I discovered Big Star when I was 18. Just in time, it seemed to me, before I outgrew the tales of adolescent insecurity and longing on my #1 Record/Radio City CD.
Five years later, and days after the death of Big Star guitarist/songwriter/vocalist Alex Chilton, I've come to appreciate the emotional complexity of Big Star's first two albums, and the supreme melodic gifts of Chilton, which I never expect to outgrow. The group's final album, Third, is a different beast, but ultimately no less true or, in its own way, gorgeous than Big Star's first two.*
Aside from a handful of 12" singles I spun during my college radio days, I don't know much about Chilton's post-Big Star career. Others, I hope, will give his life and work the appraisal it deserves. But the three albums Big Star recorded between 1972 and 1974 deserve to be heard by as many ears as possible. For Big Star's three albums, so different from one another, are linked by two elements: their wonderful, melancholic songwriting and Chilton's absolute honesty as a lyricist. In these qualities, and particularly the latter, Chilton's only real peer, aside from part-time Big Star bandmate Chris Bell, was Neil Young. The two songwriters, in drawing upon different strands of Anglo and American popular music, proved to be almost pathologically honest, desperately following their muses in whatever direction she led them.
This journey is audible on each of Big Star's records. #1 Record is reticent but wide-eyed, with an anthem-filled first side and more reflective second half. That record sold poorly, thanks to inept promotion and record label confusion, and follow up Radio City features an embittered Chilton, wounded and lashing out at the women in his life. After Radio City, also a commercial failure, something in Chilton snapped, and he recorded Third. A major sidestep, sometimes frightening to hear, Third was deemed so commercially unviable that Stax avoided releasing it for four years.
The three records have had long afterlives and became founding documents for generations of power-pop acts. But anyone who's ever loved Big Star knows how deeply personal Chilton's songs felt. Reading the comments on Chilton's obits on Thursday, I was struck by how many days his death ruined, how personal the loss seemed for people who had neither met Chilton nor seen him perform. Many simply quoted Big Star lyrics.
I'm one of those people, and this is my comment. It's hard for me to dispassionately assess the life of a man whose music has meant so much to me. And continues to: the problems that teenagers face never really go away, they just transform. I'm reminded of Roger Ebert's review of Ikiru, one of very few films, he says, that holds the power to change someone's life. Big Star were like that. Their music was so gorgeous, their lyrics so deeply felt, they seemed to come from some part of my own consciousness, and I know I'm not alone in feeling this.
My personal favorite Big Star song is Radio City album closer "I'm In Love With A Girl." In his appreciation of Chilton, Nathan noted how unique and devastating Chilton and Bell's lyrics can be. "I'm In Love With A Girl" expresses a sentiment I've never heard in other pop songs. A song that seems to presage Daniel Johnston and Elliot Smith, it seems relatively simple: just Chilton strumming a sugary guitar strings and singing about his love for a girl. What sets it apart are the three simple verses, and Chilton's vocal performance. The final lyric "I didn't know this could happen to me" is deeply ambiguous--does the narrator celebrate his feelings, or equivocate because he's apprehensive? I've always heard the latter, and it makes the song more heartbreaking than any song with that title has the right to be.
Dozens of such moments populate the Big Star catalog. People who have heard these can attest to the powerful feeling that they provide: that of not being entirely alone. RIP Alex Chilton.
*A fourth album, In Space, arrived bearing the Big Star name in 2005. This album will probably occupy a space in the Big Star canon similar to the one that Squeeze has in the Velvet Underground corpus.