Commenter abqchris expressed an interest in some of my autobiographical links. Since I seem to have picked up a new round of viewers the past few months and multiple links don’t always work from the comments section I thought it might be a good idea to just collect them in a post. Once or twice a year I’ve opened myself up a bit on here. These are the longish posts where I’ve gotten the most “personal.”
Time and place sometimes make for very strange bedfellows. By chance, I spent a good portion of the last few days listening–with varying degrees of intensity–to these two box sets, both recorded in Memphis at around the same time.
Elvis At Stax has the complete masters (27 in all, plus numerous illuminating outtakes) of the two sessions he cut at the legendary Memphis studio in 1973 (one of the neat bits of anecdotal information found in the liner notes is that Stax’ reigning superstar, Isaac Hayes, moved a recording date to give Elvis his time slot…another is that Elvis made scant use of the label’s legendary house band).
Keep An Eye On The Sky has every completed master that various versions of the godfathering indie band Big Star (and affiliated side projects…plus, yes, more outtakes, demos, etc.) cut between 1973 and a date that is rather hard for me to pin down in my current scatter-brained state, but probably reached into early 1975 or so.
A lot of the music from both sets was able to snap into focus for me this week, in part because, as I mentioned in a previous post, I’m currently reading a new biography of Big Star co-leader Alex Chilton (who also had a run of hits with the blue-eyed soul garage band, the Box Tops, a few years prior).
One of the bio’s best aspects–very much aided and abetted by the excellent notes of these two very disparate sets–is its worm’s-eye view of the mid-seventies’ collapse of the Memphis music industry in general, and Stax in particular, (Stax, in addition to being a soul giant throughout most of the period when that meant something, also distributed Big Star’s boutique label, Ardent–the kind of over-reach that assisted greatly in its demise), and the devastating effects that collapse had on both the local music scene and the lives of so many who depended on it for something more than a paycheck.
The serendipity of it all (I pulled the Big Star set out for background music during my reading times, though it’s hardly like I need an excuse, while the Elvis set was, by complete coincidence, a cheap grab off of Amazon last week) might have me reading too much into all this, but, at least this time around, I didn’t have any trouble hearing the world fall apart on these two records that could hardly be less alike in every other respect.
In 1973, Elvis was doing what he had always done and always would do–searching for the convergence of excluded voices–white and black–which almost nobody has ever really wanted to hear actually converging, no matter how many somebodies insist they do so!
And, in 1973, like most every other year he recorded something other than his lesser movie soundtracks, he found a version of that convergence.
I wouldn’t say the Stax sessions are always his most convincing in this respect. His voice was in pretty rough shape much of the time–rough in the center instead of around the edges and not always in a good way.
But “almost there” Elvis is still more interesting than most other great artists at their very best and the better half of these sides are prime in any case. One can listen to him and feel his own demise lurking (this was around the time when more than a few people started predicting it) but that just makes the ache in his voice and the joy that’s found most especially in some of the outtakes all the more resonant and, finally, poignant. He sounds like a man who knows the way things should have been is behind him and there’s nothing left in front but regrets.
Big Star, on the other hand, still sound–at least on the first two discs of Rhino’s four disc set–like they will beat all odds and bring about at least a tiny part of that better future. Though they had no interest whatsoever in any sort of convergence–their respect for Black America’s music was real but entirely rhetorical, after the manner of bohemians everywhere–they were nonetheless carving out that rarest of achievements: a new thing.
Despite the band’s enormous, almost insidious, influence, their best music still sounds new and never newer than when it’s all in one place like this. Where Elvis’ unease and disappointment are palpable but contained–the sound of a man who has reached his personal limits and knows they are probably the future’s limits too–Big Star (their name not yet rendered ironic by the public’s indifference, let alone redeemed by a future that wasn’t too limited to let them set the direction for most of white rock’s very few remaining interesting developments) sound almost desperate to matter, as if they can’t believe the future won’t embrace them.
All the outtakes and studio chatter–neatly organized on Elvis At Stax, strung about hither and yon on Keep An Eye On The Sky–only reinforce the sense of both artists being taken under, of spirits treading water to keep from drowning.
