never travel far without a little big star (rip alex chilton)
I owe everything I know about Big Star and Alex Chilton to the dB’s, who namedropped them to enough of an extent I had to check it out. And then it was the Eggleston cover photo that drew me in, teenage photography snob that I fancied myself to be, followed by listening to Radio City nonfuckingstop. I was too much of a music snob to buy the double album reissue, oh no, I had to plunk down $20 I did not have to buy the ‘real’ album, and then of course once I’d heard it I had to go buy the reissue anyway because I had to have everything, immediately, all at once, and I immersed myself completely and totally, the way you could when you were 19 or 20 and could spend an afternoon drowning in music. I even spent a pretentious six months listening to his stuff with Panther Burns to the utter annoyment of my roommate at the time (who could tolerate Big Star, but as she would remind me, “NOT ON FUCKING REPEAT SIXTEEN TIMES A DAY.”)
And then there were the legends, the stories about R.E.M. going to Memphis for the first time and Peter Buck going to look for Alex and being told to go to the big hotel, that he’d be there, and Peter thinking he lived there, only to be told, no, he drives a cab and would be waiting there for a fare. We thought we were on the verge of losing Alex back then, but then we didn’t, and he was out, playing with everyone. And we took it for granted, you know, at least I took it for granted, that he was just there and around and then we had the luxury of GOING TO SEE BIG STAR (or what he decided he was ready to call Big Star). Watching the happiness on Ken Stringfellow’s and Jon Auer’s faces getting to sing those songs. Watching the faces of people who thought they’d never get to hear Alex sing “September Gurls” live and in person.
The songs were dense and carefully layered and rich and rewarding, Alex’ voice a palette of multiple levels of longing. I always thought the timbre in the vocals was the reason for the layers and layers and layers, because it would have cut you like a knife otherwise. It still did, but the notes were there to cushion you.
Westerberg encapsulated the zeitgeist of everyone I knew when he wrote: “Never travel far / without a little Big Star”. Big Star was lingua franca. You looked for those records in someone’s collection the first time you went to their house to see if they were worth knowing. Those were some of the first records I bought with the advent of CD. Those were some of the first albums I loaded onto that gizmo called an iPod back in 2003. Those are some of the songs on the eternal soundtrack that rings in my head, now and forever.
Children by the million indeed.
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