Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Trying Hard Against Unbelievable Odds

Big Star: The Short Life, Painful Death, and Unexpected Resurrection of the Kings of Power Pop by Rob Jovanovic

In 1972, Big Star released #1 Record, a flawlessly written and recorded power pop gem. They seemed poised to become one of the decade's biggest and most critically acclaimed bands, but then suddenly, they weren't.

Blame it on the band's drug and alcohol abuse, problems with the record's distribution and promotion, or just trying to play 3 minute songs in an era of self-indulgent noodling and bloated arena rock - Big Star was simply the right band in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Jovanovic's book is the first to take a comprehensive stab at unraveling Big Star's history, as well as the myths that have surrounded it: the notorious recording sessions for Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers; guitarist/vocalist Chris Bell's tragic and mysterious death in 1978; and Alex Chilton's self-imposed exile from music in the 1980s to wash dishes in New Orleans.

The first chapter made me nervous, as Jovanovic's writing is not strong. However, he got great interviews, and lets the likes of Jim Dickinson, Andy Hummel, and John Fry do most of the telling. The result is thoroughly illuminating without dipping into sensationalism. It's likely that some of Big Star's mysteries will always remain that - Chilton is obsessively private, and those who knew Chris Bell are tight-lipped about his alleged homosexuality, as well as the possibility that his death was a suicide. It's probably better that way, less tawdry and tell-all.*

The core of Big Star was four Memphis guys. However, when you add in the Memphis frat and garage rock bands the members rattled around in before joining up, their subsequent efforts, and the slew of bands they influenced**, the cast of characters here can be a little daunting unless you know a little about the band already. Then again, if you don't, it's doubtful you'd be picking up this book anyway.

If you liked...: This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the Twentieth Century by David Bowman, or Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991 by Michael Azerrad, this book is for you.
* However, there is one question I'm glad this book answered. Chris Bell went to my alma mater, and there was always this legend that he'd submitted #1 Record for his final project in a class. This turns out to be completely true.
** The Replacements, R.E.M., Matthew Sweet, Cheap Trick - the Velvet Underground has nothing on Big Star.

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