Drew DeNicola: I can’t pinpoint exactly when Big Star’s place in the history of popular music was secured, but I believe the band reached critical mass sometime in the early 1990s. I was in college radio then and I can say that the typical CD collection of the avid music listener would have had the British versions of the Beatles records with all those incredible tracks that never made the Top Ten in the States—songs like “I’m Only Sleeping,” “Hey Bulldog,” “And your Bird Can Sing.” Next to the Beatles, you’d have the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds—an album that had been completely overshadowed by novelty songs like “Surfin’ Safari” and their comeback, the immortal “Kokomo.” And right next to that would be the three Big Star albums. [And right after Big Star would have been the Byrds—“Notorious Byrd Brothers,” “Sweetheart of the Rodeo”—the Bs were where it was at in my CD collection!]
We were looking back on music history then and reassessing it all. So much had slipped through the gap in formatted radio between the Goodtime Oldies station and the Classic Rock station. These were “lost classics” and all three of Big Star’s records received that distinction. Not just from Indie Rock nerds like myself but pretty much everyone from the Replacements to Pavement, REM, Yo La Tengo, Evan Dando, Primal Scream, Spiritualized, Belle and Sebastian, Elliot Smith, Teenage Fanclub—it’s ridiculous to try to name them all because the influence was pervasive across the board, until at some point Rolling Stone made it more official, listing the three Big Star albums #1 Record, Radio City, and Third/Sister Lovers in their list of the 500 Greatest albums of all time.
At the time, independent music was undergoing a bit of a renaissance. Big Star’s rediscovery not only coincided with this but their story of “artistic genius tragically overlooked” made them sort of the patron saints of the indie scene at that time. So when Danielle McCarthy said she was working on a documentary about Big Star, I immediately volunteered. But the challenge of chronicling the story of “a band that never was” and the task of explaining their influence to the uninitiated felt like almost two types of films to me. So we did both.
The story of this band was far from conventional. Legendary Memphis producer and Big Star collaborator Jim Dickinson summed it up like this: “Big Star was never a band! They played a handful of gigs, often with different personnel…Big Star never had to face the reality of being a band so the fantasy was able to grow. It was a songwriting and recording experiment.”
The challenge of chronicling the story of ‘a band that never was’ and the task of explaining their influence to the uninitiated felt like almost two types of films to me. So we did both.
—Drew DeNicola, director
So we had our thesis and the result was a rock documentary inverted. When you take the band dynamic out of the equation, what’s left? When you take the glory of fame and commercial success out of the ‘Rock Doc’ structure, what’s left? And more specific to our story: When you remove the band members themselves, can you still make the film? The founder of the band, Chris Bell, suffered a breakdown, quit the band in 1972 and died tragically in a car wreck in 1978. We pursued the highly unlikely prospect of getting an interview with Alex Chilton, the legendary ’60s punk and perpetual rock-and-roll outsider. His response, with characteristic sly grin: “It’s not the sort of thing I’m inclined to do.”
Then, in March of 2010, with hopes of warming Chilton to our cause, Danielle and I went to SXSW in Austin to see the reformed Big Star play a show. The night before we got on the plane we were informed that Alex Chilton had died of a heart attack that day. We ended up capturing a tribute show with a stellar cast of artists but, more importantly, Big Star and the legendary and enigmatic Alex Chilton got their due, albeit in memoriam.
The film continued to follow the Jim Dickinson thesis but it became more of a story of artistic triumph in the face of commercial failure. And so the story widened its scope. We followed Alex Chilton as he continued to forge his own path no longer shackled by the need for success. He went on to fuse Memphis Rockabilly with the New York Punk Scene; he brought back the Cramps as specimens for further experimentation and produced their first recordings. He then created the wonderfully shambolic album Flies on Sherbert, whittling rock-and-roll down to its essence. In a candid interview, former Chilton bandmate and co-conspirator Tav Falco reveals that Alex purposely distanced himself from Big Star. Meanwhile, Chris Bell, still holding on to music as his only salvation, was attempting to climb higher in both studio perfection and was now infusing a religious element into his lyrics. Both these characters were enigmas even to their friends and we began to enjoy the search. The film began to mimic the dramatic tension in films like Citizen Kane as we tried to learn about these individuals second-hand, never really gaining answers but getting impressions.
