Cover Story
A SIT-DOWN, LONG-FORM INTERVIEW WITH THE HOTTEST ACT AROUND
on July 09, 2013, 12:00am
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Jody Stephens: Radio City was May of ’73. We must’ve started in the latter part of ’73. Wasn’t Radio City actually released in January ’74? [Radio City and Third] were definitely recorded within a year of each other.

John Fry: By that time, it was down to just Alex and Jody, and so there were a lot of outside studio musicians who performed on that.

John Lightman: Well, what happened was, after I quit, six different people played bass on that Third album; they didn’t really have a band. Actually, I wouldn’t call that Big Star Third; I would call it Alex solo more than I would call that Big Star Third. Jody contributed almost, well, he played the drums, but the creative input all came from Alex.

Jody Stephens: I don’t know. I’ve looked at it a bunch of different ways. Sometimes I look at it and it’s an Alex project, and sometimes I look at it and I think there’s a lot of input there, so maybe it’s a Big Star record. But if you really look at it and think of the people involved… I mean, an Alex solo record for me would have been Alex on acoustic guitar and no other input. That’s kind of the way it is with any musician.

The band, the players play a pretty important role in anybody’s project. But Jim Dickinson’s production ideas and I actually had the idea to bring the strings in. I would think that there were some things that would be Alex and me and some things that are Alex and Jim Dickinson. At the end of the day, I think it’s a Big Star record. Listen to Alex’s first album that was identified as a solo record, and it’s so different.

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John Lightman: You can listen to the three albums. The first album, that’s a band, and those guys really play together. The second one was more loose. The third one, it’s like there’s no band here; it’s just Alex and people playing on it. And Alex is not the Alex of the first two albums, especially the first one.

Tav Falco: Alex was always interested in the next thing that was happening, whatever that was. Aesthetically it had to draw him in. He became interested in the Sex Pistols, The Cramps, which is very much unlike the Big Star work he had done. I think, really, his work with Jim Dickinson was a turning point. Dickinson had a different way of working than any producer Alex had worked with. He gave Alex the freedom to experiment, to get in touch with himself. Dickinson opened doors for Alex, and as much as Alex didn’t want to admit it, in real life, I think he owed a large degree of gratitude to Jim Dickinson.

John Fry: For Third, Alex had said, “I think I need a producer. Can you get Jim Dickinson to do this?” Jim was the first guy that I ever worked with who was introduced to me as being an independent record producer. I said, “Yeah, I’ll call him.” [Jim] said, “Of course I want to do it.” So he was like super hands-on for that whole thing.

Jody Stephens: Jim got involved with the band for the Third album. It was Alex’s call to bring him in. We had never had a proper producer per se, or an independent. It was really nice having Jim to lean on and look to because there was so much respect for him that it was easy to go in after playing through a song and look at him and say, “What do you think?” and respect his opinion. Not to mention that he’s a really creative guy and can be wacky in a good way when he needs to be. On the Third album, Jim actually played drums on “O, Dana”. Jim definitely played on “Kangaroo” and a couple of other songs.

Tav Falco: Jim understood that it’s the secret life of the artist that matters and not much else. That’s what a producer has to bring out.

Chris Stamey: My memory of the songs on the Third record is from playing them live with Alex during the short time I played with him in NYC in the CBGB era; songs like “Holocaust” and “Kangaroo” and “Nighttime” are things we’d do regularly in our sets in clubs. Of course we also did “O My Soul”, “Back of a Car”, all the other ones (even “Watch the Sunrise”, although hard to believe that now), but the songs from Third were the ones where Alex would stretch out and pull at the fabric.

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Jody Stephens: And the Third album, there were acoustic demos, but it was pretty much, from what I remember, walking into the studio and hearing the song for the first time and recording it. By that time I had a bit of experience. It seemed to work. I can hear little mistakes. In “Take Care”, there’s a place where there’s a different kind of meter, a different time signature that I missed, and so the snare comes in at a wrong place. But in the scheme of things, it just adds mystery to the song. So even the mistakes can be actually appealing.

