The closest Big Star came to living up to its name happened in Memphis in 1973, when their record label, a subsidiary of Stax called Ardent, hired the band to headline a convention of rock critics. It was a bold and brilliant gambit. There had never been a rock-critic convention before, and the few hundred hairy scribes in attendance – who included such period luminaries as Lester Bangs, Lenny Kaye, Nick Tosches and Billy Altman – had eagerly hopped on planes for a few days of hard-partying, open-bar junketeering. But when Big Star took the stage, the room went rapt with attention and, in time, actually erupted in mass dancing. Rock critics dancing. As strange rock ’n’ roll history sights go, it was a corker.
And as Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori’s poignant and penetrating documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me suggests, it was the night the band’s myth was born: Here was a band that sounded better than just about anything many of the critics there had ever heard – think Beatles’ hooks, Byrds’ big jangle and Beach Boys’ harmony – but almost nobody had ever heard of the band. It gave the rock critics something rock critics have always loved and likely needed, which is a galvanizing lost cause to champion. And so the cultest of cult bands was born, and their fate as a band more passionately respected than actually listened to was sealed.
Behind the story of Big Star, which formed in the soul/blues/rock’n’roll ground zero of Memphis, Tenn., in 1972, and consisted of the brilliant studio musician Chris Bell, bassist Andy Hummel, Ardent studio musician Jody Stephens on drums and the former teen wonder Alex Chilton (who’d had a No. 1 record with The Letter at age 16), lies some of the most deeply embedded myths in pop-music history, not the least of which is the romantic tragedy of failed genius. Despite naming their first, astoundingly ear-sweet album #1 Record, the group never had a hit, never made it to radio, and sold fewer albums – which were so badly distributed the band got letters from people wondering where to buy them – than most of those rock critics probably had in their comped-up collections.
But in their failure lay their glory, although it was a glory that did little to ease the troubled life of Bell (who quit the band after his first album, recorded some gorgeous but little-heard solo work, and died in a car accident at the rock-mythical age of 27), the temperamental Hummel (who died in 2010), or the combatively contrary Chilton, who barely even acknowledged his past with Big Star before re-forming and touring a version of the band in 1993. Chilton died in 2010.
Rock-music history has always loved its failures because it confirms a certain eternal struggle that gives the music legitimacy, and that’s the struggle of the artist (pure, innocent and transcendent) against the industry (corrupt, insensitive and greedy). As the myth goes, the music industry draws artists like – to quote a later Chilton solo album – flies on sherbet, only to crush their spirits, steal their souls and condemn them to perpetual obscurity. Until, at least, the sufficiently sensitive critic comes along to try to repair the legacy, and that’s why nobody likes a failed genius more than a rock critic does. It means the critic isn’t just working at the dubious mercy of the evil music industry, he or she is doing a god’s work, attending to the history of the saints. If you saw Searching for Sugar Man earlier this year, you saw the myth played out in pure Big Star fashion.
The particular affliction of record collecting – which was once the most common gateway entree to a career as a starving rock critic – thrives on almost-famous rock bands like Big Star because even knowing about the band, let alone owning obscure, rare and generally hard-to-find albums (imports especially), functioned as a kind of membership in an elite secret community, those with ears to hear the music of the heavens to which everyone else is deaf. It confirms the legitimacy of one’s taste and seriousness, sets one apart from the craven industry and its moronic masses, and even renders the unforgivingly solitary practice of flipping through garage-sale boxes of old Al Hirt and Poppy Family LPs a kind of divine purpose and dignity.
Big Star was a great band, even intermittently sublime. Their skill at crafting sonically intricate songs that sounded simple and instantly perfect to the ears was a foundational event in the development of the hyper-cultish sub-genre called power pop, a form which likely wouldn’t exist without either Big Star or a steady supply of almost-famous critical darlings inspired into romantic semi-obscurity by them.
But if there’s particularly painful irony in this, it’s powerfully captured at the moment in the movie when Sara Stewart, the sister of late, troubled Chris Bell, who never recovered from the band’s failure, sits next to her brother David and tearfully admits she often wishes Big Star had never happened.
“I know,” Bell’s brother says. “You’d rather have him than having the music out there.”
That’s the instant where the dancing stops and the critics all go home.
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