We took musical detours to Jim Dickinson’s Zebra Ranch, essentially a massive shrine to his whimsical Southern-fried approach to finding freedom and spontaneity in art and then segued from there to Memphis bohemia in the 1970s centered around the TGI Friday’s—ground zero for a colorful cast of characters presided over by the renowned photographer William Eggleston. His photo of Big Star in 1974 adorned the back cover of their album Radio City. The front cover was his legendary photograph Red Ceiling, perhaps one of the most iconic record covers ever created. Co-director and producer Olivia Mori and I spent over two months in Memphis and worked hard to elucidate what was distinctive in the Memphis aesthetic and how it informed Big Star’s music.
The story began to morph into an examination of rock-and-roll itself as it changed from a pervasive force for youth and change to a product sold in the marketplace. We saw Big Star as a casualty of the increasing corporatization of the music business in the early ’70s. To examine this further, a minor historical footnote became a vehicle for discussing the musical climate at the time with the first (and only) “Rock Writers of the World Convention.” This chapter depicts a time when writers were the last defenders of the purity of rock-and-roll as an art form. The event—really a desperate attempt by Big Star’s promotions man, John King, to get more press for the band—brought over 100 rock critics from around the world to Memphis for a weekend of music and binge drinking. Big Star received their greatest response from that audience, perhaps the most pretentious and disenchanted assemblage of rock fans imaginable. The interviews from these writers both about the events of that weekend and about Big Star make this film more of a meditation on the history of rock. Big Star vanished soon after this legendary performance but their legend lived on in rock journalism. When the Punk movement surfaced a mere three years later, Big Star’s music finally started to resonate.
I believe the documentary genre can allow for a great degree of freedom and creativity. To me, it is just another form of storytelling and you’re free to employ any means to get the story across. In many cases, we attempted to turn problems into strengths. We worked hard to utilize 20 minutes of 16mm footage of the band but also uncovered a great deal of 1970s Memphis footage to provide a more experiential aspect. We were also blessed with a fantastic archive of photos not only from William Eggleston but his cousin Maude Schuyler-Clay (who’s also quite renowned) and their schoolmate Michael O’Brien (who has been a professional photographer since doing his first shoots with Big Star). Sometimes we manipulated and animated them subtly. Other times we treated them as artifacts. We also scouted our interview subjects and treated them as “talent.” We became familiar with them and conducted the interviews around what stories we knew they had to tell. We also did a lot of shooting around Ardent Studios, which was sort of the informal home of the band. Big Star had unrestricted access to a world-class recording facility owned by their friend and mentor, John Fry. The band would never have existed without Fry and Ardent Studios, and the facility seemed to take on almost a symbolic place in the story as we returned to it either in vintage photos or in present-day B-roll.
But even in terms of plotlines we were somewhat challenged. Rather than tell an event-based chronology about a band that not a lot of people had heard of, we used the “Big Star story” to talk about more universal ideas and themes. Like so many epic tales based on the American Experience—The Godfather and Death of a Salesman come to mind—Big Star learned the reality of the “rock-and-roll dream,” but through tragedy there was redemption. The writer and musician Lenny Kaye explained: “One of the benefits of recorded music is that you can go back and discover something that you might have missed and appreciate it retrospectively.” Big Star’s cult status eclipsed any success that they possibly could have achieved in their time. They were able to transcend genre and the fickle nature of the record-buying public. Jim Dickinson, who passed away in 2009 and functions as sort of an informal narrator for our story, was aware of it even in the ’70s. He said he was interested in “uncommercial music.” Music that is not disposable. As a rejoinder in our interview in 2007, he added: “Big Star’s music resonated with a lot of people who took their music very seriously. Those lonely people listening with their headphones on at 4:00 a.m.—that’s who I’m making records for.”
