after Ben passed through and mailed the postcard. It was triplex’d in the early 1980’s, I imagine because it was the eighties.

I thought it would be fairly straightforward since the postcard clearly indicated the street and vantage orientation. I had gotten a bit too far ahead of myself. After walking up and down both sides of the street, trying to match a scratchy black and white image from the 1930s with the small town’s current formation, I finally found my architectural Rosetta Stone:

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The building on the NW corner of Main and S. 13th Avenue still has its gorgeous sculpted awning, albeit in two different colors. The left side was painted black to foil the whitewashing, as was the ornamentation over the windows. Whomever duplexed and renovated this building really had to commit; just look at the window decoration in the middle. To one person, it may be tacky, but to me… well, it’s tacky, but I love it. They bricked over the middle window with, it appears, slightly different, newer bricks. I can’t stop looking at it. It’s so distracting.

So, here was my conclusion. I took the first photo at an angle from the south side of the street, and I took the second about ten yards too far back, but you get the idea:

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From what I can tell, the entire block opposite of the duplex building was torn down, eventually filled (sort of) with a newer Regions bank building. For a Sunday evening, there were a good handful of people wandering in and out of the Mexican restaurant and the movie theater. Strawberries featured prominently in the downtown corridor to signify the town’s annual Strawberry Festival, which appears to be Humboldt’s biggest tourist draw. I’m glad Ben Irving’s postcard drew me through here, the place seems to be a quintessential slice of West Tennessee that disappears under Memphis’ increasing weight.

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Alright – thanks to you (reader) for following this long long-term project on Sonic Geography, and thanks to the Ben Irving Postcard Collection for continuously providing a worthwhile distraction. Back to grading finals. Here are a couple more photos I took that don’t necessarily connect directly to the postcard sites, but I still love:

This Saturday: Balancing the Mix in Memphis

Memphis! I’m coming back to your city for the first time since 2011, when I took this iconic photo en route to California (below). What makes this even more amazing is that I’ve lived in Tennessee since 2013 and still haven’t been any further west (within the state) than Nashville. It’s a long state.

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I’m excited to debut some new work on MTV and the Symbolic Gentrification of the Music Video. If you’re in Memphis and/or at the conference on Saturday, it will be meeting at the Fogelman Center at the University of Memphis in Room 215 at 1:35 PM. The topic of the session will be “Music and Erasure.” I momentarily did a double-take when I saw that title, before realizing nobody was doing anything about the works of Vince n’ Andy. Looks like I’ll have to get on that.

Balancing the Mix is a conference about the convergence of music and activism that came together under the aegis of Mark Duffett and Amanda Nell Edgar. This will be my first time at a music conference that isn’t SEMSEC, and I’m looking forward to meeting everyone.