Big Star's Third, Onstage in New York at Last
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.
Ari Picker: I kind of spend a lot of time in that place where classical and rock 'n' roll meet, and there is a bit of tug-of-war there, but they also kind of balance each other out. Whereas classical music could be considered crusty and, you know, reserved for concert halls and classrooms, and rock 'n' roll is debaucherous club stuff, I think when they meet, they kind of balance each other out and you kind of get a different world altogether.
Stamey: I think it's that combination of the freedom of the rock players and the discipline of the orchestral players that does connect with the vibe of the record. That has a lot to do with what that record was about.
Mills: We did run into Alex really early on. We played a place called Tupelo's Tavern, which I think was in New Orleans. And Alex came by and hung out before the show and, you know, our rider at that point consisted of exactly one case of Budweiser. So we went onstage and said, Look, Alex, we've got to play. Feel free to join us if you like—otherwise, we'll see you afterward. And when we got back to the dressing room, there was no Alex and no beer. [Laughs.]
Sweet: I think of Alex a lot. He's like a John Lennon–type guy because of that breadth of emotion in the types of things he would do.
Stephens: While he was an intellectual, I think he led with his emotions.
Stamey: I learned so much from Alex. I had learned a little bit about music before I met him, and all of a sudden, it was so much beyond anything I had imagined. What he knew about recording, you know, it was mind-blowing to me. And about songwriting and about life. It's all been a great gift.
Mills: It's such a personal record. It's so much about Jody and Alex and everything they had gone through and everything they were going through. It was more, I think, a catharsis for them as much as it was trying to make a rock 'n' roll record like the first two. It has a personal weight.
Stephens: It was such a brilliant snapshot of where Alex was in his life at that time. I didn't appreciate it so much at the time [laughs], because it was a pretty dark period, but in retrospect, Alex was a pretty brilliant guy. I mean, pretty amazingly creative and such a free spirit when it came to being in the studio and just sort of letting loose. You know, there's some pretty wild sounds that go on in the Third album.
Sweet: It's funny that you say Altered Beast, because that really reminds me of Big Star's Third, because it's like I was losing my mind, kind of. And I sort of feel like Alex has gone off the deep end or whatever in the extremes of Big Star's Third. So I can see that.
Stamey: After the fact, we know it was like a muse record, that it had a lot to do with him and Lesa Aldridge trying to work out who they were. And those muse kind of records tend to have a different flavor, and I think that also got through to me.
Stephens: I was dating Holliday and, you know, Alex was dating Lesa. They aren't twins. I mean, they've been reported as twins, but they weren't. They were a year or two apart. And so hence the name Sister Lovers.
Stamey: There are moments on the record that used to always amaze me. I think "Kanga Roo" was the high point when I first heard the record, and maybe remains so. After I'd been playing with Alex for a while, he pulled that one out one night and we did it a few times, you know—just the four of us, and it was really great—so "Kanga Roo" has been a special thing, and I consider it the linchpin of the concert, really.
Easter: It's totally fun to play "You Can't Have Me" because it's just a flat-out bunch of chords, you know, and it's got such a great kind of groove to it. I mean, you don't even have to think to play that one. By the time we get around to "You Can't Have Me," I feel like I'm in total natural mode and just flail, you know? A lot of the record requires a bit of subtlety and that one doesn't.
Mills: I love to play "Jesus Christ." That's the one I sing. We've done it as a Christmas single for R.E.M. That one sort of connects with me a lot as a performer, just because I get to sing it.
Tift Merritt: When I think about Big Star, I think about this intense intimacy that they were able to create and that Alex Chilton was able to convey. I mean, you just feel really moved by this sort of intimacy that he's creating, but I think "Thank You Friends" makes me feel the way I feel about being in a band or about being a musician in this sort of collection of friends that you've had over the years that you've played with or shared music with, and I think that's such a beautiful moment.
Stephens: And "Holocaust," wow. It just sounds like it hit Alex and he walked over to the piano and that's the performance. It definitely seems to be an emotional moment in time.
Stamey: You know, they used to say that poets in Ireland could kill rats if they got the words right. And there's a physics to music, so when the notes are in the air, they have an emotive capability that is a real thing, and they can make you experience something similar to what the composer was experiencing. So it's a kind of transportation. When we play them right, "Night Time" can actually sound like a night like that. "Holocaust" can actually sound that desperate. It's really thinking about the music, trying to make the air vibrate in a way that will fill the hearts of the listener. I'm actually meaning that in the same way that you can break a wine glass by hitting a certain note. I mean, there's a physical, concrete thing. That's what we're trying for. We're trying to make the room lift.
The star-studded 'Third/Sister Lovers' tribute happens March 26 at Baruch College's Mason Hall
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.