[The following interview with Jody Stephens, the last surviving member of the original Big Star, was generously arranged by Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me producer Danielle McCarthy; as documentary producers go, I doubt you’ll find one more likeable.]
Jonathan Marlow: I don’t know if this is hyperbole or not but for folks of a certain age, Big Star was really more important than the Beatles. As a teenager, I first heard #1 Record as a through-and-through album whereas I was used to hearing the Beatles just as individual songs. I know that everyone mentions Velvet Underground as a remarkable influence on numerous bands. That is no doubt true but Big Star was an incredible influence on the popular music that followed and it was a much more obvious influence than VU. It always fascinated me how under‑distributed those first three records initially were.
Jody Stephens: Yeah. The story behind that to some extent is, as you know, Stax parted ways with Atlantic. And the next step was for Al Bell to rebuild the label, which he started off doing and he had a tremendous amount of success. Isaac Hayes stepped up to be a solo artist. I think his first release was Hot Buttered Soul and it sold somewhere around two million [copies]. And they were expecting an R&B record to sell maybe 100,000. Then there was the Staple Singers and others. But Al made this deal with Columbia and, specifically, Clive Davis…
Stephens: Shortly after they signed the deal, Clive Davis left Columbia. And so Stax lost its champion. You know, any time you lose your champion at a label like that, you’re in trouble. And I think that’s what happened. Finding Big Star records (other than in cutout bins) was difficult.
Marlow: You, Chris Bell and Andy Hummel had a band, Ice Water, prior to Big Star. How did the dynamic change when Alex Chilton and John Fry (who clearly had a great impact in the recording of #1 Record) became involved?
Stephens: Here’s the interesting thing about starting a recording with someone or even joining a band with someone. You immediately have something in common and something to talk about. It’s like sitting down to build a house with somebody or putting a quilt together. People sit around the table and all of a sudden you all have this sense of purpose. You’re all working on the same thing and you all come together. You know what to do. Because you’re doing it together, this kind of bonding starts immediately. It’s a great question because it’s the first time I’ve thought of it this way. Sometimes you meet somebody and it’s like, ‘Whew!’ You don’t really have anything in common. You don’t know what to say to him. You don’t know how to have a conversation with him. This was completely different. I was sitting down with (including John Fry) four amazingly creative people. My part is driven by the song. We had some great songwriters in Chris and Alex.
Marlow: Absolutely! Two of the best.
Stephens: It’s also that my performance is driven by what I’m hearing. Not only the song itself and how it’s structured but how those guys are delivering it, musically. Then how John Fry is delivering it as an engineer, sonically. I don’t know if I could’ve had a better set up. To be inspired to play something. To be inspired to be creative. I was in a really beautiful situation there. I was crossing over from playing cover material. You sit down, you learn the record. The drummer has already created the part for you so there’s not much to do. You have to have your chops up to do it. You weren’t really involved in the creative process of performing a cover song.
Stephens: When you start crossing over to doing original material, all of a sudden it’s, ‘Wow, I’ve got to create the part for this!’ It isn’t as simple as it seems when you sit down to do it. In this particular case, these parts just came out of thin air, basically.
Here’s the interesting thing about starting a recording with someone or even joining a band with someone. You immediately have something in common and something to talk about. It’s like sitting down to build a house with somebody or putting a quilt together. People sit around the table and all of a sudden you all have this sense of purpose.
Marlow: In listening to the few Ice Water recordings that are available, there’s definitely this collision that happens, at least to my ear in #1 Record and into Radio City, whereas Alex has a particular (and completely different) experience from his time in the Box Tops. It’s this connection, seemingly, of very different life experiences colliding at Ardent where something completely different comes out of that. There’s something really magical that was happening at that time in the studio.
