Monday, January 2, 2017

Bruce Eaton on Big Star

And for good measure, another:

One day I'll write at length about Big Star on here. But it won't be about Radio City, their second and I think best record as Bruce Eaton, (in his book about the album which forms part of the wonderful 33 1/3 series), has got there before me and written about it better than I ever could. In addition to that, this is as good a piece of music criticism as I know. About the whole lore of record collecting and record shops.About what it feels like to stumble across a piece of music that changes your life. About being utterly smitten by something the first time you hear it. About wishing to share your new found love with others. And about trying to describe that beloved object years after the event to a wider public than your own personal circle. By the way, the Radio City album is every bit as good as Eaton's feverish prose makes it out to be. Here's the introduction to the book:

'The life of the vinyl junkie is that most days you have to settle for something less than great. Like a true wax fanatic, it was psychically impossible for me to leave a record store empty-handed. Entering Play it Again, Sam I'd conduct a ritualistic search, starting with a beeline for the new releases bin, hoping it contained heretofore unseen treasures of black gold. If there were a couple of hot new imports along with a rare bootleg to top off the haul the day might be as good as Christmas. More often than not, there would be the same exact records as the day before. That meant that there was work to do.

Play it Again, Sam specialised in used records - sorted and priced by a combination of condition and desirability and marked accordingly by a colored dot sticker. You'd start by combing through the red dots - the primo records that sold for two dollars and fifty cents.Here you'd find the latest releases that had been traded in by a local record promo man for his pizza and gas money. If you didn't find anything in the reds, you'd slide over to the two dollar blue-dot bins,maybe settling for a used J.Geils Band album you'd once owned in college and had passed over on your previous 34 visits. If you still weren't in the mood to hear Full House again, you'd have to take desperate action and thumb through the dollar fifty yellow-dot bins. It was here you'd find the records that were one step from being put out to curb - either worn out and abandoned college dorm hits of yore (Carole King and Cat Stevens lived here), albums that even an artist's hard-core fans couldn't swallow, (Steven Stills was releasing direct-to-yellow-dot at that point), or records that for one reason or another never garnered a following (April Wine were the Led Zeppelin of the Yellow Dots).

On this particular day I had made it all the way to the Yellow-Dots empty handed. Starting at the "A" bin, I flipped past Ace and April Wine, a worn copy of The Band's Stage Fright, beat up Beach Boys and Beatles albums, and the first wave of Bee-Gees trade-ins. Some of these albums had been there for months - I could almost tell you what was going to come next. And then there it was. An album I'd never seen before. Unless a record had been released just yesterday, this alone was reason to pause.Across the top it read in black letters, "Radio City Big Star" in a way that made it apparent that the album was Radio City and the band was Big Star.

If you spend enough time looking at records, you develop a sixth-sense about how good a record might be just from looking at the cover. On first glance Radio City looked quite promising. The front cover featured a big picture of a bare light bulb against a bright red room and struck me as being at least several notches above your typical album art. It would be a few years before I knew that the photographer - William Eggleston - was a world-renowned artist and friend of the band. Curious- okay, desperate - I picked up the album.Like a vintage Blue Note jazz LP, it felt like a record made by people who cared about music and knew what they were doing. On the back cover there was another color photo -this one an informal shot of three guys - presumably Big Star - hanging out in a club (the original T.G.I. Friday's it turned out). They had an air of cool and confident informality - a band that didn't bother with rock star poses. Below the picture was some minimal information; song titles and a few credits. Nothing rang a bell except the words "distributed by Stax," a de facto seal of approval for any self-respecting rock snob.

In the back of my mind I vaguely remembered having read something about Big Star in Creem four years earlier - that their sound was somehow connected to The Beatles (which in 1976 seemed to be way more of a thing of the past than they do today), and The Byrds, and that the reviews were positive. I had a good feeling that Radio City might be worth the six quarters.Holding the record up I caught the attention of the clerk behind the register.  I was just getting to know Bill, a friendly fellow who looked like he had once been a roadie for Quicksilver Messenger Service and whose taste in music leaned toward raw Detroit rock and roll with a psychedelic edge. The sort whose opinion you might value even if you were inclined to believe that yours was the only one that mattered. I gave Bill a quizzical "what's the deal?" look. "You might like that," was his offhand response, one that would prove to be an understatement to say the least. "Take it, and if you like it, pay me next time." I secured the record under my arm and headed home.

That evening I put the record on my turntable and sat down to write a few letters. It would be dramatic to say that hearing Radio City for the first time altered my life but the redirection came later. What actually happened is that, song by song, it pulled me in until by the end of the first side I had stopped writing and was propped back in my chair with my feet on the desk, listening as the sun set behind the woods outside my window, feeling the June breeze blowing in through the window screen. I flipped the record over to Side Two and by the time the needle reached the middle of "September Gurls" five cuts in, I was riveted. The song was, on first listen, as perfect as any two minutes and fifty-six seconds of rock and roll that I have ever heard. Three years later to the month I would be on stage at McVan's Rock Castle in Buffalo playing that very song with Alex Chilton - the guy who wrote it, sang it, and played what sounded for all the world like an entire symphony of chiming guitars.

