Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Glory of Big Star

THEY were nearly invisible -- barely even a memory -- during most of my formative years, and you'd never hear 'em on the "classic rock" stations that dominated radio programming in most of America. But when various indie rockers started to sing this band's praises, they became a legend, at least among a passionate few.

And that mix of injustice, lost opportunity, creative isolation, cult passion and eventual rebirth is all part of the story told in the new documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, which opens today. It's our favorite movie about rock music in many moons.

Big Star, of course, was born in early '70s Memphis, and led by former Box Tops singer Alex Chilton and the troubled/ brilliant Chris Bell. They sang timeless pop songs like September Gurls, Thirteen, the Ballad of El Goodo and In the Street, and made a very complex/ deep/ troubled third album called Sister Lovers. (Strangely, they were signed to Stax, the soul label.) They captured a far wider range of emotions than almost any '70s band I can think of.

Musicians like the Replacements began to talk them up in the late '80s; the doc shows a bit of their wonderful song Alex Chilton, and includes testimonials by Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo, Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub, Chris Stamey of the dB's and Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream. And who knew the photographer William Eggleston, one of the pioneers of color photography, was a fellow traveler, and played piano on one of their records?

The band's music been remastered or something; it's never sounded better.

For what it's worth, I lead a very impassioned but strictly amateur band in my garage, the Subterraneans, devoted to early indie rock and its roots. We play a lot of VU, Neil Young, early R.E.M., Replacements, and so on. Most nights we kick off with the heavenly chime of September Gurls.

Tonight, you'll hear that one for sure.

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