Stephens: Yeah. There was a time in between the first and second records that we all just kind of drifted apart. Alex put a band together of Richard Rosebrough and a guy named Danny Jones. I think I saw them play at the local TGI Friday’s, which is where the back cover of Radio City was shot, actually. That’s just a couple of blocks down the street from here. That’s a whole other story in the early ’70s. Also, another story is how life changed when Ardent made the transition from the studio on National, which was a rental space from ’66 to Thanksgiving of ’71, and then to here, our present location from ’71 on, because ‘66 to ’71 there was really nothing around Ardent in terms of anything to do, especially clubs. None of us were old enough anyway at that point. When I first started going to Ardent, I was 17. Then we made this transition to our present location. We’re two blocks from Overton Square. The legal age for drinking gets changed from 21 to 18 and liquor-by-the-drink becomes legalized. Overton Square becomes the center of the universe for baby boomers in a good 51-mile radius. There were thousands of people around Overton Square then. The clubs were packed. It’s all people between 18 and 25. Given that, things changed a little bit here. You could go next door and hear a band and have a few drinks and then come back and record. Or pass out on the studio floor and sleep the rest of the night.
Marlow: It is amazing to me that you started coming to Ardent at such a young age and you’re still an integral part of the studio. Not to keep dwelling on the first record but when Chris Bell departed after its release, was this an effort on his part to get out from under the shadow of a marketing effort that was pushing Alex as the focal point (as opposed to the reality).
Stephens: I don’t think it was the marketing. I think rock writers picked up on that and it’s just a matter of course to focus on Alex because the reader would know who he was. Having been in the Box Tops…
Marlow: Stax didn’t put that out there at all, though?
Stephens: Well, I’m sure that they did. It was certainly in the bio and they picked up on Alex more than Chris because Chris didn’t have a profile at all. None of us did. It’s funny, I remember thinking, ‘Wow, what do we put on the bio?’ Because there was Alex with the Box Tops and then there was the rest of us.
Marlow: You didn’t want to talk about your musical theater background?
Stephens: Oh, I did. Yeah, yeah… I think. I should have (because that’s how Andy and I got together). And I was really proud of having been the drummer in the first college production of Hair while I was still in high school. That should’ve been in the bio… but it’s not like being the singer of the number one song in the nation in 1967!
Marlow: What is the story behind Chris’ participation on songs like ‘Back of a Car’ or ‘O My Soul’ (which, by that point, he was out of the band)? But it seems like those songs may have been kicking around from an earlier period.
Stephens: I think there were those songs, ‘Back of a Car’ and ‘O My Soul,’ as well as ‘There Was a Light’ which Chris wound up recording later. But Alex and Andy and I have a demo of that wound up in the box set.
Marlow: The box set is rather amazing, by the way.
Stephens: Oh, thanks. The folks who put that together, Dan Hersch and Andrew Sandoval, just did an amazing job of it. Put a lot of care and time and, I think, two years into it.
Marlow: It really shows. It’s a really great collection.
Marlow: You were really experimenting in ways that, outside of, say, Brian Wilson, circa ‘Smile,’ or obviously the Beatles. The use of the mellotron on ‘The India Song,’ for instance, you were deviating from pop record expectations, where you would have very lively, bellicose songs next to very quiet and melodic tracks. That was largely uncharacteristic for that period.
Stephens: I agree with you. To some extent, it’s not that unusual. Led Zeppelin was doing that. I know that there was certainly an influence there to some extent.
Marlow: They had recorded at Ardent at one point, right?
Stephens: Yeah, they mixed here. I think it was just Jimmy Page that came in and mixed with Terry Manning. They did Led Zeppelin III here and so there was definitely that influence.
Marlow: Didn’t Terry work on #1 Record as well?
Stephens: Terry didn’t really work on #1 Record.
When you take the band dynamic out of the equation, what’s left? When you take the glory of fame and commercial success out of the ‘Rock Doc Structure,’ what’s left? And more specific to our story–when you remove the band members themselves—can you still make the film?
