Monday, November 14, 2016


An infinite number of rockin' pop records can be the greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns.  Today, this is THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE!

BIG STAR: "September Gurls"

The heart is often incapable of speaking its own mind. Please forgive the mixed metaphor, because it's true: on an emotional level, the thing that is most important to us is the most difficult to articulate.  If you were ever a teenager in love, you know this first-hand; and if, at any age, you have watched a love slip away--casually or cruelly, by accident or design, temporarily or irrevocably--then you still remember the ache of your tongue-tied efforts to somehow express the poetry inside you, to give voice to the exact words that, when spoken, will make True Love prevail against unbelievable odds.  So many words, so much to say.  And all we can do as she walks away is mumble, "I loved you, well...never mind."

With that phrase, Alex Chilton turned even our seeming helplessness into art.  A teenaged hitmaker with The Box Tops, a cult-pop legend with Big Star, and a fiercely (and frustratingly) independent solo artist, Alex Chilton was dismissive of his own legacy.  But he was a brilliant songwriter, responsible in whole or in part for a handful of what I believe to be among the most affecting, beautiful pop songs ever done.  With his Big Star partner Chris Bell, Chilton co-wrote "The Ballad Of El Goodo," the single most transcendent expression of triumphant hope that I am ever likely to hear; their song "Thirteen" found the elusive words to articulate adolescence as no other song before or since.  And Chilton's "September Gurls," perhaps the greatest record ever made, is with me every day of my life, its haunting mix of longing and possibility providing a constant reminder of the heart's struggle to speak its mind, and of the artist's ability to turn the struggle itself into unforgettable, eloquent elegance. 

As we say goodbye to Alex Chilton, we reflect on the wealth of wonderful music he left us.  The Box Tops' hits--"Soul Deep," "Cry Like A Baby," "Neon Rainbow" and, especially, "The Letter"--still sound terrific on the radio, and they will always sound terrific on the radio, for as long as there is radio.  Chilton's solo work, while I won't pretend to be a big fan of much of it, shows an artist and performer determined to follow his own vision, without regard for what his audience might expect, stubbornly insistent that it will take you home and make you like it.  And Big Star...!  I can't say enough about the sheer brilliance of Big Star, about how much those records have meant to me, of how much they will continue to mean.  So many words, so much to say, but...never mind.

I wrote all of the above when Alex Chilton passed away in March of 2010. Like most of us, I discovered Big Star well after the fact. I knew The Box Tops, of course, particularly "The Letter" (which itself deserves a turn as The Greatest Record Ever Made). I first heard of Big Star when Bomp! magazine published a history of the group in its landmark power pop issue in early '78. Although I read my copy of that issue of Bomp! into its current worn 'n' tattered state, Big Star remained a mystery to me: unheard, and undiscovered.

A bit later that year, I was at a Flashcubes show at The Firebarn in Syracuse. The Flashcubes, although basically an undiscovered local group, had already become (wait for it) big stars in my eyes. Their originals were great, their choice of covers was great, and if you didn't like them, I'm sorry, you just weren't wired correctly. 

On this particular night, 'Cubes bassist Gary Frenay asked the crowd if anyone remembered The Box Tops. Hell, yeah! would sum up the collective response. And then Gary explained about Alex Chilton and Big Star, and The Flashcubes began to play "September Gurls."

That mournful, unforgettable guitar opening; that determination for the heart to speak its mind; those lyrics, hiding heartbreak behind hope, aching with the uncertainty of a love that may be almost, almost within our grasp, or may already be just beyond our reach, forever unattainable.

September gurls do so much
I was your Butch, and you were touched
I loved you
Well...never mind
I've been crying all the time

As an eighteen-year-old pop fan, standing in The Firebarn, transfixed as The Flashcubes introduced me to this hidden world of yearning and beauty, my mind raced with the only three words that matter when one first hears the greatest song of all time: Oh. My. GOD!!

Big Star records weren't all that easy to come by in 1978. I didn't hear any of Big Star's own recordings until Gary and Flashcubes drummer Tommy Allen played the original "September Gurls" during a guest DJ stint on 95X in 1979. I, underwhelmed. The Flashcubes do it better!, I thought. But my appreciation of the song, and of Big Star, would only grow greater and greater over time.

"September Gurls" was covered in the '80s by The Searchers and The Bangles. If The Flashcubes had gotten a record deal in the '70s, I betcha they'd have recorded it, too. In fact, in an otherwise-unflattering New York Rocker magazine review of a Flashcubes show, the writer ended his pan by noting that "September Gurls" was great, though. At a Let's Active show in Buffalo, I yelled out an amiable request for "September Gurls." The band didn't oblige, but bassist Faye Hunter seemed surprised and pleased by the idea, as she smiled and said, Did someone just request Big Star?

Big Star was a big secret. As I became familiar with Big Star's records, I became a fan. And I soon learned that being a Big Star fan was like being a member of an underground pop society, a discerning, scattered network of music enthusiasts who knew--knew--there was more out there, old and new, than we were hearing on any radio station anywhere. Big Star was the golden ticket. You like Big Star? You're one of us, then. 

This goes well beyond the limited parameters of hipster snobbery, of us versus them, of self-conscious cool that is, in fact, not cool in any way. This is faith. This is belief in the power of song. This is the inner certainty that there is greatness everywhere, awaiting someone to appreciate it and spread its Gospel. And there is no greater manifestation of that belief than the pure, tear-stained splendor of Big Star's "September Gurls."

How can I deny what's inside?
You can support this blog by becoming a patron on Patreon: Fund me, baby! 

No comments:

Post a Comment