Thursday, July 25, 2013

Memories Are Made of This – Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me and A Band Called Death

The original members of Big Star: (from left) Alex Chilton, Jody Stephens, Chris Bell and Andy Hummel

Two imperfect but interesting current documentaries, Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori’s Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me and Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett’s A Band Called Death, both available on Video On Demand, offer a chance to savor some of the complications and ironies of the rock music culture of the 1970s. That was the first full decade when bands were being formed by people who had grown up in the shadow of Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, and had come of age thinking of rock not as a get-rich-quick scheme or the next logical step in the evolution of rhythm and blues and country music and pop in general, but as a form of self-expression that had its own history and tradition and pantheon. It was also the age of the first generation of rock criticscollege-educated working journalists like Robert Christgau, academics like Greil Marcus, unclassifiable mavericks like Lester Bangswho thought that rock was a subject worthy of interest in itself, to be written about without condescension, anda legacy of having been rock fans during the late ‘60sthat it might be both an art form and a trigger for social revolution. 

Chris Bell in Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me
Whether idealistic, eccentric pop fans tried to express their ideas about the possibilities of the music through writing criticism or making music of their own, one thing they soon had to deal with was the discoverywhich came as both a shock and real blow to some of themthat it was possible to make good rock music that did as badly in the marketplace as most good books, good movies, and for that matter a lot of good non-rock music had always done. Robert Christgau was even moved to invent the term “semi-popular music” to describe the work of such artists as the Velvet Underground and Randy Newman. That term didn’t catch on as well as Christgau, an aspiring phrase-maker who anointed himself “the Dean of rock critics,” must have hoped, and I think I know why. By the time I first encountered it in the ‘80s, as a college student  who felt that he’d showed up at the party late and was reduced to reading old record reviews in an attempt to catch up, the phrase “popular music” had lost the currency it had once had. After Sgt. Pepper, and before it splintered into a thousand pieces and constituencies in the era of hip hop and world music, rock so effectively shouldered everything off the stage that rock was popular music; there simply wasn’t anything else, unless you were a million years old and liked Vic Damone. Or so it seemed. 

The story of Big Star is the story of what it was like to be a scrappy, talented rock band with great reviews, a distinctive sound, and inadequate distribution and no hits on the radio at a time when the mainstreaming of rock had gone so far that there didn’t just seem to be no other valid forms of popular music: some days, it was as if there were no valid forms of rock that weren’t Fleetwood Mac. One of the movie’s many indie-rock-god interview subjects, Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo, neatly nails the special place that Big Star has in the hearts of its fans when he says that it was possible for a lonely misfit music explorer to feel that he had Big Star to himself, a feeling that no one could have about Fleetwood Mac after their mid-‘70s apotheosis. The albums that made Fleetwood Mac the biggest band on Earth were the best music of their career, which is how it’s supposed to work. Everything went wrong for Big Star, except in the recording studio.

The band was originally a Memphis-based four-piece built around the vision of Chris Bell, a singer-songwriter with a dreamy outlook and a guitar style that would eventually inspire much of what, in the ‘80s, would be classified as “jangle-pop,” and the star magnetism of Alex Chilton, who had sold four million copies of “The Letter” as the teenage lead singer of the Box Tops. Today, the band’s name is usually taken for either an “ironic” dark joke or a boast that turned into a curse, but the bassist Andy Hummel, says that it was simply born of “desperation”: they were taking a smoke break and wracking their brains trying to conjure up a name for themselves when they looked across the street and saw the Big Star grocery store. The band got its record contract when the venerable R & B label Stax decided to go after the “rocki.e., “white”market, and released their debut, #1 Record, on the Ardent label. Unfortunately, most of the Ardent acts were dogs, and Stax, which had no idea how to promote their product, had only a few more years to live before filing for bankruptcy itself. John King, a jovial music freak who was hired to get the word out about Ardent, says that he thinks the band he did the most for was the British group Argent, because when he told people who he represented, that’s usually how they misheard him. 

Alex Chilton in Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me
By the end of 1972, the troubled Chris Bell walked away from his own band. Bell was depressive and suicidal, but he may have also resented the fact that all those great reviews tended to single out the already famous Chilton as the key talent in the band. Big Star more or less quit, but then something remarkable, and hilarious, happened: in a last ditch effort to prove its hipness and court the rock press, Stax/Ardent helped pitch the First (a.k.a., only) National Association of Rock Writers Convention, flying as many rock critics as would take them up on it to Memphis for a weekend of drunken debauchery and discussions about forming a national union. (They could have used one; one writer recalls that, at the time, those working at Creemduring the period when it was edited by Lester Bangs and was the best rock magazine in historywere paid $22 and change, “on the weeks when we were paid.”) The weekend ended with a big show of Ardent acts, of which only a reformed Big Star, minus Chris Bell, was well-received. In fact, they tore the roof off the place, with the important and ominous caveat that they tore the roof off a room full of rock critics. Some witnesses note that they’d never seen so many rock critics jumping up to dance before; the other side of the coin is that Big Star never did that well with any other live audiences. 

