Monday, October 21, 2013
I'm way behind #7: Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (Olivia Mori & Drew DeNicola)
I had the blessing/curse of growing up a music (and the arts in general) freak in a small, rural town in the pre-Internet days. Our local cable didn't even include MTV. I was, and still am, a curious fucker, and I wasn't going to let my sheltered lack of options and scarce availability of non-mainstream cultural artifacts stop me from finding cool stuff. I relied on late-night local TV, which was pretty strange and varied in the '70s, '80s, and early '90s, the library, mail-order, road trips to the record store 40 miles away, and magazines to expose me to the old, weird America. Now, any outcast kid can go to YouTube and check out a huge chunk of most underground artists' bodies of work when an unfamiliar name pops up, but in the late '80s and early '90s, when I was buying every music magazine that made its way to the two local supermarkets, I would read the names of canonical underground bands hundreds and maybe thousands of times before I ever got the chance to hear their music. You would create your own internal, private mythologies about what Can or Kraftwerk or The Raincoats or Flipper or Sebadoh or Jandek or Gang of Four or Roxy Music or The Slits or The Feelies sounded like based on descriptions by rock critics or pictures of the bands and their album covers. I'd pore over interviews with famous rock stars like Peter Buck, Kurt Cobain, and Flea because those guys would always mention tons of bands that were new to me.
Lincoln, Nebraska doesn't have a national reputation as a mecca of the arts, but it's an interesting place, and when I started college there in 1995, I was a pig in shit. There were tons of interesting local bands (Jesus Lizard and Fugazi were the big influences at the time), a few great bookstores, a few great video stores, and its large student population supported 10 or 11 record stores (almost all of them are closed now, sadly). I was able to load up on all the records I'd previously only been able to read about. I was blowing my own mind on a weekly basis. Thanks to mail order and a few lucky finds in western Nebraska Wal-Marts my senior year of high school, I'd added Minutemen, The Replacements, Black Flag, Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys, and the big indie-rock releases of the time into my collection, but now I could go wild. Besides the new stuff, I was getting my first aural taste of The Stooges, Hüsker Dü, Captain Beefheart, Patti Smith, Flying Burrito Bros., Michael Hurley, Tim Buckley, Robert Wyatt, Skip Spence, Pere Ubu, early Bowie, Buzzcocks, X-Ray Spex, Charles Mingus, R.L. Burnside, Sun Ra, Boredoms, and the non-hits and deep cuts of Devo, The B-52's, The Kinks, The Who, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, and The Beach Boys. I was in a receptive frame of mind, and great stuff was smooshing right into my still-developing frontal lobes.
Big Star was a band name I kept seeing in print without ever getting a chance to hear them. They were supposedly an influence on many of my favorite bands, and a song about one of the band members, Alex Chilton, was one of my two or three favorites on a Replacements CD I bought in a Denver mall a month before I graduated high school. I couldn't find their stuff anywhere, though. I was a fanatic Replacements and Guided By Voices fan by 16, still am, and Big Star's name kept popping up as an influence. They also got mentioned as a link between the '60s stuff I loved (Beatles, Kinks, Who, Byrds, Velvet Underground), some '70s stuff I loved (Cheap Trick, Flamin' Groovies) and some then-contemporary stuff I loved (Replacements, GBV, Sebadoh, Pavement, Teenage Fanclub, Nirvana). Who were these guys and why can't I find any of their stuff?
By my sophomore year of college, my geographical comfort zone around the campus area was slowly growing wider, and I decided to take an exploratory bicycle ride several miles past campus to hit up a record store I had yet to visit. (I would be working there within a year.) It was a longer ride than I'd anticipated and on busier streets, and when darkness fell as I arrived, I regretted my decision. I wandered around the store halfheartedly. It was mostly the same stock as the location near my dorm. My bad mood increased as I thought about the long, dark ride home. I decided to browse the used section to see if I could salvage the trip. My mood grew substantially better when I saw it. The #1 Record/Radio City twofer! There it was! Finally! I snatched it up, and also found a used copy of Cheap Trick's Heaven Tonight. Fuck the ride home. My future coworker who rang me up got a misty look in his eye and asked if I'd heard the Big Star records before. He grew very excited when I said I hadn't.
