Monday, July 22, 2013

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me at The Belcourt

Posted By on Mon, Jul 22, 2013 at 9:53 AM

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The story of Big Star’s three ‘70s studio albums has been exhaustively parsed — if you’re a serious pop-music fan, you probably know about the temporary obscurity the Memphis group fell into as the decade progressed from Beatles-influenced pop to the anti-Beatles, anti-rock ‘n’ roll impulses of punk and New Wave. That this focus on their failure can get in the way of any true understanding of Big Star’s achievement is only fleetingly addressed in Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori’s new documentary film, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, though the movie includes plenty of footage of rock critics discussing the band’s music and career. I saw the movie Saturday night at a Belcourt screening that included a performance of Big Star tunes by their drummer, Jody Stephens, and a group of musicians featuring Nashville power popper Bill Lloyd and former Superdrag guitarist John Davis. Joining them were bassist Rick Clark, who served as the movie’s music supervisor, and Mori herself.

Although the movie is an honest attempt to tell the story, I found it fascinating but strangely empty — DeNicola, Mori and Clark give the overview, but Nothing Can Hurt Me sometimes lacks narrative drive, and suffers from the directors’ preference for visuals over telling the story in a linear fashion.

In his lovingly written piece in this week’s Scene, Lloyd describes the impact of Big Star’s records on his generation — my generation — of rock fans. DeNicola’s movie does the usual this-stuff-was-ahead-of-its-time shuffle, with my favorite comment being Robyn Hitchcock’s elegant formulation that posited Big Star’s records as a “letter that got lost in the mail.” And certainly, by 1984 the band was already a touchstone for a certain kind of rock ‘n’ roll fan. The career of Game Theory leader Scott Miller, who died in April at 53, could represent my generation’s obsession with Big Star. Hitchcock’s take on the band’s trajectory isn’t completely wrong, but it’s not totally right, either.

In Memphis, pop music was different from what you’d encounter in Nashville, New York or Los Angeles. Already a ruined civilization by the time Chilton, Bell and company completed their look back at recent rock history in 1974, Memphis was elusive, a psychological construct imposed upon a ragtag accumulation of Mississippi Delta-style villages that were themselves inserted into a city plan that had only been realized in the 20th century.

As writer Michael Bane put it in his indispensable 1982 book on Memphis and its music, White Boy Singin’ the Blues, “The series of events in the city’s past don’t hook together in any coherent order — [it was] as if the city was one of those alternative identities prepared for secret agents: the papers are all in order, a whole past created out of thin air, the only thing missing is a real
person.”

In the case of Alex Chilton, Chris Bell and John Fry, the idea was to re-create the sound and textures of High Sixties pop-rock-folk music, with the out-of-kilter drumming of Ringo Starr and the astringent licks of George Harrison or The Byrds’ Jim (later Roger) McGuinn providing a template for songs that also partook of the vocal-harmony approach of such post-British Invasion American groups as Buffalo Springfield, Moby Grape and The Byrds themselves.

Ardent Records was a Stax subsidiary, so it’s fitting that the ensemble of drummer Jody Stephens and bassist Andy Hummel contribute a clear, understated, and not un-Stax-like pulse to 1972’s # 1 Record and 1974’s Radio City, as if one of those Memphis secret agents had given them an elixir bestowing the professional, unobtrusive approach of Stax drummer Al Jackson Jr. upon a group of callow garage musicians in love with records by The Move and The Yardbirds.

Chilton grew up in a soul-music milieu, and worked with soul producers and songwriters Dan Penn and Chips Moman in his days with The Box Tops. Neither Penn nor Moman is mentioned in the movie, although Moman is name-checked, along with John Lennon, Berry Gordy and Ardent Records chief John Fry, in Chilton’s 1970 song, “All I Really Want Is Money.”

For all his immersion in the pop of the era, Chilton — as he told me when I interviewed him in 1981 — had gotten a remarkable musical education in Memphis.

“I mean, the first show that I ever saw was B.B. King and Bobby Bland and Jackie Wilson, and it was all black,” Chilton told me. “When I was a kid the words on everybody’s mother’s lips were always, ‘See you later, alligator,’ you know, all those suggestive rockabilly lyrics. They were all quoting them all the time, I mean, it was inescapable, and I got a copy of ‘Great Balls of Fire’ for my seventh or eighth birthday.”

Big Star's music represents many things to many kinds of pop fans precisely because it encapsulated pop tendencies that had been temporarily forgotten, and recast them in a way that could be read by future fans without the strain of remembering what that past had actually been.

I think an offhand comment by rock critic Richard Meltzer sums up the effect of Big Star on future generations. One of the scribes invited to the now-legendary 1973 Memphis Rock Writers’ Convention that featured a regrouped Big Star, Meltzer shows up in a couple of the movie’s still photographs.

What he said was this: “Big Star ... is the means through which most bands today who are influenced by The Beatles get their dose of the British Invasion.” Meltzer is describing the rupture in time, and in pop history, that Big Star’s music represents. As all rock critics and many listeners in 1974 knew, the tradition that Big Star so brilliantly updated was quite ordinary: It was the music of all those harmonizing, post-folk rock bands on the West Coast, as well as the futuristic pop of The Beatles and The Zombies and The Left Banke, that Big Star referenced.

Meltzer’s dictum holds true today. If you’re into this kind of music but come to it from the typical viewpoint of an alterna-indie person, you’ve probably not spent much time with the records Chilton and Bell knew by heart in 1971, a list that would include such classics as Buffalo Springfield Again, The Byrds’ Fifth Dimension, and Moby Grape’s Moby Grape ‘69. The doleful quasi-folk harmonies and Beatles guitars of those records provided the template for everything Big Star did.

In the movie this historical continuum is hinted at in sequences featuring such figures as producer Jim Dickinson and Panther Burns drummer Ross Johnson. Notably missing from the film is engineer and producer Terry Manning, who was there with Chilton, Bell and Fry from the beginning, and who made the first real Memphis power pop record, 1970’s Home Sweet Home.

A librarian, drummer, rock critic and modern-day version of Brother Dave Gardner, Johnson would go on to record a bit of musical revisionism titled “It Never Happened,” a 1993 track which makes his case for rock ‘n’ roll and Memphis music as something pernicious that, by all rights, should have remained stillborn. Like the Big Star records, and much Memphis music of the last 40 years, “It Never Happened” precludes written rock criticism. It’s not in the movie, either.

Talking about music critics on that cold day in Memphis, Chilton told me, “These Ivy Leaguers, I don’t know what they pretend to do. They pretend to be above rock ‘n’ roll, therefore they understand it totally and everything. They don’t really have much idea of what it’s all about, as far as I’m concerned.” This is the note of skepticism that is missing from the Big Star movie, though I can’t blame anyone for not wanting to see things quite that way.

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