Arts Desk

Dying to See You, I’m Down on the Floor: How I Almost Played with Alex Chilton, and Other Big Star Memories

alex-chil

The first Big Star album I ever bought was Third/Sister Lovers. This was a mistake. I'd seen the band referenced in what seemed to be every third review at the time (partly because Kurt Cobain discovered that he suddenly had control over a lot of people's eardrums), and when I decided to see what the fuss was about, the record guide I consulted rated Third/Sister Lovers as Big Star's only five-star album. And so I was introduced to what was to become my second-favorite band of all time by listening to it fall apart.
It was intensely uncomfortable, and without any context, it made practically zero sense. It was like wanting to know more about this Neil Young fellow and starting out with Tonight's the Night. I honestly can't say what made me investigate Big Star further; it could be that I had discovered the Bangles' “September Gurls” and figured that there was more to the story than Third/Sister Lovers indicated. Whatever the reason, I got #1 Record/Radio City—the CD I should have bought in the first place and still my pick for the greatest value of any single disc ever manufactured—and my love affair with Big Star officially began.
Though I did the whole thing backwards, the conversion, when it happened, was quick and thorough. Within a year or two, I had transcribed the guitar parts for a bunch of Big Star and posted them to Usenet. “O My Soul” went up the day before I graduated from college; it felt like the last exam of my college career. They're floating around the Internet to this day. Several years ago, a band for which I was playing bass decided it wanted to cover “September Gurls.” It was my transcription that the guitarists printed out. And, as it happens, they altered it to make fun of me for spending my time on such nonsense in the first place.
I never saw Big Star live, though I did catch Alex Chilton doing a solo show at the Paradise in Boston in 2001. Normally, I'd stand in the middle of the room to get a decent sound mix, but this time, I planted myself right against the stage so I could watch him without any obstructions. He was as cantankerous as advertised, playing mostly oldies like “Volare” and the occasional nugget from his solo career.
Even so, he played two Big Star songs. Unfortunately, I don't remember what they were. What I do remember is that at one point, someone called out for “September Gurls.” He motioned to the bassist and drummer that made up his entire band and pointed out that they were one guitar player short. I don't know what prompted me to shout “I'll do it!,” but I did, and Chilton looked at me and said, “Well, come on up.”
And I froze. I had no idea if he was serious or not, and if he wasn't, I didn't want to be... well, that guy. It could have been two seconds later, it could have been 10, it could have been a minute, but the next thing I knew, Chilton had begun the next song, and I remained paralyzed right where I had been all night. To this day, I still don't know whether he was joking or not when he offered me a chance to play one of the few utterly perfect songs in the world alongside the man responsible for its existence.
It was a missed opportunity, maybe. But that was just one; Big Star's entire story plays like a parade of them. Chilton lived through his band's failure to get anybody who was there at the time to pay attention, and he shrugged it off, not without some frustration, and just kept moving. And though he died yesterday at the age of 59, he lived long enough to do a few victory laps as several generations discovered what he'd been doing for a few years at the top of the '70s. Even if they did it in the wrong order.

The first Big Star album I ever bought was Third/Sister Lovers. This was a mistake. I'd seen the band referenced in what seemed to be every third review at the time (partly because Kurt Cobain discovered that he suddenly had control over a lot of people's eardrums), and when I decided to see what the fuss was about, the record guide I consulted rated Third/Sister Lovers as Big Star's only five-star album. And so I was introduced to what was to become my second-favorite band of all time by listening to it fall apart.

It was intensely uncomfortable, and without any context, it made practically zero sense. It was like wanting to know more about this Neil Young fellow and starting out with Tonight's the Night. I honestly can't say what made me investigate Big Star further; it could be that I had discovered the Bangles' “September Gurls” cover and figured there was more to the story than Third/Sister Lovers indicated. Whatever the reason, I got #1 Record/Radio City—the CD I should have bought in the first place and still my pick for the greatest value of any single disc ever manufactured—and my love affair with Big Star officially began.

Though I did the whole thing backwards, the conversion, when it happened, was quick and thorough. Within a year or two, I had transcribed the guitar parts for a bunch of Big Star and posted them to Usenet. “O My Soul” went up the day before I graduated from college; it felt like the last exam of my college career. They're floating around the Internet to this day. Several years ago, a band for which I was playing bass decided it wanted to cover “September Gurls.” It was my transcription that the guitarists printed out. And, as it happens, they altered it to make fun of me for spending my time on such nonsense in the first place.

I never saw Big Star live, though I did catch Alex Chilton doing a solo show at the Paradise in Boston in 2001. Normally, I'd stand in the middle of the room to get a decent sound mix, but this time, I planted myself right against the stage so I could watch him without any obstructions. He was as cantankerous as advertised, playing mostly oldies like “Volare” and the occasional nugget from his solo career.

Even so, he played two Big Star songs. Unfortunately, I don't remember what they were. What I do remember is that at one point, someone called out for “September Gurls.” He motioned to the bassist and drummer that made up his entire band and pointed out that they were one guitar player short. I don't know what prompted me to shout “I'll do it!,” but I did, and Chilton looked at me and said, “Well, come on up.”

And I froze. I had no idea if he was serious or not, and if he wasn't, I didn't want to be... well, that guy. It could have been two seconds later, it could have been 10, it could have been a minute, but the next thing I knew, Chilton had begun the next song, and I remained paralyzed right where I had been all night. To this day, I still don't know whether he was joking or not when he offered me a chance to play one of the few utterly perfect songs in the world alongside the man responsible for its existence.

It was a missed opportunity, maybe. But that was just one; Big Star's entire story plays like a parade of them. Chilton lived through his band's failure to get anybody who was there at the time to pay attention, and he shrugged it off, not without some frustration, and just kept moving. And though he died yesterday at the age of 59, he lived long enough to do a few victory laps as several generations discovered what he'd been doing for a few years at the top of the '70s. Even if they did it in the wrong order.

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Comments

  1. Jennifer Norcross
    #1

    I was at that show at the Paradise (and I remember that exchange), standing alone to the side, marveling at the pure talent Alex Chilton exhibited onstage. How could everyone not know about him?, I wondered. I missed a chance to see Big Star in Brooklyn in the fall, so I'm glad I have that 2001 show to look back on. One of their songs that he played was "In the Street," by the way, known by most at the time as the theme song for "That 70s Show." It was a fantastic night, and I'm sad that it will never be repeated.

  2. #2

    Sister Lovers is a fantastic album. Alex survived the trip Kurt Cobain got lost in. Barely. Maybe because fame eluded him.

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