Marlow: I thought… Didn’t he do some backing vocals on it?
Stephens: I think it was Terry doing the piano thing… That little build and the break. To tell you the truth, outside of that, I don’t really remember much of what Terry did. It doesn’t mean he didn’t do anything, but…
Marlow: I see.
Stephens: Too bad that the multi-tracks aren’t here.
Stephens: You probably read that Chris erased the multi-tracks. He erased all the tracks except ‘The India Song’ and something else. That’s another story.
Marlow: Speaking of other stories, you sang on ‘Way Out West.’ Everyone in Big Star had capabilities beyond their particular instrument.
Stephens: Yeah, we had three vocalists. Andy sang a little bit. Andy and Alex sang ‘The India Song.’ They came up with an interesting hybrid of a vocal. Not really Andy, not really Alex. It turned out really cool. You were talking about the mellotron and experimenting. That was one of those things where we were really fortunate in working at Ardent with John Fry because John, not only being a creative wiz and everything, he had the wherewithal to be listening to a Beatles record and hear a mellotron and go, ‘Wow, what’s that? Let’s order one.’ So we did and it arrived around 1970. We had that to work with and we had a Moog and an Arp and some other things. I’m not quite sure if any of that wound up in a Big Star record but it wound up on Chris’ record. But I guess the other thing is… we had this mellotron but we also had Andy Hummel to sit down on ‘The India Song’ and play that weird little chord.
Marlow: Right. It adds such an interesting characteristic to that song.
Marlow: I can’t imagine the song without it.
Stephens: Right. So we had this capability of some pretty fresh sounds and also these people that would play things that sounded pretty new and kind of all different.
Marlow: And by the time of the third record, where it was just you and Alex, you weren’t averse to using session musicians as well. That adds a whole other characteristic in the playing.
Stephens: It does.
Marlow: It is one thing that keeps all three records quite different from one another that the arrangement of the players changes and the instrumentation changes but you’re still working with the core of the songwriting that never goes away.
Stephens: Right. You still have Alex kind of delivering those songs.
Stephens: I’ve got to tell you. I was talking to John Fry one day and we were talking about an artist who had submitted some song demos just on an acoustic guitar. I said, ‘Well, John, I don’t know how much I can get out of listening to these acoustic demos. You know I would need to hear these songs more developed before I can give an opinion on them.’ And it seemed like that day or the next day I was on the Internet and I clicked on something. It was just a teaser from the box set, I guess, and it was Alex. He could have been playing ‘Watch the Sunrise’ on a 12-string or something. But it was Alex demoing a song on an acoustic guitar and it was magic. And I thought, ‘Wow, what a contrast!’ Here’s one guy that didn’t have much success delivering a song on an acoustic guitar and here’s Alex with just an acoustic guitar and it’s brilliant. It’s all you need. With that, you try and go into the studio and do something. You try, bottom line, not to screw it up. Not get in the way of it. You try something that creates more depth to the song.
Marlow: How did the Omnivore test pressing for Third come about? You had a hand in it, obviously.
Stephens: I don’t know if you know that story. When we finished recording the third album, John Fry mastered it with Larry Nix here (at Ardent). Instead of taking tapes around to shop the record, John had vinyl pressed. It was just a white label and a white sleeve. He and Jim Dickinson went to New York and played it for some people. I’m not sure how many he had pressed at that time but there were remaining copies. Enough so that John give them five copies to insert in the vinyl release.
Marlow: I think there were only a few hundred, originally. I mean, it was pretty limited in what I’ve read. Unfathomably to me, there was no real interest in it.
Stephens: Right. It’s funny, the comments that were made: ‘Hopefully, I don’t have to listen to that again.’ Things like that. For me it’s… you know, I was there in such close proximity and it was such an odd time in Alex’s life that… it was a bit emotionally hard for me. The atmosphere would get pretty big at times, I think. So that kind of affected the way that I heard it. But I still heard songs like ‘Blue Moon’ and ‘Take Care.’ Those are brilliant. Alex collaborated with Carl Marsh (who did the string arrangements). Alex [was] kind of sitting in with him and guiding him a bit. Again, we were lucky to have Carl around. He was a creative guy. He still is. He’s still doing string arrangements for people. There were all these magic moments of, ‘Wow, how did it come about?’ But, anyway, apparently people didn’t even see it at that point.
