Stuck, Ch. 9. Fame and Oblivion: Big Star, “My Life is Right”

by Akim Reinhardt

Stuck is a weekly serial appearing at 3QD every Monday through early April. The Prologue is here. The table of contents with links to previous chapters is here.

Image result for muteBack in 2014 I circled the country. It was a very long trip. From late August to early November I drove over 9,000 miles, all of it by myself. For many people, perhaps most, that kind of marathon driving day after day, particularly without someone to talk to, is only made bearable by listening to music. And given my own background, which has includes stints as a radio DJ, music critic, and rankly amateur musician, most everyone I know assumes I fall into that camp. Which is why they’re often shocked to find out that I don’t.

In fact, I do most of my long distance driving in silence. No mp3s, no CDs, no tapes, no radio, no singing outloud. Just the sounds of the road.

I love music as much as anyone I’ve ever known, but there is a time and a place for everything. And for me, the open road at 80 miles per hour is usually the time and place when I breath easily and clear my mind. I settle into the groove of the engine and the hum of the rubber rolling over the blacktop. I stare calmly at the world passing by. After a while, driving the contours of America becomes meditative. There’s no knowing what will pass in and out of my mind hour after hour. And when I finally pull over with a few hundred more miles on the odometer, I feel mentally refreshed and damn near at peace.

Often in my travels, there is no space for music roaring from the car speakers. Instead, I mostly crave the quiet, ambient sounds of the road and the magnificent machine that transports me over it.

When I tell people this, they often look at me in horror.

At first I was surprised by their reactions. Why are people so surprised that I enjoy some quiet time while driving long distances? Why are so many of them insistent that to do so is an awful and weird thing?

But eventually it came to make sense. It seems to me that most human beings are deeply uncomfortable. They’re uncomfortable with themselves. They’re uncomfortable with their mortality. The meaninglessness of life and the inevitability of death overwhelm them.

I get it. It’s an oppressive weight and, for most, too heavy to bear deep contemplation. Such existential entropy can be suffocating, like the black, silent emptiness of cold space remorselessly sucking the breath from your lungs.

This, I believe, is why many people feel they must have something to get them through. It’s why they fill their lives with “business,” which originally meant to be busy, and has its origins in an Old English word referring to anxiety. It’s why they bring their work home, bring their home life to the party, and bring the party to work, blending everything together until there’s no more space between, just an endless parade of doing, doing, doing. It’s so they can think about anything except the bizarre and inescapable truth that there’s nothing to actually think about.

It’s why, when they drive long distances, they listen to a lot of music. Or talk radio. Or they talk to each other. Just not the silence. Any distraction from that. Something. Anything.

Having every waking minute filled with task and responsibility and distraction can help you not think about the fact that life is ludicrous and short. That to live is to drift in and out of tragedy, and yet it ends far too soon. That life is kinda like that old Jewish joke:

The food here is terrible . . . and such small portions!

Personally, I dread the idea of being perpetually busy. While I recognize it’s a good strategy for not thinking about all those ultimately unanswerable questions about life and death, I find the endless treadmill of doing, doing, doing to be circularly hellish. You know. While also appreciating that it’s never really that bad when you’re a healthy, middle class white guy in the world’s richest country.

I count my blessings even as I ponder life’s horrors.

And that’s why I don’t listen to much music when I’m driving hundreds of miles per day. It’s Me time.

Well, it’s not exactly Me time. More like Me and the Unrelenting Unknowable Universe time.

I don’t claim to gain any answers to the unanswerable questions by doing this. Sitting in a driver’s seat, my foot on the pedal and my mind wandering freely, doesn’t make me any smarter or wiser than anyone else. But it works for me. Makes me a little happier, or at least little less unhappy.

Image result for hamster wheelThen again, 9,000 miles is really fucking long. I’m not a guru, or a sociopath. There’s certainly some music along the way. Indeed, when I’m not pushing a beaten up old car to the edge of its mechanical mortality, listening to music is one of the things that truly brings me a sense of peace. And when I occasionally put the two things together, there can be moments of transcendence.

I brought about thirty CDs with me on this particular sally, knowing it was far too many, that I might listen to half of them. During the first six weeks or so, there was a lot of country music. Not shitty pop country, but real country. Good music. The prior chapter on The Domino Kings is from that earlier leg of the trip.

Then on the way back east, I listened mostly to rock, and something got stuck.

In the broader sense it was two entire albums: the first two albums by the early 1970s Memphis band Big Star. But it kept narrowing. Soon the first album, Number 1 Record, eclipsed their second album, Radio City. I have them both on a single CD, so it involved pushing the Reverse button on the CD player a lot after a song or two from Radio City.

