Once upon a time, being a Big Star fan was like knowing a secret handshake. You knew something that others didn’t, and to meet a fellow fan was to meet a new friend. This is no longer the case. Nearly forty years after they initially broke up, and despite the fact that three of the four original members are no longer with us, the short-lived Memphis rock band’s profile is higher than it arguably ever has been. A well-publicized boxed set saw the light of day in 2009, Keep an Eye on the Sky, followed by a surprisingly popular documentary in 2013, Nothing Can Hurt Me. The soundtrack sold more copies than expected. New books were published. It may not exactly be “children by the million,” as Paul Westerberg once fantasized in reference to the group, but the timeless tunes and romantic doom of Big Star clearly have staying power.
These power-pop pioneers have been referred to as “the greatest American cult rock band this side of The Velvet Underground.” Which is a nice way of saying that their influence on the wider rock scene is inversely proportionate to their commercial success. Their British contemporaries, Badfinger, are probably a more appropriate reference point than the Velvets, both in terms of musical style and fortune’what happens when you marry a passionate Beatles fixation with a whole lot of raw talent, and then filter it through Murphy’s Law. What can go wrong did go wrong for these guys.
The comparison isn’t exact’when Big Star’s records failed to get noticed, they took it out on their audience, sabotaging what many consider to be their masterpiece, Third, with disaffected performances and oddball production choices. A quick comparison of the demo of “Downs” to its studio incarnation will assure even the most casual listener of nefarious intent. In contrast, when Badfinger’s records suffered the same fate, they took it out on themselves (two of its chief songwriters committed suicide). And unlike Badfinger, the closest Big Star ever got to having an actual hit was when one of their lesser songs was resurrected to serve as the theme for the sitcom, That 70s Show (“Hanging out! Down the street!’¦”) A modest achievement, to say the least.
Despite the increased interest, one aspect of the Big Star story still gets short shrift: the fact that their records are undeniably religious, almost embarrassingly so. It’s true’arguably the “hippest” American band of the ’70s (certainly the one that indie rockers tend to name-drop most) made music that, especially on their first record, bordered on proto-Christian rock. Much of this was due to the influence of band cofounder Chris Bell. Bell died in 1978, long before the Big Star cult had a chance to gain much traction, which means he continues to occupy the most tragic role in a story rife with tragedy. And while he may not have been the “Young Werther with a Rickenbacker” that some might like to believe, still, if his songs are anything to go by, the guy was not at peace. John Jeremiah Sullivan once described Bell’s voice as “too sensitive for life,” and he was onto something. “You listen to him sing, and’¦ you know the guy with that voice isn’t going to last,” he writes. Bell came by his religion honestly. Take a few sample lyrics of Bell’s “My Life Is Right” off Big Star’s debut #1 Record:
Once I walked a lonely road
I had no one to share my load
But then you came and showed the way
And now I hope you’re here to stay
You give me life
If it weren’t for the chiming power chords and Beatle-esque production, the track might fit in a megachurch. Which isn’t to say Bell’s songs aren’t sincere or heartfelt’in fact, if they were any more so, they would be unlistenable. Chris left just before the second album was recorded, but not before contributing a couple of (amazing) songs to their live set, the titles alone of which tell us all we need to know: “I Got Kinda Lost” and “There Was a Light.”
As is often the case, Bell’s talent came with its fair share of personal demons’drug addiction and clinical depression being chief among them. For every sufferer who finds Christianity to be “the balm of Gilead,” another finds in it a vehicle of self-reproach and denial. Religion often seems to have equal potency for those looking to escape reality and those needing to bear it. Listening to Bell’s work all these years later, one can’t help but wonder which category he fell into. Chris’s songs betray a faith that is inescapably semi-Pelagian, meaning he understood God’s forgiveness to require, at least to some extent, human sweat and willpower. God may have “[come] and showed the way,” but it’s up to his followers to walk the straight and narrow if they want his blessing.
