"I was just completely devastated. I was in this big hall at the [Austin] Convention Center. It's interesting how your emotions take over. It was as if these curtains dropped around me, and there was this isolation."
That is how Big Star drummer Jody Stephens describes the moment he got the call: Alex Chilton, his friend and intermittent bandmate of 39 years, had died — four days before the seminal band was to slated to close out South by Southwest 2010, and more than three decades after their music left a footprint on the DNA of rock 'n' roll too vast to ever measure. Chilton was 59.
As word spread throughout the global rock community — many of whom were assembled in Austin — the outpouring of palpable reverence and bereavement confirmed Chilton's status as legend.
The band's SXSW appearance went on as scheduled, transforming what was originally slated to be another in a 17 year-long stretch of celebratory reunion shows into a stirring tribute to Chilton and his legacy, as a host of rock notables including Mike Mills, Kirk Kirkwood, Chris Stamey, Evan Dando and M. Ward took turns filling in for the man whose music inspired them.
"Somebody said, 'How could you perform so shortly after Alex's death?' and I said, 'Well, that's what we do,' " Stephens recalls. "That's the power of music. It's an emotional experience that you can keep private or you can share with others, so that's just what we did."
Combining the big hooks of the British invasion with the blues-infused rhythmic muscle of Led Zeppelin and the loose rootsiness of Southern rock while adding a brand of jangly guitars and heartfelt introspection all their own, Big Star were the architects of what would later be known as power-pop. Their unmistakable influence can be heard throughout the catalogues of R.E.M., Cheap Trick, Elliot Smith, Weezer, Superdrag, kindred sons The Replacements — who immortalized the band's frontman in their classic "Alex Chilton" — and countless others.
Despite how well time has treated their oeuvre, fate wasn't quite as kind to the band during their original four-year tenure — which was famously fraught with poor distribution, internal struggle, record label gridlock and a host of hard knocks in between. It's simply astounding to reconcile the magnitude of their impact when considering that by Stephens' estimation they played only 15 shows in their heyday.
"I can kinda visualize each one of the gigs — that's how few there were," he says, "We didn't play much of anywhere in the '70s. We never had a proper booking agent. Well, we never had a booking agent period — proper or improper. Nor did we really have a manager looking out for us. ... We played gigs that our marketing guy — John King — would set up for us."
As the 57-year-old drummer talks to the Scene via phone from Memphis' famed Ardent Studios — where Big Star's three indelible LPs were cut, and where he now works as studio manager — Stephens is busy preparing for what is essentially an encore performance of that tribute show in Austin, slated to take place in the band's hometown of Memphis. Featuring some of the departed rocker's most ardent followers, the show is to serve as an unofficial farewell to the Big Star moniker. Stephens sits beneath a poster promoting another Big Star farewell performance on Oct. 29 ... 1974.
"We've obviously played a few since then," he says.
While it's currently billed merely as "A Tribute to Alex Chilton and Big Star," the Thank You Friends show at Mercy Lounge will see some of the same notable Big Star zealots as the Memphis event. Stephens will sit in with an all-star cast including Brendan Benson, Chris Stamey (The dB's), John Davis (Superdrag), Carl Broemel (My Morning Jacket), Joe Marc's Brother, Ken Coomer and Bill Lloyd. The event is the first in a weekend double-header of Chilton tribute shows that will transform Music City into Radio City. The second will be held the following night at The 5 Spot, and will boast cover sets courtesy of Superdrag, The Carter Administration, Derek Hoke and others. Each show is a benefit for MusiCares, which provides financial assistance to musicians in need — in this case those affected by the Nashville flood and struggling to cover the cost of health insurance.
The cause is fitting, as weeks after Alex Chilton — who lived in New Orleans, and endured Hurricane Katrina — shuffled off this mortal coil, it was reported that the heart attack causing his death possibly could have been prevented had he sought medical attention for the recurring shortness of breath, chills and other warning signs that had ailed him in his final days. Many made a fuss of the revelation that he did not have health insurance — speculating it was the reason for his reluctance to seek care. But Stephens says otherwise.
"That wasn't the issue. ... Alex didn't have health insurance, but he didn't have insurance for a lot of things. I don't think he really believed in it. I think he just felt like when something came up he would pay for it," he says. "It's funny, I talked to Jeff Tweedy right after [Alex died] ... and he said 'Alex got to be Alex all his life and never veered from that.' It's true. Alex was Alex all his life, and defiant about some things. And we're all the better for it."
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