My love for Big Star was a fairly slow progression. Sometimes those are the best. I remember finding separate copies of #1 Record and Radio City at a record store in central Jersey in 1995 or so. I was with my brother and he looked mildly jealous at my finds. No, they weren't original pressings, but I never really cared about that. They were Big Star records and they were headed for the turntable. I was always floored by "Feel," the first song on any Big Star record.
You're driving me to ruin
The love that you've been stealing
Has given me the feeling
I feel like I'm dying
I'm never gonna live again
You just ain't been trying
It's getting very near the end
What a way to open up a damn record and a career. Horns, piano, lush harmonies. Man, so this is power pop! Follow that with the gorgeous "The Ballad of El Goodo" and only two songs in, this is a masterpiece. And the record just takes off from there. And who names a first record #1 Record? Big Star does. Chilton was apparently disgusted with the music business following his work with the Box Tops and this was a slap in the face to the biz. Following the Box Tops, which included a #1 hit with "The Letter," he went to Memphis and met Chris Bell. It was like Keith meeting Mick, Paul and John, Brad and Angelina. Wait, I really didn't sleep much.
Chris Bell left the band after the first record, dejected that it didn't reach a wider audience, or that's what I've read. The label had some distribution problems and a perfect, yes, perfect record, was barely heard. Chilton, Hummel and Stephens charged on and released the almost equally fantastic Radio City. Alright, it's pretty much just as good. Hummel then departed, and in 1992, Ryko finally released the phenomenal Third/Sister Lovers. I mean 15 or so years to release this jaw-dropper? What is wrong with this world? But maybe it's best. At least for the listeners. Because despite the name, Big Star never got big. Oh, their followers were devout and would spend hours on end praising them to anyone who would listen. "There wouldn't be Wilco or Teenage Fanclub or Barack Obama without Big Star!" you'd hear at bars. I mean, they/we were that committed to the band.
Of all the bands I love and never, ever shut up about, I don't think I can think of one that touches me on a spiritual level in the way that Big Star does. A self-labeled agnostic, Big Star may be one of the main reasons why I'm agnostic and not atheist. "Blue Moon," "Jesus Christ," "Thank You Friends," "I'm in Love with a Girl," "Watch the Sunrise" and the list goes on. These songs have such a transcendent beauty that it's almost impossible to not believe. In something.
I remember arriving at my first South By Southwest in 1999 and meeting my new buddy Jason at the airport. He was (and remains) a Big Star fanatic. One night while at the now-defunct Liberty Lunch, Jason was wearing a Big Star t-shirt. Just the cover of #1 Record. God I wanted that t-shirt. I spoke to him last night and 11 years later (and the shirt was fairly worn back then), he's still got it.
My hope is that somewhere out there Alex Chilton, Chris Bell and Jim Dickinson are looking down on the mark they left and sharing a smile.