Marlow: A bit of Chris Bell’s work under the title ‘I Am the Cosmos’ was recorded at Ardent. How involved were you in that? You played drums on some of the record, for instance.
Stephens: I did. Apparently more than I thought I did because Richard Rosebrough told me, “Oh, that’s you on this song and that song.” But I do remember playing on “Get Away.” There are two versions of that. One that Richard plays on and the other that I play on. The one that I play on has a slap back on the snare… And it’s the one that’s kind of busy.
Marlow: I noticed on the Ardent site that there’s a two-disc version that’s available now. I was not previously aware of that.
Stephens: Yeah, the deluxe set.
Marlow: It looks amazing.
Stephens: ‘Though I Know She Lies.’ There’s some really cool stuff on that.
Marlow: I’m from the Pacific Northwest originally. I lived in Seattle for about a decade and I vaguely knew Ken and Jon from there. I think the very first time I even heard ‘I Am the Cosmos’ was hearing the Posies perform it. It always seemed to me, from the first Posies record, that their admiration of what you had done years earlier was such a motivating factor for the band. When you actually ended up playing with them it seemed like such a perfectly coordinated thing. I’m really delighted that ended up happening.
Stephens: Me, too. It was all courtesy of Gary Gersch.
Stephens: I went to visit Gary because that’s what I was doing for Ardent at the time. We were developing bands and I’d sit there with A&R people and play these demos for them in hopes of getting them signed and having to visit with Gary and Geffen Records. And then he told me about Jon and Ken of the Posies. One year, I went to see Jon and Ken do an acoustic set during CMJ in New York. And it was that following spring, I guess in ’93, when these folks from Missouri were planning their spring festival. That was interesting because they just said, ‘Hey, you want to get together and play some Big Star songs?’ I said, ‘Sure. If Alex will agree, I will.’ Alex did. These two guys were essentially putting the band together. Alex and I had agreed and then they went looking for some other people and nothing really materialized. I said, ‘Why don’t you call Jon Auer?’ I didn’t know that Ken played bass. Ken said, ‘No, wait, wait, I can play bass.’ They joined us and, 18 years later, we were still doing it. Yeah, I am pretty proud of that suggestion, actually.
Marlow: I’ve seen a number of these sorts of things happen with other artists. They always seem to be a pale shadow of their past but this is one of those rare instances where I think that Ken and Jon knew all three albums backward and forward long before you had met them. It was one of those rare occasions where it was the perfect melding with you and Alex and the two of them. It was really something else.
Stephens: It was.
Marlow: I figured I should mention that we actually met briefly a few years back. I was at SXSW. My brother had just passed away a couple of weeks earlier and, in an effort to do something that would slightly take my mind off of things, I was really looking forward to seeing you and Alex perform in Austin. Then, of course, Alex passed away unexpectedly that week. The tribute show (along with the earlier panel) that Saturday was really something else. I can’t imagine what it was like for you. You and Andy, for a song. I just can’t imagine what it was like for you to do that. For everyone in the audience, I think that no one will ever forget that evening.
Stephens: I think it was good for everybody. Thanks for coming, by the way.
Marlow: Of course.
Stephens: Because it was… I don’t know. I’ve used this word a lot lately but it was such a great community of people on- and off-stage. And having Andy there (because I knew Andy had cancer at that point and you could see the results of the chemo and whatever he was going through had taken a toll on him). But it’s wild. I’d known Andy had cancer for a little while and then Alex dies out of nowhere. And so there’s that grieving and then I’m looking at Andy, thinking, ‘Well, it’s only a matter of time.’ It was a pretty tough period of time.