Monday, March 22, 2010

Wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you...

I guess I'm one of those of people Bob Mehr wrote about in his must read essay, The Great Crusade: Birthing The Cult Of Big Star, in the Big Star box set Keep An Eye On The Sky. The first I ever heard of the band was in 1973 when I read a review in Phonograph Record Magazine of Big Star's (now legendary) appearance at the Rock Writer's Convention in Memphis, May of 1973. What was described sounded like a band I might go for.

So I went searching and soon found #1 Record in the "2 for $1" bin at a local discount department store. The record completely blew my then 16 year old mind to smithereens! And what was also so powerful and important about that record for me was that being at that age, this was some of the first music I had discovered as a teenager completely on my own and free of any influence from older siblings, friends, or the radio. I took a chance on something all by myself and BOOM---it was all so great and it was all mine! I thought how could this record be so great and no one know about it? I felt like I had just joined some sort of club where I was the only member. Very powerful stuff indeed.

And then a few months later I'm reading Phonograph Record Magazine again and come upon a review of the "September Gurls" single, with the memorable headline, "Innocent, But Deadly..." Holy shit, there's a new Big Star album! I actually cut that review out along with the photo of the band and hung it on my wall with all my other rock posters and photos. Couldn't find the album in a store yet, but one morning before school I turn on the big FM rock station in St. Louis at the time and the DJ says, "This is new from a group called Big Star..." and "O My Soul" comes crashing out of the speakers. It was unbelievably great! And looking back now it's pretty amazing how that station was still free form enough to where that particular morning DJ not only played "O My Soul," but played it A LOT.

I soon found a copy of Radio City and that was that. The course of my life was truly changed forever. Like so many of the people Mehr writes about in his box set essay, the power of that record was so great I too was drawn like nothing before in my life to try to find the source, no different than a blues man going to The Crossroads.

I darn near played Radio City nearly every day. A couple of years later I worked up the nerve to call Greg Shaw at BOMP Magazine. Somehow I was able to con him into thinking I was some kind of writer (I wasn't) and that I could get an interview with Alex Chilton. Greg said, "We've been trying to get him for years. If you can pull that off, sure, I'll print it!" And so like so many others at the time, I found the Chilton family's local Memphis listing and gave the number a call and the next thing you know I'm talking to Alex fucking Chilton! And yes, the first thing he asked me was the date of my birth. "Ah yes, the Year Of The Monkey..." was his reply after I told him. I made my interview proposal and he said "Sure, I'd love to be interviewed. It might help me get some of these new demos I'm working on get looked at. Please come on down."

So in September of 1976 I went to Memphis to meet and interview Alex. When he let me into his tiny studio apartment in Midtown, he was wearing a long old school night shirt and nothing else. His apartment had no furniture. There was a turntable, a few records, and his Strat strewn across the floor and nothing else, and we had to sit on the floor. Alex sat crossed legged about two feet across from me with his night shirt pulled up a bit and his stuff hanging out for the entire world to see! Needless to say, I was already pretty freaked out enough about being in the same room as my hero, but never bargained that his thang would be in the picture too, and no less than five minutes after meeting him! After a few minutes of introductory conversation, Alex says, "Hey, you should see Ardent---let's go down and do this there..." I quickly agreed that this was a great idea, and then Alex says, "Hey I gotta shave before we go. We can keep talking while you watch." I then went to the next level of freak out as I watched Alex fucking Chilton smear Vaseline all over his face instead of shaving cream, and listened intently as he told me about The Year Of The Monkey while he shaved.

On the short drive from his crib to Ardent, Alex had me pop a cassette into my car stereo. He says "These are some new demos Arista just said no to..." I pop the tape in, totally losing it in anticipation, thinking I'm going to hear something new along the lines of "Back Of A Car" or something, and out comes "My Rival." It was a lo-fi cassette Alex had recorded with one mic in his living room with him singing and playing electric guitar and some friend banging on a coffee can. Up to that point in my life it was one of the strangest and most primitive sounding things I had ever heard. And I was also listening to Alex graphically singing about actually killing someone! Wow. No longer innocent I guess, but still plenty deadly. Quite a shock indeed and the second big indication in the first 15 minutes of meeting the guy that he was nothing like I imagined he was going to be.

And so that afternoon Alex gave me a tour of Ardent and then we sat at the fountain in the courtyard where he patiently and enthusiastically answered every last fanboy question I had about every song on the first two Big Star albums. As I was turning off the tape recorder when we were finished, Alex says, "You know we made another album." "WHAT?" was all I could muster back. "Well it was just me & Jody, but we kinda were still calling it Big Star. It's different than those other two records." When I asked if I could maybe hear it, Alex said, "No, I don't think that would be possible."