Of course we know now there were to be no happy endings. No arrivals at some safe shore.
Elvis would die at his home in Graceland in less than forty-eight months, by which time Stax was shuttered and Ardent cast adrift.
Big Star founder Chris Bell would wrap his car around a tree a few miles from the famous recording studios he had haunted even in life a mere sixteen months after that.
Alex Chilton–fragile to begin with and badly shaken by both deaths–would, coincidentally or not, retreat ever more relentlessly into the exhausting realms of dilettantish cult-hood and die in New Orleans in 2010 at the age of fifty-eight.
What they left behind, on the tracks collected here, now represents the sound that dreams make when they die–in this case on the very streets where they had been born twenty years before.
It might be that the voices Elvis heard in his head in the fifties–and was still hearing in 1973–will yet converge. It might even be that the land that the rock and roll revolution brought heaving into view–and which could still be seen plainly off the bow when these records were made–can still be glimpsed, somewhere not quite over the horizon.
If so, I’ll sure be happy if and when we get there.
In the meantime, I know this much about the long years since.
I’m currently reading Holly George-Warren’s biography of Alex Chilton, he of Box Tops/Big Star/Indie Rock Godfather fame (hoping to review the book in the next week or two). I’m a big fan of Chilton’s music….well, his best music anyway. Divested of his great bands, he could certainly be, shall we say, eccentric. But that eccentricity was finally what (even in the context of his great bands) made him–a certain willingness to risk looking/sounding foolish, combined with that lacerating absence of esteem that is so often masked and/or bolstered by a show of arrogance and/or indifference.
Concurrent with my reading, I picked up his “lost” solo album 1970 (which was finally released a few years back). There’s a lot of good stuff on it–certainly much that looks forward to Big Star a year or two hence. But the main attraction when I saw the track listing on Amazon was the choice of covers.
One was “Jumping Jack Flash,” which turned out to be a disappointment. Sounding less professional than he was–spending hours chasing spontaneity–was a Chilton trademark. But, covering the Stones, he just sounds enervated.
Covering the Archies on the other hand…well, he sounds like the Stones. And not just any Stones–certainly not the crap-fest Stones of lo, these past three decades (at least)–but the Stones who were in the air in 1970, making some of the greatest music in the history of man.
In other words, he not only crushes it, but he’s loose and funny and irreverent in a way that I suppose taking on “Jumping Jack Flash” directly didn’t allow for.
I think the normal mantra in a case like this, is to chant on about how surprised one is to find “Sugar, Sugar” had this in it:
But really, it shouldn’t be suprising at all. It almost always had this in it:
And, truth to tell, neither of these amounts to expansion, so much as recognition…Of what it always was:
[NOTE: I’m snowed under this week so I’m posting an unpublished piece I wrote on the occasion of Alex Chilton’s passing in March of 2010.]
“Hanging out, down the street, the same old thing we did last week”
Big Star: “In The Street”
In 1975 my family was living in rural northern Florida when my sister’s oldest boy moved down from Memphis. I was in high school, he was just out, and over the next year and a half he introduced me to two significant experiences:
The first experience was a running, detailed, part-scary, part-hilarious, part matter-of-fact informal history of life on the mean streets of Memphis circa the early-seventies–what, in other words, exactly was going on when kids hung out down the street and did the same old things they did last week.
The second experience was my introduction to the radio–still vital then, no matter what you may have heard.
My nephew moved out to get on with his life in less than two years. I’m still chasing the music.
Somewhere fairly early in the chase (maybe a decade or so) I came across Big Star.
Imagine my surprise at hearing the world my nephew had so vividly described dragged out of the air and put on wax. Imagine my further surprise at finding this had been done with little–albeit telling–reference to specific detail. (Even today, when I listen to #1 Record or Radio City, I keep searching for the lines about knocking down mailboxes with baseball bats and deciding whether to toss the day’s supply of rotten eggs at houses or hookers which I know must be there right next to “bust the streetlight, out past midnight!”).