I played Radio City over and over for a few hours (it clocks in at just over 36 minutes- unlike the interminable CDs of today, listening to an album from start to finish back then wasn't a major life commitment). I stared at the jacket - wondering who Big Star was and why Radio City hadn't risen to the top of the charts, or even crossed my path. By the time I went to sleep, I had a new favorite band, albeit one I knew nothing about. (For rock snobs, the more obscure your favorite band, the better). All I knew as that I had hit the vinyl jackpot. I had found a great record in the bargain bin.

At the time I was somewhat frustrated about the lack of information about Big Star but now I look at it as a blessing. For the next eight months or so, the only in-depth information about the band was what was stamped in vinyl. The grooves contained everything the musicians wanted me to know - a direct line of unfiltered communication. I could let the sound speak to me without any interference or preconceptions, form my own opinions and let the music fill my imagination, taking me to unexpected places. I could listen without having to decide if Big Star really was the future of rock and roll or if Radio City was the most important album of the year.

It's sometimes hard to remember but there was once a time when sound - not image, gossip and hype - was indeed first and foremost in rock and roll. When Memphis deejay Dewey Phillips spun a new 45 by a local teenager on the night of July 7th 1954, the listeners who jammed up the request lines had nary a clue about Elvis Presley Phillips himself didn't even know if Elvis was black or white (he obliquely found out by asking him which high school he attended). Elvis could have been 30 pounds of sweating human sausage packed into a bejeweled white polyester casing and it wouldn't have mattered. All that mattered was the sound of "That's All Right."

Recorded less than three miles away from the Sun Studio where Elvis had recorded his first hit, Radio City also had a singular, almost otherworldly sound that exerted a mysterious pull.

Trying to describe how a record sounds and why it grabs you can be like trying to pick up a blob of mercury off a tile floor. But here's where I would describe the visceral appeal of Radio City in a roundabout way. When I was teenager in the 1960s, my family spent a part of each summer at a beach out on the northern fork of Long Island, 90 miles out from New York City.. he sound of WABC-Am - the Top Forty titan in New York - was virtually everywhere, pumping out the Super Hits  from the All-American survey around the clock. Lying on the sand in the hot afternoon sun, half-drifting off to sleep, you could always hear it half in the distance amidst the sounds of bathers and motorboats. But when you tried to zero in and follow along, your ears and brain would play tricks on you - turning a song you knew inside out into something completely different. . You might have started with something that you thought was "Help!" and before you knew it there was an entirely new-and equally perfect - song coming to life in your head, taking unexpected twists and turns. And then, like a mirage in the summer heat, it would vanish at the first sound of the Yoo-Hoo jingle that inevitably followed.

Radio City captures the sound of those illusory moments on the beach. It's as if all of the music coming out of all the luttletransistor radio speakers - Beatles, Stones, Byrds, Beach Boys, Sam and Dave, 5th Dimension, Lovin' Spoonful;, Question Mark and the Mysterians, Supremes, Young Rascals, Sonny and Cher, Four Tops, Sam the Sham, Napoleon XIV - had somehow been beamed into outer space to some distant planet and then transformed by  bunch of musical alchemists into something both fresh and yet familiar and sent back to earth in a stream of glowing super-charged electrical particles by a wizard of sound. In a very real sense though that's exactly what happened. Even on first listen Radio City sounded like pure magic.

If Radio City sounded like an album that had been created in the past and then beamed to a time and place somewhere in the future for the world to eventually discover, it never really did have much of a present. It sold few copies when it was released in March of 1974 - somewhere under 10,000 is a reasonable guess. If you had a copy, the cover most likely had a promo sticker or a corner cut off.What copies there were that made there way out into the world found their way into the hands of people who played it over and over. Radio City became much sought after, and once secured, treasured. Odds are that if you had a copy, it wasn't just another record in your collection. It was a directive for a mission - you had to spread the word. You had made a point of playing it for your friends and gladly made a cassette copy hen hey shook their heads in amazement. When you met somebody who already knew about Big Star, it was like a musical handshake that made you part of an underground of true believers. A lot of those handshakes were the beginning of new bands. Some of those bands went on to enjoy the success that their inspiration had optimistically hoped for - even expected - during its brief life. If influence could be measured, Radio City would have now gone platinum many times over.

