Star Crossed

Andrew Hultkrans on Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

Drew DeNicola, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, 2013, color, sound, 110 minutes. Andy Hummel, Alex Chilton, and Jody Stephens.

IT CAME FROM MEMPHIS… but it wasn’t blues, rockabilly, or soul. It was, in some ways, a second coming of the Beatles, though without sales or notoriety. It was a 1972 album called #1 Record by a band dubbed Big Star, names at first hopeful and then—as cocksure fantasy slid into disappointing reality—bitterly ironic. It became a locus of tragedy and the cornerstone of a cult (built up by rock critics and musicians), and it remains, along with two further LPs (barely) released under the band’s name, some of the best, most timeless music made in the 1970s.

Big Star was born in 1971 when the trio of Chris Bell (guitar/vocals), Andy Hummel (bass/vocals), and Jody Stephens (drums/vocals)—all fans of British Invasion music, which they’d played in cover bands—asked local celebrity Alex Chilton to join their fledgling group. Chilton was a veteran of the Box Tops, a kind of country-soul Monkees overseen by songwriter-producers Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, which Chilton had joined when he was still a minor. The Box Tops had a number of chart hits, beginning with 1967’s “The Letter,” all sung by Chilton in a seasoned R&B growl that belied his age and impish appearance. In Drew DiNicola’s long-awaited, legend-justifying Big Star documentary Nothing Can Hurt Me, Memphis producer Jim Dickinson remembers the young, pre–Box Tops Chilton at age eleven or twelve: “Alex was what I’d call an art brat. His mom ran an art gallery and his dad was a hobbyist clarinet player. William Eggleston had given him peyote, and he was running around with his eyes spinning and his hair sticking out, and I thought, ‘This kid’s going to have a unique life.’ ”

Chris Bell, the band’s other principal singer-songwriter (and the real founder, aesthetically and otherwise, of Big Star), was a private-school kid with talent to burn, a healthy appetite for psychedelics (according to his college friends, Bell had a “full-body purple aura” whenever they took acid), and extreme emotional sensitivity masked by youthful bravado. He was likely gay, thought it isn’t publicly known whether he ever actualized his sexuality; in later years, it became clear to friends and family that this was a source of unresolved personal torment, leading him into alcoholism, hard drugs, and born-again Christianity in an effort to sublimate his impulses. In 1971, Bell was a rabid Beatles/Byrds fan in the era of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, and wanted to make music in that mode, regardless of prevailing trends.

He was fortunate to have a local laboratory for his recording experiments: Ardent Studios, run by world-class engineer John Fry. Fry taught Bell and others the art of multitrack recording and let anyone who showed promise have keys to the studio for late-night sessions. The importance of Ardent to Big Star’s pristine sonics cannot be overstated. Fry had an uncanny ear and top-notch equipment, and his studios had an unparalleled “room sound”—rarely do acoustic guitars sound better than on an Ardent track. Bell, Chilton, and the others spent nearly a year recording with Fry and adding their own after-hours overdubs, resulting in the lushly layered, elegantly produced #1 Record. For his Big Star material, Chilton abandoned soul mimicry and allowed himself to sing in his “real” voice, which at the time was positively angelic. Bell’s voice, while as melodically adept, was thinner and raspier, but its tonal counterpoint to Chilton’s was ideal, akin to the razor-and-plum blend of Lennon and McCartney.

Ardent had signed a deal with local soul label Stax, taking on its overflow recording sessions and, in return, agreeing to be its pop/rock subsidiary. #1 Record was released under this aegis, but Stax had little experience promoting rock music to white audiences and at the time was throwing all of its marketing weight behind Isaac Hayes’s Hot Buttered Soul. Review copies of #1 Record received uniformly positive write-ups, but copies of the LP weren’t making it to stores, let alone radio playlists. Bell, once so convinced that their music would be successful, became despondent and erratic, erasing some master tapes the band had been working on and quitting Big Star. Following a suicide attempt, he decamped to Europe with his brother in search of a solo record deal that never materialized.

The remaining three initially thought this was the end of the band, until Ardent promoter John King convinced them to record another album. King organized the first-ever rock critics convention in Memphis, ostensibly to help the writers unionize, but really to make them a captive audience for a live Big Star performance. With Lester Bangs, Nick Tosches, Richard Meltzer, and others present, the three-piece Big Star had a rousing reception and were recharged by the experience, going back to Ardent and recording Radio City, a less meticulous but equally brilliant LP. Because of a distribution deal with Columbia gone bad and Stax facing bankruptcy, Radio City was even more poorly promoted and distributed than #1 Record, and it sank without a trace, despite containing the radio-ready “September Gurls,” one of the most perfect pop songs ever recorded. Hummel left the band and returned to college.