If Chris did indeed embrace a God-helps-those-who-help-themselves point of view, unconsciously or not, it should come as no surprise that his faith proved incapable of offering him the comfort or deliverance’or just plain good news’that he seemed to be longing for. The song “Try Again,” also from #1 Record, paints a sad, albeit honest, picture of where this kind of theology leads:
Lord I’ve been trying to be what I should Lord’¦
And Lord I’ve been trying to do as you would
But each time it gets a little harder
I feel the pain
But I’ll try again
His tortured semi-Pelagianism would reach full fruition in the chilling “Better Save Yourself,” recorded long after he had left the band. On first listen, it may sound like Bell is speaking to someone other than himself, but given the pained tenor of the lyric and delivery (“I walk the streets / I’m all alone / I just can’t think / What I’ve been doing wrong”), it’s no stretch to assume he includes himself in the unsettlingly past-tense castigation of the chorus:
You should’ve given your love to Jesus
It wouldn’t have done you no harm’¦
You better save yourself
If you want to see his face
In Bell’s dark world, salvation is not in God’s hands but one’s own. There is no assurance to be found in this scheme, certainly none available to an honest sinner. To a person as sensitive as Bell, someone inescapably attuned to the ins and outs of his own “doing wrong,” this makes a perfect recipe for anxiety, despair, and even suicide. In fact, elsewhere in the song he admits to having attempted to do himself in, not once but twice. Perhaps there is something merciful about the fact that his death was ultimately not of his own doing, but the result of a car crash.
The other great talent in the band was Alex Chilton, the one-time singer for teen sensations The Box Tops (“The Letter”), who was not without troubles of his own. As his blue-blooded pedigree might suggest, Chilton seems to have been a man at odds with himself. An aristocrat in a working man’s game, a Memphis native who favored Liverpool over Graceland, a punk who actively de-prettified his voice, a gifted songwriter who would rather play covers. Alex’s downward-sloping career is a strange but fascinating portrait of conflict, both inner and outer. At least it has come to be understood and mythologized in that way. But perhaps that characterization lets Alex off the hook too readily. If reports are to be believed, he mistreated others just as much as himself, including physically. Perhaps he was simply another troubled former child star, a cynic with an iconoclastic streak and an ear for melody that he understandably didn’t value very much.
Whatever the case, the third and final Big Star album, Third, is commonly recognized as the epitome of creative self-sabotage in rock. Beautiful songs obscured by apathetic performances, antagonistic production choices, and an anarchic recording environment’the atmosphere is one of deep despair and drug-addled disintegration (and maybe a little psychosis). Chilton never even bothered to put together a final running order for what turned out to be an absolute tour de force.
Oddly enough, the record contains the band’s best and most explicit burst of Christianity, the jangling yuletide anthem known simply as “Jesus Christ.” With Bell long gone, the song was a Chilton original, by all accounts a non- (if not anti-) religious guy. Surrounded by such inspired bursts of nihilism as “Holocaust” and “Kanga Roo,” it comes from out of nowhere, beginning with an atonal instrumental prelude before launching into lyrics poached from a number of Protestant hymns. Its only cousin on the record might be “Stroke it Noel,” a relatively straightforward number in which Chilton urges us to “keep an eye on the sky”‘not for aliens but bombs.
Some assume “Jesus Christ” is half serious, others hear 100 percent earnestness’all agree that the song is in keeping with the supremely off-beat tone of Third and even one of its highlights. Whatever the motivation behind its authorship, “Jesus Christ” ranks high on the list of best rock songs about our Lord, a Christmas classic, the context of which couldn’t have been more “Nazarene”:
Angels from the realms of glory
Stars shone bright above
Royal David’s city
Was bathed in the light of love
Jesus Christ was born today
As opposed to Bell’s anguished first-person prayers, “Jesus Christ” espouses a more objective approach to the divine, a prime example of what is commonly referred to as “God-centered music,” proclaiming the attributes of the Creator rather than focusing on the feelings of the creature (aka “me-centered”). In fact, the song’s discordant intro actually underlines its radical straightforwardness. For the one and only time on the record, the clarity of voice and sentiment (“And the wrong shall fail / And the right prevail”) is matched by the clarity of production, a clarity that could be achieved only by abandoning the acerbic first-person that haunts the rest of the album. “Jesus Christ” serves as a break in the clouds in every sense, the most radical left-turn in a record full of them, its joyful tone interrupting the otherwise dour feeling of Third, almost actively defying anyone to categorize Alex or his work.
Plenty of great bands are fueled by creative friction, usually between two principal players, so it should come as no surprise that Bell and Chilton’s differences extended to the spiritual as well as the sonic realm. One cannot help but wish they could have met somehow, that Chilton’s ironic detachment might have been pierced by the emotional stakes that Bell couldn’t avoid, or that Bell might have received some of the comfort afforded by a gospel that is glorified rather than hemmed in by the limitations of its recipients. Alas, such a convergence was not to be, and maybe that is for the best. Instead of adding another dimension to the most neurotic Southern Anglo-pop band the world has never known, it might have dimmed the volatile light that continues to shine from the Big Star constellation. And we need all the light we can get if we are to keep an eye on the sky.