NPR FOR THE DEAF: We Hear It Even When You Can’t

true_compass_1.jpgFRESH AIR

listen.gifEdward M. Kennedy, who died Aug. 25, 2009 after serving 46 years in the U.S. Senate, kept careful notes and journals about his life for nearly 50 years. Now, in his posthumously published memoir True Compass, Kennedy reflects on the controversies, successes and tragedies of his famous family. The book, which was co-authored by Ron Powers, is published by Twelve Books. Jonathan Karp, editor-in-chief and publisher of Twelve, speaks with Terry Gross about his experiences working with the late senator in the final year of Kennedy’s life.


Hour 1
listen.gifAccording to the most recent Department of Labor statistics, there are nearly six workers available for every job opening in the United States. Nearly 10 percent of Americans are unemployed. Who are they and what are the emotional and financial challenges they face? And what are their prospects for returning to the workforce. We talk with Princeton Professor KATHERINE NEWMAN and CARL VAN HORN of Rutgers.

Hour 2
listen.gifIn 1832, 57 Irish Catholic laborers died about 30 miles from Philadelphia in a place that has come to be called “Duffy’s Cut.” The work crew had been brought to Malvern to lay one of the most difficult stretches of track along the Pennsylvania Railroad, but when cholera swept the camp, the men were left to die, their deaths hidden from their families, and they were buried in a mass, unmarked grave. Historians BILL WATSON, FRANK WATSON and JOHN AHTES join Marty to discuss a tragic chapter of American history, and what’s being revealed as they dig up the bodies.


listen.gifDuring this episode Jim and Greg celebrate the legacy of Big Star with a Classic Album Dissection of their first two records, #1 Record and Radio City. Both albums have recently been re-released as a double album, and a new Big Star box set is due out next week. As Jim and Greg discuss, the band changed the history of American music without selling very many records. With a sound that combined Memphis Soul with British Invasion rock, they laid the groundwork for “Power Pop” and influenced bands including R.E.M., Wilco and The Replacements. The original big_star_radiocity.jpgBig Star lineup included former Box Tops singer Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Andy Hummel and Jim and Greg’s guest this week, drummer Jody Stephens.

Following their discussion with Jody Stephens, Jim and Greg each discuss and play a song. Greg chooses to highlight the opening track from #1 Record called “Feel.” The song was written and performed by Chris Bell. While Alex Chilton is the name most people associate with Big Star, Bell really created it. Most of his incredible work didn’t see the light of day until after his death at age 26, but Greg thinks songs like “Feel,” illustrate the power of his voice and lyrics—many of which convey the problems he faced in his short life.

Jim plays a song written and performed by Alex Chilton from the second album called “September Gurls.” As he discussed with Jody earlier in the show, this was a breakout song for the band and one that was immediately adored by critics and fans including The Bangles, who later covered it. Jim’s not sure what the song means, but for him it’s more about the mood that Chilton created. With its sweeping melodies and “pan-sexuality” it’s a power pop classic.


ROCK SNOB ENCYCLOPEDIA: BIG STAR — It has been said that the genre of power pop — frail white man-boys with cherry guitars reinvigorating the harmonic convergence of the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Byrds with the caffeinated rush of youth- — is the revenge of the nerds. Big Star pretty much invented the form, which explains the worshipful altars erected to the band in the bedrooms of lonely, disenfranchised melody-makers from Los Angeles to London and points in between.Though they never came close to fame or fortune in their time, the band continues to hold a sacred place in the cosmology of pure pop, a glittering constellation that remains invisible to the naked mainstream eye. Succeeding generations of pop philosophers and aspiring rock Mozarts pore over the group’s music like biblical scholars hunched over the Dead Sea Scrolls, plumbing the depths of the band’s shadowy history, searching for meaning in Big Star’s immaculate conception and stillborn death.

bigstar_sisterlovers.jpgBig Star was the sound of four Memphis boys caught in the vortex of a time warp, reinterpreting the jangling, three-minute Brit-pop odes to love, youth and the loss of both that framed their formative years, the mid-’60s. Just one problem: It was the early ’70s. They were out of fashion and out of time. Within the band, this disconnect with the pop marketplace would lead to bitter disillusionment, self-destruction and death. But that same damning obscurity would nurture their mythology and become Big Star’s greatest ally, a formaldehyde that would preserve the band’s three full-length albums — No. 1 Record, Radio City and Sister Lovers/Third — as perfect specimens of classic guitar pop. That Big Star’s recorded legacy would go on to inspire countless alternative acts is one of pop history’s cruelest ironies — everyone from R.E.M. to the Replacements to Eliott Smith would come to see Big Star as the great missing link between the ’60s and the ’70s and beyond.

There is a dreamy, pre-Raphaelite aura that surrounds the legend of Big Star. Like the doomed, tender-aged beauties in Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel The Virgin Suicides, the tragic career of Big Star would unravel in the autumnal Sunday afternoon sunlight of the early 1970s. The band’s sound and vision hinged on the contrasting sensibilities of songwriters Alex Chilton and Chris Bell. In the gospel of Big Star, Bell is the sacrificial lamb — fragile, doe-eyed and marked for an early death. Chilton is the prodigal son, returning to Memphis after traveling the world, having tasted the bacchanalian pleasures of teen stardom with the Box Tops in the 1960s. Where Bell was precious and naive, Chilton was nervy and sardonic, but the band’s steady downward spiral would set him on the dark path of personal disintegration — booze, pills, violence and attempted suicide. Years later, he would reinvent himself as an irascible iconoclast and semi-ironic interpreter of obscure soul, R&B and Italian rock ‘n’ roll. Drummer Jody Stephens, the wide-eyed innocent of the group, and bassist Andy Hummel, the sly-grinning sphinx with the glam-rock hair, were the shepherds in the manger, midwives to the miracle birth. In the aftermath of Big Star’s collapse, Stephens would become a born-again Christian, and Hummel would go on to design jet fighters for the military, anonymous and happy behind the wall of secrecy his job would require. — BY JONATHAN VALANIA MORE

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