It is a mystery as to why the film Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me is not showing at one of our major film festivals around Australia. At least I was able to see it recently when it screened at ACMI in Melbourne. Along with Color Me Obsessed: A Film About The Replacements it was not only exceptionally enjoyable and informative but it also confirmed the fact that we were not completely wrong in idolising these bands despite (or maybe because of) their complete lack of commercial success.
Big Star have always held a special fascination for a number of compelling reasons: their Memphis origins; the fact that Alex Chilton was a member; and, the tragic death of Chris Bell. Nothing Can Hurt Me delves into all of these aspects of the group, and more, and rightfully restores credit to Bell as being a driving force.
A quintessential American power-pop band, according to Rolling Stone, Big Star began in 1971 when Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens got together for John Fry and the Ardent Records label (a subsidiary of legendary Memphis label, Stax) based at the now-famous Ardent Studios. Chilton had been only 16 when he joined The Box Tops and enjoyed No.1 hit with ‘The Letter.’ In the film, the great Jim Dickinson claims that Chilton might have only been 14 or 15 when he started singing with the group! He was still only 20 when Big Star formed. One of my most vivid musical memories was seeing Alex perform at The Continental Café in Melbourne back in the ‘90s (and he did sing ‘Volare’!)
There were only three Big Star albums – #1, Radio City and Third/Sister Lovers – none of which sold very well at the time; however, as would also be claimed for Velvet Underground everyone who bought the albums was inspired to form a band. Although the original line-up was together only a couple of years, Big Star became a seminal force, cited as influential on R.E.M, The Replacements, Teenage Fanclub and many more.
The short-lived band returned in 1993 with an altered line up of Chilton, Stephens and members from The Posies, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow. Just a few days prior to playing a showcase at the 2010 SXSW Music Festival, Chilton died of a heart attack. (That show turned into a tribute to Chilton).
“I played in a band because it was fun,” Jody Stephens told me last year when I met him. “I felt like the odd man out in school, or kind of the odd ball, because I was interested in music. But music seemed to be that place I could go to for comfort, and musicians were folks that I could go to and have something terribly in common with and a profound sense of joy from. So I just kind of describe us all – Alex, Chris, Andy, John Fry – as all just oddballs and that’s when you channel your emotions into this music that you’re trying to create.”
Stephens still works at Ardent in Memphis and seems to be remarkably sanguine about Big Star’s career. “The reward was just being able to play what I thought was really great music. I thought it was pretty cool being in a band because it was this really great close relationship with people. Oddly enough, I never really had aspirations of being in a really big band. That was like in a way you buy a ticket to win the lottery but you don’t really expect to win, you just enjoy the possibilities, basically. We didn’t win the lottery but that’s okay, it was always great playing.”
Stephens claims that Big Star couldn’t have done what they did in any other city. “We couldn’t have,” he says, “and it was through John Fry’s generosity and just belief in us as kids. I was 17 when I stepped through the doors at Ardent first. Chris and Andy and I got to go in the studio, we had keys to the studio and we could go in there after hours and record ourselves. That’s one thing we were allowed to do. Then the other thing is, musically, Chris pretty much and Alex and Andy got to steer the direction of Number One record unimpeded.”
“My perspective is that this community developed,” said Stephens of the legend that has grown up around Big Star, “and it allows me to keep playing this music, and I’m really grateful for that. In talking about this community, and it obviously extends to Australia because you have this wonderful interest in the music. I don’t know…..it’s pretty peculiar – but it’s great.”
“When I was a kid, I used to do a lot of hitchhiking – and this is going to seem like a weird analogy for a minute – and I thought, ‘Wow, the more people I know, the better the chance that I’ll see somebody while I’m hitchhiking and they’ll give me a ride. So, having been a part of Big Star, all of a sudden this great world is opening up, and I’m still sort of hitchhiking through the world in a sense, because people are stopping and helping me kind of continue the journey.”