After the band, now officially Chilton’s baby, records its masterpiece, Radio City, they suffer through its commercial failure and then finally disintegrate after their Jim Dickinson-produced third album is deemed unworthy of release. (It finally came out four years after it was recorded.) There’s a sort-of happy ending in the enduring appeal of the music and the cult legend that forms around the band, but the breakup still leaves DeNicola and Mori with a lot of time left to fill. They mostly fill it with the details of Chilton and Bell’s lives after Big Star, and perhaps in the spirit of equal time, they do it in a way that misshapes the material and creates a false impression that Bell was around for more of his band’s afterlife than was actually the case. Chilton spent another thirty years or so dicking around with music, finding a sort of spiritual kinship with the punk movement, issuing the occasional crazed masterpiece (“Bangkok,” “No Sex”), and eventually becoming a sort of indie-rock elder statesman before dying of a heart attack in 2010. After drifting around the world with his brother David in tow, Bell recorded the material that eventually appeared on the posthumous 1992 album I Am the Cosmos, then died in a 1978 car accident as he was driving home after a night working in his father’s restaurant. Bell was 27 years old. (A newspaper clipping of the accident refers to him simply as a tragic “young man,” with no sense that this is an event to set the music world reeling.)

The filmmakers, who interviewed Bell’s surviving family, may be a little too discreet in their handling of Bell’s demons, only hinting at the depths of his dependency on heroin and the possibility that he was gay and tortured over it. They put more stress on his desire to be a good Christianmaybe because that’s something that can suggest his exotic weirdness to indie-rock fans without embarrassing his family. One moment does jump out for the way it seems to tie all the strands together: David recalls Chris encouraging him to try hard drugs, saying that the great thing about them is that they really help you tamp down your sexual urges. But at least DeNicola and Mori help return him to his rightful place in this story. It’s likely that nobody ever would have heard of Big Star at all if the charismatic Chilton hadn’t been in it, but there would have been nothing for him to take charge of it hadn’t been for Bell.

(from left) David, Bobby and Dannis Hackney, photographed in the early 1970s, from A Band Called Death

As impressive as the gap may be between Big Star’s musical accomplishments and influence and their lack of commercial success, you can only hear them described as one of the best bands “nobody’s ever heard of” so many hundreds of times before it becomes hard to suppress a smirk. The real, ultimate pipe dream of the music geek is to break open a classic band that really hasn’t been toasted and celebrated by anyone in the music press or at any college radio station. Writer Mike Rubin and the indie music label Drag City hit that particular mother lode in 2009, with a New York Times article about, and the release of an album by, Death, a punk-metal band composed of three brothers, Dave, Bobby, and Dannis Hackney. Like Big Star, Death was formed in 1971, and the material on the album was recorded in 1974. The Hackney brothers also lived in a great music city, but maybe the wrong one: they were African-Americans living in Detroit, and so out of step with both the city’s Motown tradition and the white rock scene represented by Alice Cooper, the MC5, and Iggy and the Stooges. Dave, the guitarist and driving force behind the band, is remembered as having said that his ultimate dream was to play chords like Peter Townsend and leads like Jimi Hendrix, a combination that would add up to “the ideal guitar player.”

It was Dave who, not long after the brothers’ father was killed in a work accident, insisted on the name Death. (In a previous incarnation of the band, they had called themselves “Rock Fire Funk Express,” because they weren’t sure what musical genre fitted themselves best, and that seemed to cover everything.) Despite their unfashionable sound (which went with angry, political lyrics) and the fact that they were perceived as being the wrong complexion to be playing it, it was the name that reportedly cost them their shot at a record deal; Clive Davis, then president of Columbia Records, was said to be interested in signing them, but the name was a deal breaker. Dave shot it down, saying that Death was a complete “concept” that couldn’t be tampered with. (Davis also has a fateful cameo in the Big Star movie. It’s a shame that this one doesn’t better pursue what his feelings might have been about the commercial prospects of a black hard-rock band, given Davis’ role in putting across Whitney Houston in the ‘80s, and the stories that he obsessed over her publicity photos, rejecting anything that he thought made her look “too black.”) 

Bobby Hackney Sr (left) and Dannis Hackney (Photo: Tammy Hackney)
A Band Called Death takes a reverent, respectful tone towards its heroes – Dave, who died of lung cancer in 2000, and his brothers and Bobby’s musician son, Bobby, Jr., who appear in interviews. The filmmakers are actually a little humorless about their subject matter, and that’s a problem with a story that often veers close to This Is Spinal Tap territory. After years of frustration and failure, Dave persuades his brothers to move and try their luck outside of Detroit, then promotes the band by posting hundreds of sheets of paper, adorned simply with the word “DEATH,” on walls and telephone poles. That earns him a visit from the cops, who think he must be forming a youth gang. When he finally decides to change the name of the band to the 4th Movement, his brothers slap him on the back and tell him what a great name it is, not caring the least bit what it’s supposed to be – anything but “Death!” unfortunately, the name change comes with a new emphasis on religious-minded lyrics that turn off event those listeners who like the music.

The movie works best as the story of a close-knit family of working musicians, and happily, the surviving brothers are high-spirited, funny, and terrific camera subjects. (When one of them learns that someone on eBay has paid $800 for their old single, he says incredulously, “I would’ve given the guy one!”) Like DeNicola and Mori, the filmmakers have set aside more screen time than they have story to fill, and the second half is crammed with details of how to revive unheard 35-year-old music and testimonials from celebrated rock-scene geeks. One of them, Henry Rollins, says that this is “what keeps you going to the record store, hoping to hear another story like this.” That’s actually true only for a select few – for most of us, what keeps us going to the record store is the hope of hearing good music we’ve never heard before. But it is what keeps us going to music documentaries.

  – Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club

No comments:

Post a Comment