Day 181-- Big Star: the Short Life, Painful Death and Unexpected Resurrection of the Kings of Power Pop

When Hurricane Katrina hit, the disaster affected me in many of the same ways that it did others. With maybe one exception; whilst reading articles about the wreckage and rescue attempts in New Orleans, there was growing concerns that one of the missing was a man named Alex Chilton. This devastated me.

The name probably means nothing to you, but to me--and countless others--Chilton has been an elusive, mysterious cult figure behind some of the best pop rock albums of the 20th century. When they found Chilton alive several weeks later, it was a victory of sorts; his long-suffering band, Big Star, was also soon to release their first album in over 30 years. It felt like the band was finally getting the attention it deserved, even if some of it came attached to a city getting leveled.

Big Star crashed and burned before they even began, but the three studio albums they recorded in the early-to-mid '70s inspired countless songwriters. Rob Jovanovic does a good job of illustrating how the band came together, the conflicting personalities within the group, the later ventures of the members, and how an entire generation of artists were touched by the band's music.

But as a whole, the book was a disappointment. Maybe it's my fault; I think I had my expectations set high, and I think I was hoping the book would paint a different picture than the one set on an easel in my head. The bulk of the book told one of two stories: 1) such and such person played with such and such local Memphis band in the late '60s, and this ties into Big Star in such and such way, or 2) Alex Chilton was so messed up from his rock and roll experiences that he did such and such horrid, debauched thing. Repeat ad nausem. And golly, the book is cluttered with errors. Names are misspelled, too, many, commas, are, used, and some sentences flow like a glacier. I kept looking around for a red pen.

One aspect of the book really sunk in, though. One of the band's original members, Chris Bell, one appeared on the first album. His was a shy, introverted man of incredible talent, and left the band for a variety of reasons. He died in an automobile accident before he turned 28. He became a Christian several years before his death. A friend and I were talking today about people living short lives, and the tough questions that surround that--it just occurred to me that while Bell lived a short life, he touched many people, and there are several accounts from people in the book how God used Chris's involvement in their lives to lead them to Christ. It's incredibly moving stuff, and a weird juxtaposition of drug and sex-filled nightmare that creeps into many of the other pages.

In the end, the Big Star book may only be for completists. Big Star was an obscure band, though they shouldn't've been. Alex Chilton had two huge hits as a teen with his band the Box Tops ("the Letter" and "Cry Like a Baby"), Cheap Trick covered one of the Chilton/Bell tunes for the theme song to That '70s Show ("In the Street"), and countless bands either covered their songs, wrote songs about Big Star or its members, or were influenced by the group. But despite their influence, the book is weighed down by all of the editing and content-related baggage. It'd be your best bet just to listen to the music and let that stand on its own.

posted, with grace and poise, by Jason @ 3/05/2007 05:27:00 AM,


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