Careening in the Back of a Big Black Car Deconstructing Big Star in Nothing Can Hurt Me

Careening in the Back of a Big Black Car
Deconstructing Big Star in Nothing Can Hurt Me
by Jon Kanis

film review/feature for issue #36 of Ugly Things magazine [filed on September 5, 2013]

Unless you were cognizant in the summer of ’83 then it is nearly impossible to explain just how bland and soulless the programming of Top 40 and AOR radio had become throughout the majority of America. In the era that begat MTV the odds of finding anything passionate, intelligent or inspirational from the musical mainstream were practically nil, and tuning into corporate radio had become comparable to taking all of your meals at McDonalds.

Well, being a precocious teenager it wasn’t long before I became enmeshed within a vast underground grapevine of other disenfranchised musical fanatics; continuing in a lifelong pursuit of culling through the pop cultural detritus of whatever I missed out on firsthand from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. In 1984 I happened upon a quartet from Memphis, Tennessee who recorded a trio of obscure LPs between 1971 and 1975 and after absorbing their supernova burst of creativity it seemed incredible that the music of Big Star remained largely unknown, outside of a small circle of burgeoning powerpop freaks. Their music was (and remains) a revelation and I haven’t been the same since.

“To me Big Star was like some letter that was posted in 1971 that arrived in 1985. It’s just like something that got lost in the mail really.” – Robyn Hitchcock

A lot can change in 30 years and now a rather large cult of devotees are well aware of just how ground breaking Big Star was, as evidenced by the current documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me. Director Drew DeNicola and his production team do an excellent job of deconstructing the myths and exploring the mystery of why Big Star didn’t become one of the biggest acts of it’s day.

Egotism, neurosis, spiritual crisis and a lack of managerial guidance – it all reads like a textbook example of how NOT to run a successful enterprise. Like any group, Big Star did not emerge out of a vacuum and Nothing Can Hurt Me goes a long way towards explaining the backstory of all of the principals involved and how Big Star was the invention of musician Chris Bell. Conversely, part of what makes Big Star’s music so compelling is the push me/pull you dynamism between Bell and his musical sparring partner, Alex Chilton. Attempting to emulate the song craft of Paul McCartney and John Lennon, it was Bell who asked Chilton to join his group, a ploy that ultimately backfired.

“Sometimes lack of success forces you deeper within yourself.” – Lenny Kaye

Four years before the formation of Big Star, Alex Chilton was already a pop star. Fronting a quintet of Memphis teenagers called The Box Tops, Chilton was only 16 when he sang lead on “The Letter” (which held the number one spot for four weeks in the fall of ’67). Even though they went on to score seven more Top 40 hits, by the end of 1969 Chilton had grown weary of his role as a corporate puppet and as soon as he was of legal age to quit the group, he did.

At the same time there was a brand new recording facility in Memphis called Ardent Studios, created by electrical engineering wizard John Fry. When Fry designed a state of the art, 16-track studio superior to the recently refurbished Stax studio across town, Ardent began recording the overflow from their roster of soul giants (Booker T & The MGs, the Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes, et al). When Fry couldn’t handle the additional work load by himself he started recruiting and training additional engineers for his staff, including a guitar-playing Beatles fanatic by the name of Chris Bell.

“You couldn’t grow up around here without being in the middle of soul music culture,” said John Fry. “But we were also real English music fans, to the extent that when the British Invasion started I had a subscription to the New Musical Express.”

Before the success of The Box Tops, Chilton and Bell had known each other from childhood. While Chilton was touring the country and racking up hits, Bell pursued the British-infused sounds in his head, playing guitar in a group called The Jynx. One of the invaluable perks that came from working at Ardent was having unlimited access to the studio when it wasn’t in use. Bell took full advantage of his training and after hooking up with bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens, they started amassing a stack of demos under the names Icewater and Rock City. After splitting The Box Tops Chilton made some recordings at Ardent (later released as 1970) and it wasn’t long before he agreed to join Bell’s trio. Throughout the winter of 1971 over a dozen Bell-Chilton compositions were laid down; John Fry loved what he was hearing and thought that they would be perfect for the new rock-based subsidiary label (Ardent Records) that Stax was organizing. After stealing their name from a local supermarket chain, Big Star’s debut LP (#1 Record) was released in April of ’72. It quickly became apparent, however, that the number one soul label in America had no idea how to promote a rock and roll band. In spite of a fair amount of airplay and rave reviews in the press, you couldn’t find Big Star’s records at your local store.

“We could have been jinxing ourselves by calling our band Big Star and our first album #1 Record.” – Jody Stephens

Dominated by the “heavy rock” of its day (Grand Funk Railroad, Led Zeppelin), when #1 Record came out it was a complete anomaly. With a sonic blueprint that drew upon the harmonies of The Beatles, the chiming Rickenbackers of The Byrds, the intensity of The Who and the sensitivity of The Beach Boys, Big Star possessed an enigmatic quality – what Robert Gordon later referred to as “an underlying menace.” Producer Jim Dickinson noted “If Big Star was anything, it was dangerous – in an almost imperceptible way, yet you knew it was there, like a switchblade ready to pop.”

