Big Star, Part Two: Thank You Friends
Interviews and commentary by Daniel Coston
Originally published in the Big Takeover Magazine, 2009
BT: Former Box Tops singer Alex Chilton joined guitarist Chris Bell, bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens to form Big Star in 1971, and released their debut, Number One Record, the following year. Now recognized as a classic album, the record sank due to poor distribution, and other issues. Bell left the band in late 1972, while the rest of the band began to put together their second album, Radio City, in 1974. Hummel left the band soon after, and the band continued for a short time with bassist John Lightman.
After playing some shows to promote Radio City, the band returned to Memphis. In September 1974, Alex and Jody began collaborating with producer Jim Dickinson on a collection of songs that dove deeper into Radio City’s darker edges. Recording at Ardent Studios over a period of several months, the album (often referred by collectors as 3rd, but also sometimes titled Sister Lovers, or Beale St. Green) finally garnered an official release a few years later. Bootlegs of the album passed among collectors also helped to build the mythology of the band.
Jody Stephens: I saw it as Alex and myself going into the studio to record, and Alex taking the lead. Obviously, I was there for a couple of different reasons. One, I wasn’t ready to let the band go. Working up the songs that were Big Star songs over a period of time, again there’s nothing quite as thrilling as that. In terms of being creative, and succeeding at that, which I thought Big Star did. So I wasn’t really ready to let go of that.
And I don’t think it was ever intended to be an Alex solo record, as evidenced by the fact that Alex thought about calling it Sister Lovers. Alex and I were dating two sisters at the time. It could be that it would be a project that Alex and I would share some billing with, but as it turns out, it became a Big Star record.
Andy Hummel: I was there at the studio while they were doing [the third album]. I wasn’t actually involved in them. But I was around, doing other stuff. They gave over the A studio to that project for 6 months while they got it all recorded. It was a pretty crazy time, from everything I heard.
Stephens: I think I have a greater appreciation for the third album now, than I did when it was all going down. Because when it was being recorded, it was a dark period, and while it was fascinating, it wasn’t the most pleasant at times. But in retrospect, I think Alex did a brilliant of recording a particular phase of his life. I was too close to have a proper perspective on it, when we were recording the third album. I felt the emotions in the room more than I heard the quality of the songs.
BT: Throughout the late 1970s, fans began to discover Big Star. A radio play on a small station here, a bootleg recording in other places. Big Star’s fanbase was beginning to grow.
Mitch Easter: I'd met Alex by way of Chris Stamey. As is well-known, the Trouser Press guys hooked Chris up with Alex when Chris [Stamey] moved to NYC, and that association included Chris playing with Alex, Alex producing a single for Chris, etc.. So the first time I saw Alex live, it was in this period, and then Chris arranged a session with Peter Holsapple and me in 1977, I guess, which Alex produced at Trod Nossel Studio in Connecticut.
BT: What were your plans on visiting Memphis in the summer of 1978?
Easter: I think we figured we'd call on Alex, who had gone back to Memphis, and take it from there. We took Faye Hunter's excellent Pontiac station wagon, and it was me, Will Rigby, and Peter Holsapple. I guess we all drove.
But we'd also been told that Chris Bell was working at a Danvers Roast Beef outlet, which was his family's business. Chris Stamey must've been the one who knew this, but I can't remember now. We found this place, asked the girl behind the counter if Chris (Bell) was there, and she let us pass a note back to him. In a few minutes, he came out, seemed a bit puzzled by our interest in him, but he was completely nice and offered to meet us that evening. We met up with him and went out someplace and hung out a little.
He knew that Alex was recording at Sam Phillips Recording. The sessions were for what became the Like Flies on Sherbet record. So we all went over there. The meeting between those two might've been significant; I got the impression they hadn't seen each other in a while, and it was maybe a little bit... cool between them, but civil enough. Of course I was thrilled to be in that studio! Jim Dickinson was there, and the studio staff dudes gave us a fantastic tour all over the building. Everybody in Memphis was super nice to us, actually.
BT: During this time, Chris Bell continued writing and recording in Memphis, while also recording during trips to England and France in 1974 and ‘75. Two of those songs, “I Am The Cosmos” and “You And Your Sister” (co-written and recorded with Alex Chilton) would be released as a single in 1978 by Chris Stamey’s Car Records, at the same time that EMI gave the first two Big Star album their first official release in England. Chris was still working on new songs when he died in a car accident in Memphis on December 27, 1978. An album of his songs, entitled I Am The Cosmos, would be released by Rykodisc in 1992, and was reissued by Rhino Handmade last year.
John Fry (Ardent Studios founder): David Fry told me that the two things that Chris was proudest of was the Car Records 45, and when EMI released the first two Big Star albums, so that it had the label, “EMI Records, Middlesex, England,” just like the Beatles records.