Like most great artists, though, Alex Chilton was defined as much by what he left out as by what he put in. I have no idea just how closely his (or Big Star founder Chris Bell’s) actual experiences tracked with my street-tough nephew’s (though I can say that what they did describe tracks very closely indeed). But I know it’s no accident that the feel of listening to those straight-from-the-lower-middle-class-’hood stories and to Big Star’s music were so indelibly linked.
Which is to say you didn’t have to be a survivor of a knife-fight in front of your own house (saved from four crazed white boy assailants–and on a day when you weren’t even running with Bill Black’s nephew**–when a jacket yanked at the collar came miraculously off your back and a yell from your sister came just in time for you to dodge a bowie knife thrown at the back of your head)–or on the public high school record as the fastest white boy in Memphis (which is maybe at least part of how you live to tell about these things) to catch the strange, compelling combination of alienation, fear and intimacy in Big Star’s best music.
The record of this accessibility is well-catalogued now. Among the five great American bands who built the bridge from the “garage” ethos of the sixties to seventies’ punk and eighties-to-today alternative (the Velvet Underground, MC5, Stooges and New York Dolls being their compadres) Big Star were unique in several significant ways.
They were urban but southern (which in the seventies still meant somewhat closer to a rural than industrial sensibility). They were relatively apolitical (which translated into deeply personal stances I would argue ended up being the politics that mattered most–even before taking into account how much, “I’m starting to understand, what’s going on and how it’s planned,” might mean to those of us who grew up in the shadows of Viet Nam and Watergate). They were (perhaps as a result) less openly aggressive–even the assaults were seductive. And, finally, in what was seen then as a quirky aside but spoke more and more powerfully down the years as alienation has become the national monomania, their eventual leader was the only member of those great bands who turned his back on actual–as opposed to theoretical–commercial success.
For all of those reasons, Big Star’s music stayed off the radio–and got around. And, when it had finally gotten around enough, it found–or made–relevance everywhere: in the Los Angeles of Jane Wiedlin and Vicki Peterson, in the the San Pedro of D. Boon and Mike Watt, in the Minneapolis of Paul Westerberg, in the Athens of Mike Mills and Michael Stipe, in the Seattle of Kurt Cobain and, yes, in small North Florida towns, too.
Some of those artists paid direct tribute to Chilton, others may not have cared for him at all. But they and thousands like them were each shaped by environments he and his band made possible. All were children, in a sense, of a man who was famous for being cantankerous and dismissive of his own music (and of Big Star in particular).
That, too, is not unusual for artists of every stripe but it is, in a way, disheartening to contemplate in those with real, not to say monumental, accomplishments. It would be nice to believe there was some internal space to which a man who had been (as leader of the Box Tops) one of the half-dozen greatest white soul voices in rock history, a seminal producer and song-writer and a solo artist who could be great or terrible but could never, ever be accused of standing still, could repair to let his defenses down and accept how much he had meant to so many.
But he was surely right to be wary of too much adulation or self-congratulations–or any unearned idea that the past is merely a warm place to visit. One way and another, “don’t push me ’round,”–an attitude that defines a lot more about Memphis than just its music–has both created a great deal of what is most worthwhile in this world and exacted a terrible price. One way and another, the hard fight to break away from those streets which Big Star illuminated so memorably caught up with everyone from Elvis Presley to Johnny Burnette to Al Jackson, Jr. to Bill Black (not the mention his nephew, see below) to Chris Bell himself.
Whether it finally caught Alex Chilton–in another time and place (i.e., some years down the road in New Orleans)–is harder to say.
What can be said is that in the city where the three great cultural movements of mid-twentieth century America–blues, rockabilly and soul–found their surest footing on the way to changing the world for the better, Chilton and his Big Star brothers made a sound that was unlike anything before it and forged a way ahead that provided a framework for most of what has remained vital in white rock for nearly forty years.
Perhaps more importantly, they made–and inspired–music that has never stopped being a place where those who prefer to be not quite so alienated as the national monomania demands can still find a home.
(**Later beaten to death in Memphis. My nephew wasn’t sure of the details. Sometimes it’s safer that way.)