We went out that evening and had drinks, but not too many. Alex invited his pal (the great) Ross Johnson to join us, and I couldn't believe such fascinating people were letting a totally green 20 year old from the suburbs of St. Louis hang with them. Ross invited Alex and I to come see some friends of his rehearse the next day. He said, "Oh Steve, you're really gonna like them and you should write about them. They're called the Scruffs..." Alex and I joined Ross at the Scruffs rehearsal the next day and sure enough, the Scruffs blew me away.

Right before I left Memphis that weekend, Alex and I discussed the possibility of maybe getting him a live gig as Big Star up in St. Louis. We both laughed when he said, "You get me the right amount of money, I'll get a couple of guys here and we'll come up and you can call it anything you want!" And I almost pulled it off, too. Had a club across the river in St. Louis in Illinois that was willing after months of hemming and hawing with them, but by that time Alex was about to split for New York and his CBGBs era.

My meeting the guys in the Scruffs that weekend also became the start of what became a tight friendship with lead guitarist Dave Branyan. Dave and I spent many a weekend over the next few years visiting and hanging out with each other in our respective cities. And after Dave left the Scruffs in '79, he asked me and my friend Jeff Evans to be the rhythm section in a solo thing he was putting together. We cut some stuff at Ardent with John Fry producing that unfortunately was never finished or released. But my god, what an experience! The first day of cutting basic tracks they had me plug my bass into the house 100watt Hi-Watt head and 4x12 Marshall cabinet. When I said to engineer John Hampton, "Man, this amp really sounds GREAT!" he replied, "Yeah, Alex used that same rig for his guitar on Radio City." Are you kidding me?!?!?! Talk about your total mind fuck! I still can't believe I was able to continue and make it through the rest of the session.

Shortly after I started making regular visits to Memphis to hang with Dave, I fell into possession of one of the test pressings of the original version of Big Star's Sister Lovers LP that Ardent had pressed up to promote the record after it was recorded. A few copies had been circulating around Memphis. And my life was changed once again.

And then soon came another total life changer: Like Flies On Sherbert, the second masterpiece Chilton made with the legendary Jim Dickinson. I think it's one of the greatest pure rock and roll albums ever made, right up there with Exile On Main Street and every bit as important. And if your copy doesn't include "The Baron Of Love, Pt. 1," then you really don't own a copy of Like Flies On Sherbert. Accept no substitute!

And of course there was also The Singer Not The Song EP, the "Bangkok" 45, the Cramps records Alex produced, Bach's Bottom, Live In London, Feudalist Tarts, and on and on. One life changing record after another, every one of them. And then there were all those years of so many great solo live shows from Alex. All I'm gonna say, and I still find myself arguing about it all the time with people who still disagree, is that I thought Alex walked on water every time I saw him back then. A master at the top of his game and on the same level of genius as Bob Dylan and Muddy Waters. And every guitar solo an abstract work of art!

I live 120 miles from Columbia, MO so of course I was excited to drive down for the reunion show in 1993, but I was nowhere near as giddy as the majority of the crowd there for the show that day. I was certainly curious, and no dis at all towards the Big Star songs, but for me those songs had become the least interesting part of those amazing Alex solo shows. So I guess you could say I had mixed expectations. A lot has been written and mythologized about that show over the years. It was truly, truly wonderful to finally get to see Jody Stephens play drums, but what left the most lasting impression on me that day was how much Alex came alive and his demeanor lit up when they got to the cover songs in the set, especially when he broke into "Kansas City." After seeing so many Alex solo shows, this certainly came as no surprise to me. I enjoyed "Kansas City" more than any other song that day, and thought it a very beautiful and special moment, and oh so definitive about the guy. As so many of the hipsters in the audience who had traveled so far to see this show stood around with "WTF?" looks on their faces, I smiled and shouted "YEAH!" Once again Alex Chilton was winning the day on his terms. Just like always.


Ted Barron said...

This is great, Steve. Thanks. I'm still trying to write something myself.

the sandwich life said...

Wonderful Steve....thanks....

stephanie said...

beautiful story, steve.

Tony Patti said...

A real labor of love. Freaking amazing story, hard to believe, and a dream come true.

JohnS said...

Thank you, Steve. For a LOT.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for putting this down for us to read. It gave me chills!


James said...

Damn, Steve. How did I miss this post? Damn. Really, wonderful moving and reaffirming stuff.