at Metro, May 6
By J.R. Jones
This summer promises a bumper crop of 70s nostalgia, with everyone from the J. Geils Band to Journey to Bruce Springsteen's E Street gang gearing up for big-ticket reunion tours. On its face, last Thursday's Big Star show seemed like more of the same: a band that folded 25 years ago pulling together an hour or so of old hits to cash in on our insatiable longing for the good old days. But Big Star never had any hits. The Memphis power popsters' first two albums, #1 Record (1972) and Radio City (1974), were critically lauded but crippled by distribution problems, and their bleak swan song, Third (aka Sister Lovers), was shelved until 1978, four years after the band had evaporated due to lack of interest. For Big Star fans the "good old days" are most likely sometime in the 80s or even the 90s, well after the band's demise, when they were turned on by a friend, intrigued by references in reviews of Sloan or the Apples in Stereo, or drawn in by the passionate testimonials of R.E.M., the Replacements, Matthew Sweet, or Teenage Fanclub.
Yet Alex Chilton, the defiantly blase singer and guitarist who wrote most of the songs, has been brushing off requests for Big Star numbers at his live shows almost since the band broke up. "A lot of those songs are kind of half-baked and not very well crafted," he told Guitar Player in 1994. "They didn't go through as rigorous a refinement stage as they should have, and a lot of them just seem kind of young." (Of course, their youthfulness is the source of their timelessness: on #1 Record, Chilton and songwriting partner Chris Bell, who died in a car accident in 1978, captured the rage, sorrow, and exuberance of adolescence with a mix of acoustic balladry, chiming Britpop, and raunchy guitar rock that sounds as fresh now as it did the day it was released.) So in April 1993, Chilton surprised a lot of people by agreeing to play a "reunion" show at the University of Missouri with Big Star drummer Jody Stephens and new recruits Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies.
More gigs and a live LP followed, but Chilton has never treated them as much more than easy money: the first time the new lineup played in Chicago, at Metro in June 1994, he didn't even join the other three for the encore. The perverse dynamics of the music industry scarred him at an age when most kids are only dreaming of rock stardom. At 16 he was drafted to front the Memphis band the Box Tops, and his first recorded performance, "The Letter," became one of the biggest singles of 1967. But like so many other teen idols, the Box Tops were a bunch of kids controlled by their management, and though they scored seven Top 40 hits, Chilton quit in disgust in early 1970.
Big Star has been widely mythologized as his artistic coming of age, an idea he now discredits. "With Big Star, all I was doing was joining Chris Bell's group, and all I did was to fit in with his concept of the group," he once told an Australian newspaper. "The things I've been doing since then are a lot more me than Big Star, which is something that disappoints a lot of Big Star fans."
In fact Bell left the band after #1 Record, leaving Chilton to write most of Radio City, and even Jody Stephens considers Sister Lovers Chilton's first solo album. But as Big Star recedes into the past, becoming more popular all the while, he seems increasingly inclined to lump its achievements in with the empty hit making of the Box Tops. Earlier this year Chilton did the oldies circuit with that band too, and the idea that he's doing the same thing with Big Star is a bitter pill for people who are still moved by its records. But no one forced them to shell out $20 a head last week, and Chilton laid his cards on the table way back in 1974, on Sister Lovers's "You Can't Have Me": "You can't have me, you can't have me / Not for free."
Given all this, one might have expected Chilton to phone in his performance at Metro, but he seemed to be having a grand time, hopping around the stage and belting out the songs as if he'd written them the day before. Stephens still knew every drum fill by heart, but Auer and Stringfellow deserved most of the credit for the high-powered show: they had every boogeying bass run and shimmering guitar lick down cold, and they played with a fan's adoration for the songs. They may need or want the cash as badly as Chilton--the Posies quietly broke up last year--but this clearly wasn't their main motivation.
According to Stringfellow, the two had to campaign hard for the chance to join Big Star in '93. "They really wanted Mike Mills and Paul Westerberg," he told an interviewer in 1996, "or Mike Mills and Matthew Sweet, or Matthew Sweet and Chris Stamey. That's who they really wanted--not so much Jody or Alex, but certainly the people putting on the show. They wanted some big names." Such a scenario would undoubtedly have been a one-shot deal at best, but Auer and Stringfellow have stuck around, and at the show Chilton never seemed more relaxed than when he was backing up the younger musicians on "I Am the Cosmos," "Back of a Car," and "Daisy Glaze."
"This one is dedicated to...uh...to me!" he announced at the end of the set. "It's called 'Slut.'" A nasty little rocker from Todd Rundgren's Something/Anything?, the song is one of several 60s and 70s covers exhumed by the band for its reunion shows. In his solo work Chilton has made a religion of unearthing long-forgotten pop, soul, and R & B tunes, demonstrating that Big Star isn't the only life-affirming music ever to get lost in the shuffle.
In his 1994 book It Came From Memphis, Robert Gordon argues that Big Star's commercial failure is one reason people love the band so dearly: "In Big Star's history fans confront the fear of having something important to say that no one will hear....The band's cult status helps listeners realize their lives are not in vain." Chilton acknowledged as much when he introduced a jubilant "Thank You Friends": "It's been a total gas," he said with uncharacteristic sincerity, "and you're the ones that make it so fun, because without you it'd just be a rehearsal." This time he was back for the encore, and after the lights went up he came out to shake hands; finally he sat down on the edge of the stage and chatted with fans until the room was cleared. No big star, no number one record, but perhaps in the music he found something to be nostalgic for after all.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.