I pedaled uphill as fast as I could in the darkness, back to the dorm, and threw it on. I was a little confused by the first track, "Feel." It sounded like '70s cock-rock. Good '70s cock-rock, but still. "The Ballad of El Goodo" followed, and I remained confused. I liked the song, and it quickly grew on me, but it still sounded like mainstream classic rock. By the time it ended, I was starting to feel the stirrings of something special. By the first few seconds of "In the Street," they had me. I was drawn to this band with the fervor of a crazed missionary. Once Radio City started, forget about it, I was almost catatonic with pleasure. "O My Soul" and "Daisy Glaze." Holy shit. A few months later, I found a copy of Third/Sister Lovers, and a few years later, Chilton's Like Flies on Sherbet was my Thursday night alone in the basement drinking music. Ever since, Big Star has remained in regular rotation on whatever device technology provides for the playing of music, and I've got a lot of shit to rotate.
Big Star was long overdue for the documentary treatment, but I was a bit worried going in. Some rock docs are pretty cheap and shoddy-looking, and too many others are full of a nonstop parade of talking heads telling you how great the subject is, usually including one or all of the following: Bono, John Cusack, Henry Rollins, and Johnny Depp, for some reason. Also, hardly any footage of the band exists. What was this going to be?
Mori and DeNicola did a fantastic job. My heart sank initially when an opening scene featured a parade of talking heads singing Big Star's praises, but this scene was brief. What followed was a detailed, entertaining, heartbreaking, uplifting, visual treat full of fascinating people and great music. Mori and DeNicola did the big work, finding a trove of archival material and interviewing tons of important people. Their timing was fortunate, too, as they interviewed several people who passed away shortly thereafter. They talk to almost everybody. Chilton gave the project his blessing, but wouldn't sit down for an interview. There's great footage of him, though, and his presence fills the frame while his absence haunts it, especially when his death becomes a part of the story. Almost everyone else is here, though, including Andy Hummel, Jody Stephens, John Fry, Van Duren, Jim Dickinson, Rick Clark, Tav Falco, William Eggleston, The Cramps, Chris Stamey, Peter Holsapple, Jon Auer, Ken Stringfellow, and Chris Bell's brother and sister. I'm especially grateful for the public access footage of Tav Falco's Panther Burns with Chilton on guitar inciting a confrontation from a combative and grumpy morning show host just by being themselves and having a sense of humor about it.
This movie just pops off the screen with energy and life and creativity, but it's haunted by death and broken dreams, too. The movie runs for almost two hours and is pretty thorough, but it breezes by quickly, and I would have been happy with another two or three hours. Every damn person in this documentary could be the subject of a fascinating documentary of his or her own. I'd love to hear more about Chris Bell's life, for example. What a sad, fascinating, contradictory, tortured guy, torn apart by trying to reconcile his closeted homosexuality, devout Christianity in a band with guys who didn't have much use for religion, just as devout worship of rock and roll, intense desire to be famous butting heads with his shyness and insecurity, and struggles with drugs and depression. Meanwhile, Chilton, a more irreverent, cantankerous guy, had experienced fame as a teenager with the Box Tops and found it ridiculous. He had no interest in pursuing that particular dream and went down his own bizarre, singular, admirable road, deliberately sabotaging his own songs when they had a potential for mainstream acceptance.
Whether Big Star should have been huge is not something I'm that interested in chewing over. There's more to life than the big time. They had fantastically great songs and were all good-looking, charismatic guys, but their songs were out of step with the mid-'70s. Like most works of high quality that fail to achieve mainstream acceptance in their immediate present, Big Star slowly built a small but devoted following that gets a little bigger every day. Those songs will last until the sun burns out, and this documentary should bring some new people to those songs. Even if it doesn't, it's a good watch for the already converted.
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