Eventually Radio City was reissued on LP and then CD- enjoying progressively far better distribution than it did upon its initial release. Listeners across several generations around the world discovered the music - finding it to be as fresh and captivating as it was on the day it was recorded. And improbably, Big Star reunited with a retooled lineup in 1993, released a new album in 2005, and still performed on occasion before Alex Chilton's death in 2010.

The story of Big Star has been told from a lot of different perspectives - virtually all involving a familiar cocktail of tragedy, drama, Southern gothic, mojo, mystery, drugs, personal chaos, sex, booze, bad luck, youthful recklessness, mental disorder, dashed dreams and thwarted ambitions. If you're reading this book, you likely know all the stories, rumors, and outright slander repeated over and over as gospel truth in liner notes, books and magazine articles. When offered an opportunity to correct any falsehoods, Alex Chilton responds, " I'm sure there are hundreds and thousands of misconceptions out there that I've learned just to not bother with." Bandmate Andy Hummel adds, "An awful lot of what you read in the press about over the last ten years or however long it's been since it suddenly dawned on them that Big Star existed is highly colored by who they're talking to. Generally speaking they're not talking to anyone in the band - "anyone" being sort of the creative energy behind the band. They're talking to people who were involved on the periphery. That's the story that's out there.. It's not the story of what happened with the band - it's the story of what other people say happened to the band."

What gets lost in the familiar retelling of the Big Star story is how the music and the sound came to be in the first place. A record like Radio City doesn't just appear out of nowhere via totally happy accident. Rock and roll is somewhat slave to the notion that anyone with enough desire can learn enough chords, somehow stumble into a hit record and be a star. The reality is that great records are made by really talented people (even geniuses although that word has been used enough to render it virtually meaningless) who work long and hard at their craft until the day when the magic suddenly enters the studio.

Talent - God-given natural ability - is an unpopular, even cruel notion, in a world where it's widely believed that anyone can make it to the top if they have enough ambition, blonde of otherwise. But most of us don't have great musical talent.Instead we get to buy the records and the concert tickets, write books and reviews  and even play in bands that allow us to have fun and dream a bit (hopefully avoiding delusions of grandeur).

Beyond talent, there's the often dismissed importance of experience - in music and in life.  Does an artist have something interesting to say and the ability to say it in a unique and interesting way? The answer is usually "Not really". One of the chief reasons that rock and roll from the 1960s and early 1970s still looms large is that its creators had deep reserves of experience to draw upon when the time finally came to go to the well in the recording studio. Take The Beatles or The Stones, Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen. Each knew hundreds upon hundreds of cover tunes  a disparaged concept today but vital to learning how music works - and had played endless gigs trying to sell them to indifferent, if not downright hostile audiences. That experience takes patience but it can eventually get you to a point where you can write songs of your own that become a meaningful and permanent part of other people's lives. Alex Chilton, with deep family roots in the Mississippi Delta and a dad who infused his youth with jazz, may have been only 22 when Radio City was recorded, but he'd hit the road at the age of 16 - playing shows all across the country, surrounded by masters of the craft soaking up everything he could. It doesn't require any stretch of the imagination to believe that a kid who grew up listening to Mingus Ah Um and Birth of the Cool, learned how to play guitar from a Beach Boy, and got to watch Wilson Pickett and The Staple Singers burn down the house night after night is going to have a few more interesting colors in his artistic palette than a kid who grew up watching music videos in his bedroom while copping shred licks in dropped D tuning. You can't see them but you can definitely hear them.

My goal in writing this book was to shed light into how the sound got into the grooves of Radio City and why, to the confoundment of many, it never happened quite that way again. After all, the sound is why we care about Radio City, not any surrounding six-string opera. I love to pore over musical biographies and Mojo alike but one can take it to a point where the actual music becomes a mere soundtrack to an oft-repeated mythologized tale of dysfunction. Looking back some 35 years ago, I got heavily into the music of Nick Drake and Gram Parsons when their albums were being released for the first time - without knowing a thing about either of them. I don't really feel that all that's been subsequently detailed about their respective struggles has added much beyond a whit to my listening experience. If you can accept the premise that genius almost always comes with a price tag, then you're free to concentrate on why you ultimately care about the artist. In one word: music. Listen carefully and you'll hear all their personal stories buried in the grooves anyway.

Some pieces of the creative puzzle are obvious: how a song was written or a particular part recorded. Other parts of the story are below the surface or even in the distant past. When you read the words of the people who were actually in the room, in one way or another, for the creation of Radio City, you'll find a lot of dots to connect. You won't be able to draw an exact roadmap - that would be impossible - but you'll be able to sketch out a rough blueprint of how Radio City was built and why, improbably, it still stands tall nearly three and a half decades after the final note was nailed into place. The 33 1/3 series doesn't use subtitles for individual books- none are necessary. But if pressed,I'd offer this one for Radio City: How To Make A Great Record - If Only You Could.'

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