Much like the best of the best rock bands, Big Star featured two skilled songwriters. The Lennon/McCartney, Richards/Jagger of Big Star was Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, who have since passed on (Bell is one of many musicians who met his demise at age 27 - he died in a car crash in 1978; Chilton was 59 when he died of a heart attack in 2010). When their original bass player Andy Hummel died in 2010, it left Jody Stephens, who was the group's drummer, as the only founding member still alive. A documentary about the band Big Star, called Nothing Can Hurt Me, has just been released, which makes this the perfect time to talk to Stephens about Big Star and its influence.
Jody Stephens: That's a good question. It's interesting hearing different people's perspectives on the band. It's funny; one thing that sticks out is Richard Rosebrough and his comments about the band and the first record. That felt really good, knowing that he really liked the record. Richard is a drummer and I have a lot of respect for him. Richard was also an engineer and did the Cosmos record with Chris [Bell] and he actually played on three songs on Radio City: "What's Going Ahn," "She's a Mover" and "Mod Lang."
You know, we'd all drifted apart after the first record. Alex [Chilton] had a band with Richard and Danny Jones. They recorded those songs and they were just such great recordings that we just used those. But at any rate, hearing Richard Rosebrough's perspective and just everybody's perspective on the band made it pretty special because it never really had been verbalized. You never know what people's feelings are until they express 'em sometimes. So that was the big thing for me.
Jody: It's pretty tragic that Chris, Andy and Alex are all gone. I share this experience with Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow [both of The Posies] because they joined the band in '93. I'm a part of them, and they're a part of me. I still have them and we still do things together, so I don't feel like a last man. But do I miss Alex, Andy and Chris? Yes. Chris for a long, long time and Alex and Andy for a shorter period of time.
Songfacts: I've read that one of Chris's problems was that his writing wasn't as well represented in the band as Alex'. That there was kind of a rivalry there. Is that true?
Jody: I don't know that it had to do with writing because there was shared writing with Chris and Alex. I think it was Chris that came up with the idea, "Why don't we do a Lennon/McCartney thing where everything we do, we share as co-writers?" It was really Chris's musical vision in terms of production approach and that sort of thing. Obviously, Alex was a major player as a writer and singer and god, his guitar parts were amazing! I think with Chris, the production was really his vision for the most part. When the record was released and we started getting press, the press would focus on Alex because Alex had been in The Box Tops. He had sung "The Letter" when he was 16. That was the #1 song in the nation in 1967, so it kind of made sense to say, "Here's this band called Big Star, and you haven't heard of them, but you've heard of Alex Chilton." It's a nice introduction to the band, I think. It wasn't really a rivalry, I don't think so much between Alex and Chris, as much as Chris just seeing that and not wanting to live in that shadow.
Jody: There was someone that Alex knew who was working on that show in music supervision or something. And they thought that "In the Streets" would just embody the spirit of that show. I don't know if the general population even knows that Big Star had anything to do with it. As a matter of fact, it's funny, I played in Golden Smog with Jeff Tweedy and I'm a big fan of Wilco's. When they come to Memphis, I usually sit in with them. We played "In The Street" together - I sat in on drums and Glenn Kotche played the cowbell part and John Stirratt sang lead on "In The Street," and my wife was in the audience and she said, when we started playing "In The Street," somebody sitting in back of her said, 'Why are they playing That '70s Show song?' It never mentions Big Star. It does mention Alex and Chris in the credits. It's cool as far as press for introducing an audience. It's like, you know, maybe you've never heard of Big Star, but here's a song that Alex and Chris have written from the band.
Songfacts: I want to wind up by finding out from you what your favorite Big Star songs are, whenever you get a chance to play them. Which ones do you enjoy the most?
Jody: I enjoy a lot of 'em. "Back Of a Car" is fun to play. "Ballad of El Goodo" is fun. I always hearken back to how all those parts came together – the guitar parts and the drum parts. In '71, I may have been 18, so I'd come up with the drum part and just be ecstatic about it. I'd made this transition from basically being in a cover band; we'd do a lot of British Invasion and a lot of Stax stuff, so all of a sudden I'm in this band doing original material and you have to create your own drum parts. So I got excited as "Ballad of El Goodo" developed. I enjoyed playing that one a lot. They're all fun songs to play. I'm really glad to still be doing that.
Songfacts: Do you have any favorite Alex Chilton stories?
Jody: We played the House of Blues in 1994. We played one show, and we played a second show after that. And in between shows, the guys in Teenage Fanclub had shown up with some really good pot. So Alex and the band shared that. Then we got on stage, and I forget the song we were playing, but Alex hit this guitar run and had a sour note at the end of it. And when we came back around to that same guitar line, he again hit that sour note, but he did it intentionally and he looks back and smiles and he's got this great grin on his face. That's always stuck out to me.
June 17, 2013.
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