Chilton and Stephens enlisted Dickinson to produce a third Big Star record, a Chilton solo album in all but name. Known for his spontaneous, one-take production style, Dickinson gave the increasingly chaotic, drug-addled Chilton a great deal of latitude, resulting in a sprawling sonic diary about “deteriorating relationships.” Alternately beautiful and bleak (often both), the songs on what came to be known as Third or Sister Lovers (Chilton and Stephens were dating sisters at the time) were products of the mid-’70s social scene around Eggleston, whose 1973 photograph The Red Ceiling was the cover image for Radio City. Writer Ross Johnson recalls in the film: “The standard artistic equation for that scene was horror equals beauty, beauty equals horror…if something was somehow just wrong, it could become a thing of beauty. Alex [Chilton], Jim [Dickinson], Bill [Eggleston]…for me, that’s all the same body of work.” To give us a feel for this period, clips from Eggleston’s 1974 film Stranded in Canton—consisting of wasted Memphis scenesters of the time singing, mugging, and ranting—are intercut throughout Nothing Can Hurt Me.

William Eggleston, Stranded in Canton, 1973.

Although “completed” near the end of 1974, Third/Sister Lovers wasn’t released until 1978, by obscure indie label PVC. Its proper sequencing has never been determined. In 1978 Bell also released his astonishing single “I Am the Cosmos/You and Your Sister” (with Chilton singing backup on the B-side) on future dB Chris Stamey’s tiny Car label. The two songs were the definition of pain transmuted into beauty and reminded anyone who heard them that Bell was the original author of the Big Star sound. In late December of that year, Bell crashed his car into a telephone pole and died. By this point, Chilton had already moved to New York and become something entirely different.

Outside of Bob Dylan and Lou Reed, few songwriters have more perversely denigrated (and desecrated) their fans’ most adored music than Alex Chilton. With Dylan and Reed, you sense arrogance and a need to control the narrative; with Chilton, despite his puckish sense of humor, you sense wounded sensitivity and profound disappointment. What happened? The armchair psychological read (which I think is not far from the truth) is that Chilton, having cut his teeth in a successful packaged act with little room for original contribution, opened his heart and creative soul for the Big Star records, only to have them meet with total commercial indifference. Unable to deal with this rejection (and with punk concurrently ascendant), Chilton armored himself with a sneering, ironic attitude—abetted by the ’77 CBGB scene he joined after moving to New York—which he maintained for nearly two decades afterwards, eschewing Big Star and even Box Tops songs for slapdash, off-key covers of “Little GTO” and “Volare.”

Even after rapturously received Big Star reunion shows in the ’90s and ’00s (with Stephens and two members of the Posies), Chilton often downplayed the quality and importance of the material, referring to it as “young-sounding” and “immature.” This is hard to credit. Are jaundiced pisstakes like “Bangkok” (“Here’s a little thing that’s gonna please ya / Just a little town down in Indonesia…”) and “No Sex” more “mature” than “Give Me Another Chance,” as harmonically gorgeous and heart-rending a song as pop has ever produced? The film provides some context.

Stephanie Chernikowski, a photographer assigned by the Village Voice to shoot Chilton soon after his arrival in the Lower East Side in 1977, recalls how he gave her a copy of Big Star’s Radio City with a mixture of pride and humility. “Despite claims to the contrary,” she says, “he knew he’d done something.” When she later asked him why he didn’t continue on in that stylistic vein, he replied, “I can’t write that way anymore.” She goes on to say that punk offered him a way “to get a lot of his anger out from the debacle of Big Star being totally ignored.” Ultimately, the most significant contribution Chilton made to punk was to champion and produce the early recordings of the Cramps, whom he took down to Memphis to record in Sun Records honcho Sam Phillips’s studio. He ended up playing lead guitar for several years in a similarly shambolic “shockabilly” outfit called Panther Burns, fronted by Memphis eccentric Tav Falco, after which he continued to defy fan expectations in various obnoxious ways for many years.

I was lucky enough to see Big Star at what would be their final show, at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple in November 2009. It was an amazing set, with Chilton in fine voice and flashing an occasional smile. The following March, he died of a heart attack, on the eve of a planned Big Star gig at SXSW. The organizers initially considered canceling the show, but many famous friends and admirers agreed to come to Austin to front the songs, and the evening was fittingly magical. Clips of this concert pepper the final scenes of Nothing Can Hurt Me—Michael Stipe singing the rhythmically shaky “Kangaroo,” for instance, as Stephens tries to find the one beat in a roiling sea of sound. This is what Nothing Can Hurt Me does best: gathering a multigenerational extended family of Memphis scenesters, musicians, artists, critics, and biological family members, all of whom have some connection to Big Star, thereby revealing the energy field that generated and nurtured the band through all its disappointments. Big Star were “too individual, too Memphis, too unrecoupable,” Dickinson’s widow concludes in the film, “but they changed music. They turned pain into beauty.” There’s no better alchemy than that.

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me opens Wednesday, July 3 at the IFC Center in New York.