Then, Number 1 Record began to narrow until one song in particular found the sweet spot: “My Life is Right.

Life itself has no meaning; yet it is only through living that a person can become conscious of that meaninglessness. In some respects, that’s a suitable metaphor for the band Big Star, so perhaps having one of their songs tunnel into my head during this trip was apropos.

Big Star has always existed as a fierce dialectic on fame and oblivion, a swirling, turbulent yin-yang of consciousness and nothingness. Lauded by critics, praised by the famous musicians they influenced, and dearly beloved by a relatively minuscule coterie of devoted fans, Big Star has nevertheless remained entirely unknown to the majority American music listeners.

Lead singers/songwriters Chris Bell and Alex Chilton were phenomenally gifted, only 21 and 22 years old respectively when the band’s masterpiece debut album, #1 Record, appeared in 1972. But their Memphis based record label, Ardent, which was a subsidiary of legendary soul label Stax, couldn’t put together a good distribution deal. Despite the high quality and the ringing plaudits, the album’s first run sold fewer than 10,000 copies.

Bell was so disheartened he quit the band. Two years later, Big Star’s second album, Radio City appeared. Echoes of Bell’s work on some of the sessions could still be felt, but mostly this was Chilton with the returning rhythm section: bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens. Lacking Bell’s distinctive writing style, or the polish and harmonies that were dear to him, Radio City is rougher around the edges than #1 Record. But it also rocks more. It’s more visceral. It’s excellent. And it also flopped hard. Radio City managed to sell closer to 20,000 copies, which today would make many artists jump for joy. However, during the mid-1970s, when music was a dominant facet of American popular culture, it was hugely disappointing.

In 1974, with Hummel also out of the picture, Chilton and Stephens recorded songs for what would eventually become the third Big Star album. Nowadays this disc is considered a Chilton solo project as much as a Big Star record. Its music is more experimental and at times darker than the first two albums. By then, the band’s disintegration was nearly complete. Chilton’s mental health and drug addiction were spiraling. Recording was increasingly a chaotic affair. Chilton and Stephens eventually lost interest in the project. The tapes languished. Chilton hadn’t even bothered putting the songs into any particular order. Parent company Stax was near bankruptcy.

The third Big Star album didn’t finally materialize until a small New York record label, without Chilton’s or Stephens’ involvement, released it in 1978 with the title Third (and later known as Sister Lover). Hardly anyone cared. That same year, Chris Bell, who had taken to working at his father’s restaurant while struggling with a variety of personal demons, wrapped his sports car around a Memphis light pole and joined the infamous 27 Club.

By decade’s end, Big Star’s fate seemed sealed. Brilliant but generally ignored, they were a ballet of mesmerizing fireworks that had somehow gone largely unnoticed, and were surely destined to reside in the narrowest of niches assigned to groups with small cult followings.

During the 1980s, however, more and more people began speaking up in their favor. Members of hip bands like R.E.M. and the Replacements cited their influence. Their records, once difficult to come by, were re-released. Momentum built. By 1998, the sitcom That 70s Show had tapped Big Star’s “In the Street,” as its theme song. It was incredibly ironic to watch the characters at the beginning of each episode heartily lip sync the song. After all, there was no way in hell these 1970s Midwestern teens would have ever heard of Big Star, much less been fans of their music. Because if kids like them had, then everything would have been very different.

In the show’s second season, the opening segment ditched Big Star’s cut of “In the Street,” opting for a cover by Cheap Trick produced especially for the show. The new version was slicker, more polished, decidedly worse, and somehow more fitting.

But that’s about it. Despite the continued accolades, despite the prime time, network TV spot, despite the very good 2012 documentary film about the band, and a 2014 biography of Chilton, Big Star has never lived up to its name. Not in terms of popularity anyway. Only in quality.

“My Life is Right,” which owned me for couple of weeks as I couch surfed from California to Georgia and up to Maryland, is a Chris Bell composition. The lyrics are straightforward, as one would expect from a 21 year old. But the chord changes have just enough angle, the melody is tender, the arrangements are rich, the crescendos are moving, the decrescendos are soft, the tempo is in the pocket, the playing Image result for the road goes on foreverand production are tight, and the song is a perfect piece of art when soaring across the continent in a black 1998 Honda Accord with a rusted hood while contemplating the lonely road that never ends, even when you do.

I don’t know if my life is right, but I do know it is fleeting, and one day soon, all that I ever was shall be naught but scattered memories waiting to be forgotten.

Akim Reinhardt’s website is ThePublicProfessor.com

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