CoS Exclusive FeaturesCover Story

Don’t Lie to Me: An Oral History of Big Star

on July 09, 2013, 12:00am
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It would be something of a misstatement to label Big Star the quintessential American band. No doubt the band’s influence has stretched leaps and bounds beyond the group’s original reach, but quintessence denotes a purity, and Big Star is anything but pure. It’s a mutt, a hybrid of styles, a fusion of worlds, and a revelation of spirits. Big Star was and is a melting pot, blending Delta and country blues with British Invasion harmonies, Memphis soul rhythms, and honest, straightforward lyricism. It was guitar-based rock ‘n’ roll but unlike anything heard before. The music spoke to its audience, not at it, and gave listeners, as Adam Duritz described, “direct gut-level access to what was going on inside.” History and hindsight point to Big Star as the band that provided the blueprint for future sounds such as ’70s power pop, ’80s college alternative, ’90s emotionally vulnerable songwriters, and the retro hybridization of it all during this century.

Big Star is the epitome of American rock ‘n’ roll.

Many musicians who began their earnest careers in the ’80s or early ’90s would declare that Big Star changed everything (or at least a good bit). Without Big Star it might be argued that American groups such as R.E.M. and The Replacements may never have left their basements and that British acts like Teenage Fanclub may have simply carried on with their “Catholic education” rather than come down from the Scottish Highlands. The magnificence found in Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend might never have been realized, and songwriters like Pete Yorn, Sharon Van Etten, and Kurt Vile, rather than producing compelling and emotionally provoking music, might be practicing accounting (though, according to Yorn, his sucking at math might have prevented that outcome).

Wilson-1209aDecember-10,-2011Alex-Chilton,-Andy-Hummel,-band,-Chris-Bell,-color,-group,-Jody-Stephens,-promotional,-windowsillFate seemed to conspire against a nascent Big Star. Whether it was losing band members with each subsequent record or losing its distribution via Columbia Records after a deal fell through, Big Star’s music spent more time lining the halls of Ardent Studios than it did careening on American airwaves. After a bootleg reissue of the group’s first two albums as a double gatefold LP was released in England in the mid-to-late ’70s, Big Star found a somewhat attentive audience in the UK. Only then did that interest begin rippling back across the pond, eventually landing in towns like Athens, GA, and Minneapolis.

Prior to the advent of the Internet, there were many records and groups that simply could not be found or obtained easily. Big Star was among them. In 1992 when a revived Stax released the first two albums on a single compact disc and Rykodisc reissued Third/Sister Lovers, Big Star Live, and Chris Bell’s solo material as the collection I Am the Cosmos, Big Star’s music was at once readily available to the public at large. A release of the group’s 1974 WLIR rehearsal (not the actual performance heard on Big Star Live) also came out near the decade’s end, in addition to numerous collections and compilations. Despite the accessibility of the music and the group’s songs being used in films and TV shows such as That ’70s Show, the mythos surrounding Big Star remained.

In recent years, there’s been active progress in correcting that: revealing the truths behind the myths, stories, and, above all, the music. Keep an Eye on the Sky (2009) is perhaps the most comprehensive collection of Big Star music yet released. Complete with early demos and rare outtakes, when placed next to the group’s three albums, it presents a fuller, truer picture of these men as frail and fractured human beings far more than the martyred angels many came to see them as.

That picture is literally made even more complete with the release of Nothing Can Hurt Me, the first full-on documentary of the life and music of Big Star. Though their final chapter as a band may have closed, and Jody Stephens has said that the band officially is no more, the group and its music live on through live performances of Big Star’s Third. With Carl Marsh’s original string parts finally written out and new arrangements by Chris Stamey and a rotating cast of players that includes original members and familiar faces like R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, Pete Yorn, Sharon Van Etten, Kurt Vile, and more, the group’s music is set to pass down to another generation.

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Talking with musicians and mentors, friends and fans, the history of Big Star from the early days of Icewater and the Box Tops up to the group’s reformation, through all the disillusionment and disappointment, all the chaos and the cool, is revealed and all through the words of those involved, inspired and influenced by Big Star.

It all began when John Fry, founder of Ardent Studios in Memphis, walked into his office and saw a cocksure Chris Bell sitting in Fry’s chair with his feet propped up on his desk. Things in rock ‘n’ roll were about to change forever.

John Fry (owner/founder Ardent Studios, producer, engineer, Big Star mentor): He was hanging out with some of the musicians that were coming over there. That was kind of how the place ran back then. I don’t know what he was doing other than occupying my space.

Jody Stephens (drummer, Big Star founding member): I was introduced to Chris Bell and Steve Rhea the first time I actually walked through the door at Ardent. Their little project was called Icewater. They were engineering themselves and recording. They were probably 18 at that point.

John Fry: He was in a bunch of bands. There were all these really early bands like the Janx and Icewater and all that kind of thing. He fell in with Steve Rhea, sadly dead now, and Andy Hummel, and they were doing stuff together.

Jody Stephens: I had just been reconnected with Andy through a play at Memphis State. It was the first college production of Hair, and I was playing drums, but I was still in high school. We all got together to practice; no, the first time I met Steve was at practice at Chris Bell’s back house, or a “get together and play” kind of thing. And then the next time I ran into Steve was at Ardent.

John Fry: And then Steve went off to college at SMU.

Jody Stephens: He was going back to school, so they needed a drummer. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time.

John Fry: First time I saw Alex [Chilton] he was in the Box Tops, and Dan Penn, their producer, had started to come and do some sessions at Ardent. He was there one day, and I walked in and I’m looking around and I’m saying, “Where’s the artist?” There’s this kid sitting on the floor in the corner, and I’m going, “Oh, that’s Alex.” [Laughs]

Jody Stephens: I think the Box Tops had done some work here at Ardent.

Pete Yorn (singer/songwriter, Big Star fan): The Box Tops’ song [“The Letter”], my parents loved that song but I had never put it together. I heard some funny story that he smoked a whole carton of cigarettes (he was like 17 years old) to get his voice really deep for the recording of that song. That was such a monster hit. It was cool to know that Alex had such a big hit before Big Star.

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Jody Stephens: He did a solo record at Ardent with Terry Manning producing. It was the 1970 album actually.

John Fry: Yeah, and actually it should be called 1969. He was scared to death that he wasn’t out of all of his Box Tops entanglements. So he says we better call it 1970, and I said laughing, “Okay, whatever.” He was pretty happy to break free of all that Box Tops stuff. He was doing 200 nights on the road for what, you know.

John Lightman (bass player, Big Star 1974): After the Box Tops, he was offered all kinds of money to do all sorts of things, and he said I’m going to do my own thing. I’m gonna write my songs; I’m gonna play guitar; I’m going to record them where I want to record them. I’m not going to do what anybody wants me to do; I’m going to do what I want to do. He turned his back on all of that potential empty fame in favor of being his own man.

Jody Stephens: Alex was looking to move back to Memphis from New York, and I think Chris had been lobbying to get him in the band.

John Lightman: Alex had been doing his solo thing in New York without much success, so he came back. He heard the group, you know, it was a three-piece group, and he asked if he could join.

John Fry: Chris and Jody and Andy were here. They had gone up with Steve Rhea to New York where Alex was up there playing a lot of solo acoustic gigs. They saw him and said hey we’ve got this band and we’re going to have the opportunity to make an album (because the whole Stax thing was just revving up), and they asked him if he wanted to come back to Memphis and join in and he said, “Yeah, okay.”

Jody Stephens: Alex came to see us at a VFW Hall in downtown Memphis. I guess he must’ve liked what he saw. I think that was December of 1970; could be January.

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