Also crucial to the mix was a certain type of spiritual and emotional angst – due in no small part to the closeted homosexuality of Chris Bell – a subject that is completely skirted in Nothing Can Hurt Me. The closest the film gets to this sticky subject is when Bell’s older brother David relates how Chris told him that he “should do drugs, because they take away your sexual urges.” Bell’s lifestyle was all the more complicated by the fact that he had embraced born-again Christianity; unfortunately, the drugs that he was fond of (Dilaudid) and being gay didn’t jibe with the tenets of his faith. And then there was the not-so-small matter of the media attention that Chilton was receiving.

“Things started going sour for Chris when he started reading reviews of #1 Record,” says Jody Stephens. “[Big Star] was such a large part of his creative vision that when the press started coming back and focusing on Alex he thought he might have to live under that shadow from that point.” Andy Hummel agreed: “I’m sure that was a factor in his emotional problems that he started having at that time. I mean the guy poured his heart and soul into this thing, so…I guess he felt kind of betrayed.”

Bell’s lack of recognition caused him to snap and according to his brother and John Fry attempted suicide with an overdose of pills – but not before going into Ardent and wiping the multi-track masters for #1 Record. Bell survived the episode and went on to pursue a solo career, but the seeds of his dissolution were sown and he never did recover from his sense of being slighted. On December 27, 1978, Bell died in a car accident at the age of 27 (on the eve of Alex Chilton’s 28th birthday).

As substantive as Nothing Can Hurt Me is, it does veer off onto a few fruitless tangents (a detour through the late Jim Dickinson’s property with his widow Mary, while of mild interest, is completely unnecessary). There is also an overabundance of screen time dedicated to the Rock Writer’s Convention, a publicity stunt dreamt up by promotion man John King to present a reconstituted Big Star (sans Bell) to the rock press.

Bruce Eaton: “Okay…Chris left, took the tapes, the band broke up. Then you were asked to play the Rock Writer’s Convention and you went out and kicked ass and then decided to get back together…”

Alex Chilton: “Well, I would really say that the general idea was that – okay, Chris was the main first guy in this band, and if he’s gone then I guess we won’t do anything. But the moment when I decided that we would do something more together was speaking to John King, who said ‘You know, we did well in a lot of ways with that first album and I think if we do another one we can really make some success out of it.'” John Fry counters that assertion with “There was no question that we weren’t gonna do another Big Star album.”

With Bell’s departure Chilton became Big Star’s de facto leader and his songs, no doubt, are exemplary throughout Radio City – but a sense of equilibrium was somehow lost in the process. A black and white video by photographer William Eggleston entitled Stranded In Canton captures the careening drunkenness of the times, suggesting that the entire scene was inevitably heading for a cliff (it was Eggleston’s lens that captured the iconic front and back sleeve images of Radio City).

Rick Clark: “I look at Radio City as a transitional record. It’s the pristine brilliance of the first record, but it’s the beginning of the unfraying and the sound of falling apart.”

Billy Altman: “That second album to me was almost a perfect record. All the songs had a sensibility and a feel and a certain kind of mystery. This was not a record that revealed itself fast. When you listen to these songs, they’re complicated.”

Alex Chilton: “It’s like they’re not really even rock and roll songs. I don’t know what they are. They’re some kind of psycho dramatic tunes about something that doesn’t have any particular place in music.”

Whatever the relative merits of their sophomore release, the band continued it’s exceptional run of bad luck when copies of Radio City sat idle after a distribution deal between Columbia and Stax fell through. Shortly thereafter, Stax filed for bankruptcy and the ever-practical Andy Hummel jumped ship to go back to school. For a brief spell Chilton’s friend John Lightman filled in on bass.

“We often played to rooms that were almost empty,” says Lightman, “And I felt really awful for how disappointed they were in the lack of response that they got…after awhile Alex said to me: ‘My attitude about music is I can take it or leave it.'”

It’s arguable that Big Star continued to exist at this point. A string of Chilton/Stephens sessions from 1974-75 produced by Jim Dickinson were eventually released (in 1978) as Big Star 3rd (wherein Chilton appears to be willfully losing the plot and hitting the accelerator to put as much distance between himself and the failures of the immediate past). The sum of Chris Bell’s post-Big Star work was posthumously released in 1992 as I Am The Cosmos. In April 1993, in a typically perverse move, Chilton confounded everyone’s expectations by agreeing to reform Big Star with Jody Stephens along with Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies – a lineup that lasted for 17 years of intermittent gigs, and producing one new studio LP (2005’s In Space). The story came to a full stop when Chilton suffered a fatal heart attack on 03.17.10 and Hummel succumbed to cancer on 07.19.10.

The shimmering alchemical brilliance and achingly gorgeous yearning of Big Star lives on in scores of contemporary artists (including R.E.M., Let’s Active, Game Theory, The Replacements, The Bangles, Teenage Fanclub, Elliott Smith and Mathew Sweet). The music of Big Star is timeless and Nothing Can Hurt Me serves to contextualize why they are considered a national treasure. Check it out when you get the chance.