John Lightman: You can hear how loose and disjointed it sounds, like it’s about to fall apart at any minute, when you listen to that stuff. It’s hard for me to listen to because I knew what was going on at that time, and it was not happiness. It was a lot of angst, a lot of hard, hard feelings.

John Fry: I think it’s all interconnected. Jim Dickinson was a really smart guy, and he says in the documentary that Third is about the dissolution of relationships. Jody always said it was about Midtown [laughs], the neighborhood we were in.

John Lightman: To me, music is communication, and when you have a band, you potentially have something where the song is greater than the parts because everybody is on the same page playing the same song, and they’re communicating with each other a little bit. That’s the result that speaks to other people, because there’s something tight among the people that are in the group producing that music that says something to people. But if you got people that are just going through the motions and don’t even talk to each other, that is going to be reflected in the music.

Ivo Watts-Russell: Like Berlin or Songs of Love and Hate, Sister/Lovers has a reputation for being a miserable and/or difficult record. That couldn’t be further from the truth for me. All three are consistent in mood and occupy a totally unique place in my heart.

Jody Stephens: Sister/Lovers was actually something Alex came up with as something we might call ourselves other than Big Star. It was something that was talked about for maybe five minutes.

Ivo Watts-Russell: “Kangaroo” was as much of an eye-opener in terms of its “on the verge of collapse at any moment” beauty, in 1975, as anything Syd Barrett had previously left behind. For the cowbell alone that track deserves respect. If I hadn’t chosen “Kangaroo” and “Holocaust” for TMC to cover, it might just as easily have been “Nightime” or “Take Care”.

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Jody Stephens: Of all the Big Star songs that I thought would never have been covered, “Kangaroo” was probably the one that I figured would never be covered. But interestingly enough, This Mortal Coil did that along with “Holocaust”.

John Fry: Everything in the world was just melting down around us. Third sat on the shelf for several years before it got some minor releases in ‘78. Jim Dickinson and John King went around and shopped that thing to every major label in the country, and nobody would touch it. It was just like foreign territory. There were two of Jim’s good friends who were very high level A&R people; one of them said, “Jim, I find this music very disturbing,” and the other said, “Jim, I hope I don’t have to listen to this again.”

Pete Yorn: Some people tend to like it. I know at the time I don’t even think the guys in the band liked it. It didn’t come out for a little bit and had a delayed release, but then it seemed to be pretty influential. I’ve got to be honest; it’s not one of the records that I am that familiar with. I know a couple songs on it and dig it, but I’ve never really sat and really dug into that one. People dig it. There’s some fun rock songs on it. Maybe it just represents some sort of triumph and the fact that even the artists at the time maybe were kind of burnt out and didn’t realize how good their material was. Eventually it’s cool that it found its niche and found the respect that it deserves. If anything, that kind of story is always cool, the underdog story.

Ken Stringfellow: I think it satisfies the indie way of thinking; there’s a dream of albums that are made without any regards to commercial outcome, that are free of the influence of the marketplace. It’s uncompromised. In many ways it is one of the first documents that presages the indie way of thinking we find today… other stand-alone, uncommerical albums — The White Noise, The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders are so quirky that they’re more curiosities. But Third sounds like us, this generation, now in many ways.

Ivo Watts-Russell: I was lucky enough to borrow (from UK journalist John Tobler) one of the white labels that had been printed up of their third album. You can imagine how easy it was, especially given its rarity at the time, to fall head over heels in love with that record. I can’t remember the exact track listing, but I’ve a feeling it was different to the version finally released by PVC in, what, 1978?

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Jody Stephens: I don’t ever think that there was ever an official order; it was put on vinyl in a particular way, so I would think that there was some thought that went into that. I don’t know whose input that was but at least there was some thought that went into that song order that was on the white label vinyl.

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