Alex Chilton is not -- I repeat, not -- my hero. For a while, though, he made some of the most fragile, contents-under-pressure music ever to enjoy the cultish privileges of "power pop."
Considering Chilton's output since Big Star, though -- loose-man blues sprinkled with lounge kitsch -- it would seem his stint in that band was an aberrant flash of genius. It's almost as if he were channeling a sad ghost and setting the longing and regret to melody. Not that Chilton was artistically hollow -- a mere genius delivery system -- but he seemed, at the very least, possessed by co-Star Chris Bell. The latter's death in 1978 seemed almost a sacrifice to the music's validity of despair -- a living, then dying, metaphor. And it was Bell's ingrained '60s-pop sense that rubbed off on Chilton, to the point where it was hard to know who wrote what in their collaborative compositions. Were Bell alive today, though, he certainly wouldn't be carting around the lazy stage show Chilton's reduced himself to -- he'd still be writing pure pop.
Big Star are my heroes for being there when I needed them. In forming my identity as a music fan, discovering what styles I really loved, I followed a path full of chronological U-turns. I discovered the Beatles in the late '70s, then wound up encountering Big Star just a couple of years later. I loved the Beatles because every song was good -- usually great -- and they took the art of pop songwriting into the future of rock & roll. They woke up my dormant musical fanaticism with an alarm clock of jarring innovation. But as much as the Fab Four opened my eyes to power pop, it took Big Star to make me want to pick up a pen and figure out a few word-chords. Big Star is called power pop, but in contrast to the Beatles' popularity and upbeat melodies, they explored the nooks and crannies of sadness as if it were a cave, with just enough light to guide their vision. Their sense of despair somehow connected with my own and proved cathartic. I'd finally found my identity, but it was a secret identity, because no one had heard of Big Star. Here was the greatest pop band of its day, as obscure as smoke in fog. What a contrast to the relentless good fortune of the lords of Liverpool (a city that would provide many gloomy bands -- a la Big Star -- in the punk era). The Beatles used their love of classic blues and rockabilly singles as a launching pad for their own music. How fitting, then, that their influence shone back on a Memphis band, albeit one that twisted '60s pop until it seemed ready to snap.
So, yes, Big Star -- who were not synonymous with Chilton -- are my heroes. For the way they came out of nowhere and reinvented melancholy. There will always be new ways to feel sad -- but there will never be another Big Star to put them into words.
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