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December Boys

Big Star gets the career summation it deserves in a new box set

Big Star (with Alex Chilton, far right) look forward to a bright future.

By Lee Gardner | Posted 10/28/2009

As you listen to Keep an Eye on the Sky, the excellent new Big Star box set from Ardent/Rhino, you can hear Alex Chilton giving up. There's a quiet bravado on "The Ballad of El Goodo," from the band's 1972 debut # 1 Record; Chilton sounds blithely confident as he sings "I've been built up and trusted/ Broke down and busted/ But they'll get theirs and we'll get ours" over the band's folk-pop balladry. As the set unfolds and moves through songs from second album Radio City and the third album posthumously known as Third or Sister Lovers, however, you find yourself bearing witness to one of the most profound artistic, aesthetic, and maybe emotional retreats ever committed to recording media.

As the liner notes recount, Chilton was already a big star when he joined the band, having had a ginormous '60s hit as singer of the Box Tops. Only 16 at the time, his booming soul-man delivery on "The Letter" was, famously, a browbeaten imitation of producer Dan Penn. Chilton soon tired of being a prefab pop frontman, beat it back to Memphis, and started hanging around local studio Ardent, founded by a recording prodigy named John Fry. (Disclosure: This writer worked briefly as a publicist for Ardent in the mid-'90s.) The first disc of Keep an Eye includes "Every Day As We Grow Closer," a drippy unreleased early Chilton solo track that unveils his true voice, higher and softer. It also features "All I See Is You," a wet post-hippie ballad by Icewater, aka fellow Ardent hangers-on singer/guitarist Chris Bell, bassist Andy Hummel, and drummer Jody Stephens. Bonded by ambition and a shared love of British Invasion pop, Chilton and Icewater came together as Big Star.

The band name, and its debut's title, reflect a bluff foregone conclusion. Chilton and Bell wrote a clutch of songs that combined British Invasion pop's lithe melodies and glossy hooks with the scrappy punch of post-Invasion rock. There seemed to be no way radio wouldn't pick up on the direct-injection pleasure of "When My Baby's Beside Me" or that crowds wouldn't scream along with the teenage kicks of "In the Street." The down-and-dirty horns and crazed keyboards producer Fry helped stack all over the middle eight of "Feel" would surely entrance headphone wearers. Acoustic tunes like "Watch the Sunrise" would melt older sisters like nobody's business. Released on Fry's own poorly distributed Ardent imprint, the album won critical hosannas and went absolutely nowhere. Within a few months, Bell had quit and Big Star had all but broken up.

While the first disc of Keep an Eye ends with the band's cover of Loudon Wainwright III's "Motel Blues," a wry yet bleak groupie paean ("Chronologically, I know you're young/ but when you kissed me in the club you bit my tongue"), perhaps the most striking song is #1 Record's "Thirteen." Crooned by Chilton over a simple acoustic stroll, it presents love from the view of the title age, or at least how it might seem to a jaded twentysomething ("Won't you let me walk you home from school/ Won't you let me meet you at the pool"). There isn't a hint of smirk or leer about it. It was Chilton's first sincere look back, and inward, but it wouldn't be his last.

When the band reformed as a trio to record Radio City, it cut extroverted rockers such as "O My Soul" and "Mod Lang," but the album mostly lacks its predecessor's optimistic bounce and trill. "Try to understand what I'm going through," Chilton pleads on "You Get What You Deserve" as Hummel and Stephens drive a serpentine minor-key riff behind him. On draggy ballad "What's Goin' Ahn," the singer surveys romantic wreckage with a resigned eye, climaxing in a weary "always nothing left to say," after which Chilton abandons the verse, leaving the band to fill four bars of emptiness. Beneath the proto-shoegaze buzz of "Daisy Glaze" he's singing "And I'm thinking Christ/ Nullify my life." The album peaks with the bittersweet romantic ruminations of ringing power-pop template "September Gurls." Radio City is as good if not better than #1 Record, even with its depressive moments, but it fared just as poorly. Hummel split, leaving Chilton and Stephens to skulk back to Ardent and begin work on what became Big Star's third album.

The demos littered throughout Keep an Eye are, well, demos-simple recordings to give behind-the-scenes types a feel for songs to be fleshed out later. As Big Star's career progressed (or didn't), Chilton's demos bore less and less evidence that he cared who was ever going to hear them or what they would think. They're rougher, more vulnerable (singing the bleak dirge "Holocaust" it'd be hard not to sound vulnerable); on the demo for "Big Black Car," he sings "maybe we'll fuck in a Holiday Inn" in a narcotized mumble. By the time he got around to recording the song with new producer Jim Dickinson, he'd changed "fuck" to "sleep," but the chorus mumble of "Nothing can hurt me/ Nothing can touch me" remains intact.

Dickinson oversaw an entirely different process, and result, than the meticulous Fry. Riotous orchestral arrangements rubbed shoulders with what sounded like more demos. Overdubs sometimes resembled casual stabs at syncing up with the basic tracks, which often consisted of just Chilton on guitar and piano. What Dickinson captured most effectively was what sounded like Chilton on his last legs, artistically or otherwise. He sounds most relaxed (maybe too much so) sealed away in his "Big Black Car"; an evening jaunt out of the house in "Nighttime" devolves into an almost child-like plea of "Get me out of here/ Get me out of here/ I hate it here/ Get me out of here." The bullfrog growl of "The Letter" had attenuated into a languid near-falsetto.

There are upbeat numbers, but the third album's overwhelming vibe is a mortally wounded romanticism, a soul-weariness thorough enough that it makes a road trip or a grimy bedroom-or a late-night recording studio lit by console lights and cigarette embers-seem like a redoubt against the unwelcome rest of the world. Shopped around, the tapes reportedly horrified A&R types who heard them, and the sessions remained unreleased for years. At 25 years old, Chilton was all done. (Keep an Eye also collects Chris Bell's first and only solo single, "I Am the Cosmos," a tune even more epically depressive and solipsistic than anything on Third/Sister Lovers, though not as chillingly vacant. Bell died in a car accident in 1978.)

Chilton would, of course, carry on. His 1978 solo single "Bangkok" and his shambolic 1979 solo album Like Flies on Sherbet, both cult favorites and with good reason, often sound like the half-caring doodles of a smart-ass teenager. When he returned to a solo career in the mid-'80s, he played mostly obscure old R&B covers and a few originals in that style before eventually reconvening Big Star with Stephens in the '90s for occasional shows before adoring audiences they rarely enjoyed during their time. See, the Big Star albums that did escape the black-hole gravity of Ardent's troubled distribution struck a deep chord with the music nerds who sought out or happened across copies; passed along and occasionally reissued on small labels, they would become talismans for sensitive souls with extensive record collections everywhere. After all, pop music has always been about adolescence, its wants, its needs, its heartaches, and its progress toward adulthood, but until Big Star came along, it had mostly pretended everything was going to turn out OK.

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