Big Star's Jody Stephens At Amoeba, Thursday June 6th 2013
Big Star’s drummer Jody Stephens is sadly the last survivor of the legendary Memphis band and he was at Amoeba on Thursday to play a short set and sign copies of the soundtrack for the new documentary ‘Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me’, which features 22 previously un-issued versions of classic Big Star songs.
As many others probably did, I discovered Big Star’s music trough other artists, since Beck, Wilco and Elliott Smith have covered their songs, Elliott Smith, in particularly was fond of them, live, he covered ‘Thirteen’, ‘Nightime’, ‘Stroke it Noel’, and his cover of ‘Thirteen’ was featured in Mike Mills’ movie ‘Thumbsucker’, as well as in Jem Cohen’s short film ‘Lucky Three’. Big Star never reached big commercial success but the band has been cited as a huge influence on so many musicians and bands (from REM to The Replacements, Belle & Sebastian, Wilco, Beck, Jeff Buckley, Elliott Smith, the Flaming Lips…) that it is simply ridiculous!
Sitting on a stool between Luther Russell on guitar and backup vocals and Jason Hiller on bass, Jody Stephens looked very young at 60, being quite talkative, explaining the stories behind the songs they played together, like ‘Fear of Falling’, a song he wrote in 1998 with Jeff Tweedy when they were together in the band Golden Smog, after watching the Olympics skating. The songs seemed to be carefully chosen to cover Big Star’s complete story, as the next one ‘February’s Quiet’ was from their fourth album ‘In Space’ – representing their second era, as it was released three decades after what most of us believe was their last one. The other songs, ‘For You’, ‘Way Out West’ and ‘Blue Moon’, were from their critically acclaimed but too-dark-for-mainstream albums ‘Radio City’ and ‘Third/Sister Lovers’, whereas the last song was from Chris Bell’s solo career, ‘You and Your Sister’.
Played totally acoustically, their tunes resonated at Amoeba like a sort of connection between Neil Young, the Beach Boys and the British invasion,but also like some super sweet heartbreaking ballads, and Jody Stephens may have said several times it was for him quite a trip to sing them in this stripped down form,… after all he was the drummer of the band! But his voice sounded great and the sound was bright.
He was actually there to promote the release of the documentary soundtrack (‘if you can call this a tour’) but didn’t say much about it. The press release describes it as ‘a feature-length documentary film about the dismal commercial failure, subsequent massive critical acclaim, and enduring legacy of pop music’s greatest cult phenomenon, Big Star’. Directed by Drew DeNicola, the film is a love letter to the band but it also witnesses the ascension of the corporatism in the music business in the 70s. Then, it shows how new breeds of music, like the punk rock movement arising from New York City’s CBGB, tried to regain control over the music industry, and how frustrated music writers at Rolling Stone, Creem, and Musician Magazine contributed to Big Star’s resurrection through the whole alternative music genre… you can even see Lester Bangs for a few seconds in the trailer below!
Even though Alex Chilton was not writing material with commercial fame in mind, Big Star’s lack of mainstream success hurt Alex Chilton, he took it as a judgment on the quality of his music, and that tragic feeling of being misunderstood by the rest of the world runs through the documentary. I read this at the end of the Chicago Reader review, and it may perfectly summarize the whole story:
‘The overflowing ardor of second-generation Big Star fans supplies DeNicola with the happy ending almost every documentary maker secretly craves. But it also blunts the edge of a story that’s essentially tragic, filled with the disappointment of exposing oneself emotionally and discovering that no one is interested. Big Star may have burned brightly, but it did so in a vast, black emptiness, its light taking years to reach the earth.’
‘It’s great to sing in front of an audience that knows the songs’ said Jody Stephens after the third song, ‘At the time, the journalists were our fan base’, he added and I am not sure there was an ounce of sarcasm in this.
The film ‘Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me’, opens at the IFC Center in New York City on July 3rd, at the Nuart theater on July 5th in Los Angeles, and then throughout the US (Nashville, Seattle, Tempe, Portland, Dallas, Denver,…) later on, but check the calendar here for the full schedule.