Never travel far without a little Big Star
I can recall several years ago – had to be about ’87 – I had just set out on my own after finishing college. I found myself living in a big house in Iowa City, Iowa with a handful of other artsy types: writers (it was on the same street where John Irving had once lived) film-makers, musicians and me, an artist who wanted to paint for food and a roof. Well, I got pretty hungry most of the time, but man oh man, did that house reverberate with great music! One band, especially, knocked me out.
There seemed to always be a game of wiffle ball in the yard along the side of the house and the speakers were always providing the day’s soundtrack. That’s when I first heard Big Star. I knew Alex Chilton, knew he was in the Box Tops at an early age, knew he was pretty funky, loved that Slim Harpo medley he did, knew the Replacements song and knew that he was some kind of cult hero/genius, but sadly, I didn’t know Big Star. I had heard the name, but that was about it.
So when “Feel” hit me I tried to figure out who it was. Didn’t want to appear ignorant around my new friends. Aerosmith? No. Let’s wait for the next song… “Ballad of El Goodo” definitely not Aerosmith. OK, gonna have to just wait for the hit song to come up. “In The Street”…hmm, Todd Rundgren? I think I made it one or two more songs, “Thirteen” and “Don’t Lie To Me,” when I realized I had never heard any of these songs before and wasn’t going to be able to guess who it was.
“It’s Big Star,” I was told after I finally begged, “Who is this”. Now, it made sense. Now I know why Alex Chilton was so revered. I was so overwhelmed by the music coming out of that window. I quickly asked if I could put the CD onto a cassette. I was told that it was actually two albums on one disc, #1 Record and Radio City. I got the cassette and found it had Sister Lover on the flip side. I played that tape to death.
It wasn’t just the exquisitely crafted power pop gems; there was a depth in the songs that showed the full range of the human condition. It wasn’t always pretty and lilting. It could be visceral and angular with sharp, brittle edges. You had to listen with one eye always open.
Alex Chilton did the Big Star thing and then he quickly moved on, never really able to balance the sweet harmony and the jagged discord. Did he stop trying or did he figure that that Alex Chilton was somebody else?
Whatever the answer, it goes without saying that the impact his music had is significant. He may not have been known to the general public, but if you ask musicians, chances are they will go on and on about the man.
There is a group of musicians, mostly all from St. Louis, who will be doing some talking about Alex Chilton and Big Star, but mostly they will be playing his music to pay tribute to the musician who died earlier this year at the age of 59. The event is called September Gurls & Boys: A Tribute to Alex Chilton & Big Star. Thirteen (is that a coincidence) bands playing some of the greatest pop songs ever written will take place on Friday, September 24 at Off Broadway. And all proceeds benefit the only radio station in St. Louis that plays Big Star: 88.1 KDHX.