By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
By 1974, half of Big Star's original four members were gone. Singer-guitarist Chris Bell and bassist Andy Hummel had left the band; only drummer Jody Stephens and former Box Tops singer Alex Chilton remained. The pair returned to Ardent Studios in their hometown of Memphis and recorded the third in a trinity of discs that may well represent the sum total of American power pop in the early 1970s.
Having built little or no audience for their first two works, 1972's #1 Record and 1974's Radio City, the frustrated Chilton created raw moments of poignancy and pain, threw some strings behind it at Stephens's bidding, and then walked away from everything. Big Star's Third (often called Third/Sister Lovers, as Chilton and Stephens were dating a pair of sisters at the time) wasn't released until 1978 and was never performed as it was recorded—that is, with a backing orchestra—until last year, where it served almost as a memorial. Stephens is now the only original Big Star member still alive: Bell died in a car accident in '78, while last year claimed both Chilton (heart problems) and Hummel (cancer).
The live tribute gathers a collection of Southern pop all-stars, including dB's co-founder, Chris Stamey, super-producer Mitch Easter, R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills, and Stephens himself; they performed Third with a string section in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in December. Later this month, that quartet—plus some special guests like Tift Merritt and Matthew Sweet, plus another 25 or so musicians led by conductor Ari Picker—will present Big Star's Third outside the Tar Heel State for the very first time, right here in New York City. Here, some of the principals talk about their history with this music and why they feel the need to bring a 35-year-old album back to life.
Chris Stamey: We consider it our national premiere. Can you say that if we've already played it? Yeah, we consider it the national premiere. I want to get one of those lights, you know, like the Bat signal.
Jody Stephens: It was Chris's idea, and at the time he brought it up, Alex was still alive. And Chris was interested in Alex participating, and I thought, "Well, it'll never happen," and so I didn't think much about it. And then Alex passed away, and it seemed to take on more of a sense of purpose.
Stamey: You know, it's a lot different from: I hand out a list of songs, and people kind of show up and do their first impression of a Big Star song. I mean, that's made for some great nights, but that's just not what we're trying for . . . really, it's an attempt to honor the music, and I'd like to think that can honor the man and the men as well. I thought of this as a way of keeping the record alive. I thought this was a way of keeping the writing alive beyond just the record sitting on a shelf.
Mike Mills: Peter [Buck] turned me onto it. [Laughs.] There was a lot of music that didn't make it down to Macon, Georgia—let's put it that way. So when I first started hanging out with Peter, he turned me onto a whole lot of music I'd never heard of, including Big Star.
Matthew Sweet: When I got into Alex and Big Star, I was a teenager in high school, and it was like this voice from afar that felt like I felt, you know? It could be angry, or could be serious, or could be funny, or could be super-sad, or could be just super-melancholy. It was such a wide range of things.
Mitch Easter: If you think about when it was recorded and everything, it really just seems to come from outer space. It had almost no context, you know? I just think that that's what's kind of delightful about it. I mean, I don't think it's perfect. That's probably the point, but then, the moments of perfection and the moments of beauty and the moments of real emotion, well, there's a lot of them. It's kind of like there's not another record like it.
Stamey: I think I'm different from a lot of other people listening to it. When I heard it, I was actually in music school, studying a lot of, like, '60s and '70s techniques, and all of a sudden, I was hearing that kind of thinking on this Big Star record. There was an interesting thing happening with pitch and rhythm and freedom. I think it was the sound of freedom that attracted me, but it was also specific note choices that were outside the regular realm of pop music, so there was that flavor of an expanded vocabulary. You know, a lot of it was just Alex's voice. He sounded like someone who wasn't lying.
Easter: It's been a part of our lives for a long time.
Stephens: I didn't participate in "Kanga Roo." That was Jim Dickinson playing drums. But I did participate in a lot of other ways. Like I brought in the string section for "For You," and that wound up being, you know, a really important part of the record itself and how it sounds and how it's perceived.