STAR POWER: Doing The Lord’s Work

Big Star Evangelists


ROCK SNOB ENCYCLOPEDIA: 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.

Big Star was the sound of four Mem­ph­is boys caught in the vor­tex of a time warp, re­in­ter­pret­ing the big_star_webposterjangling, 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 Re­place-ments 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. MORE