Stephens: He was a nice guy. His music speaks for itself.
Jon Auer: When we asked Alex about playing “I Am The Cosmos,” he had no problem with that. He’s never said much about Chris, but that does lead to believe that there was some level of respect there between him and Chris.
BT: The legend of Big Star continued to grow throughout the 1980s, during which Alex Chilton released several solo albums. Meanwhile, Jody Stephens returned to Ardent Studios, eventually becoming the public face for the studio, a position he holds to this day.
Stephens: I went back to school, and got a marketing degree. It was the 14-year program. I started Memphis State in 1970, then I was in Big Star. I’d enroll in school, and then have to drop out from time to time. So I finished in 1984, and actually put John [Fry] down as a reference on a resume. In November of 1986, John said, “We’re creating a position here. Someone to help wave the flag for the studios. It’s a marketing position, but we’d also like to start a production company, and develop talent.” And I wound up getting hired in January of ‘87.
Interestingly enough, Jim Dickinson was in the studio with the Replacements [recording the album Pleased To Meet Me, which featured the song “Alex Chilton’] when I started here. I didn’t know who they were, and actually, I don’t know if I ever ran into the band while they were here, because I don’t think they starting working until 6pm, or 6:30.
BT: In the early ‘90s, Rykodisc releasing Big Star’s albums to a waiting audience, including their third album, a live album, Big Star Live, recorded at a radio station in 1974, and Chris Bell’s I Am The Cosmos album. Meanwhile, the band’s first two albums were reissued on CD, while Salvo Records reissued those albums on vinyl. But then, out of the blue came the news that students at Columbia College in Missouri had gotten Alex and Jody to reunite Big Star for one show, with Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies rounding out the lineup.
Stephens: It was pretty surprising. Those guys were operating under the line of, “It never hurts to ask.” I was pretty easy to access, as I was working here, but I was shocked that they were able to locate Alex and his phone number. Both of us said yes just to do it, they were just going to cover our expenses.
Their idea was that they were going to find a couple of other people to play with us, and we were going to do Big Star songs. They tried several different people, and that didn’t work out. I think just prior to that, I had met Jon and Ken, and had been given this single of the Posies doing “Feel,” and “I Am The Cosmos.” And those versions were just amazing versions of those songs, so I gave [them] Jon Auer’s phone number. And he did, and Jon agreed to it. Then Ken said, “Wait a minute, I’ll play bass.”
Ken Stringfellow: Our manager got the call, and they were asking about Jon. But there was no way that I was gonna let that one slide.
Jon Auer: I seem to recall that we were on tour with the Replacements, of all people, and that a writer named Rick Clark brought Jody Stephens to see us at a show in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I remember Jody talking to me at that point, and saying how impressed he was with the single. And he also was super-impressed with the version of “Cosmos,” and he said he eerily similar the inflections were in the voice. Of course, being a 21 year-old kid in a rock band, I was thrilled to hear about this from him, of all people.
I hadn’t even heard of Big Star when the Posies formed. I remember playing our first demo tape for a record store manager, and he said,”Wow, if you’re into this, you’ve got to check this record out.” And he bought me a vinyl reissue of Radio City. He said, “When you go home, the first thing I want you to do is drop the needle on this song called ‘September Gurls.’” At the risk of sounding cliched, it sounded so familiar to me. It reminded me of meeting someone for the first time, and you feel like you’ve always known them.
Stephens: After we’d agreed to do this, there’s a guy named Jim Rondinelli, a producer out of New York, somehow got wind of it, and said that someone should record this. He and Bud Scoppa got the blessings of [Zoo Records], and came up with a little bit of a budget to record [the show]. The good thing about it was it allowed some money for me and Alex to go to Seattle and do a couple days worth of practicing with Jon and Ken.
Auer: We rehearsed for like six hours over two days. Jim Rondinelli came along and recorded the rehearsals. I have DATs of it. It’s just us bullshitting. There’s even a point where Alex jumps on drums and we start playing some Small Faces songs. It’s pretty ridiculous.
Stringfellow: We rehearsed again in Columbia, Missouri the night before the show with just Jody, Jon and myself, which was pretty cool. We were rehearsing in this metal shed, and all of a sudden there was a big storm. It had been raining all day, but this storm suddenly roused up and blew the door open. And at that point, Jody was like, “Hey Chris!” Which was weird, because we had been playing “I Am The Cosmos,” and Jody assumed it was a message from beyond.
Stephens: If it had rained during the show, it would’ve ruined the recording, because we were under a tent. There are a lot of things that could’ve wrecked that, but they didn’t. Sometimes things are just meant to happen, and work, and I guess Big Star is one of them.
Hummel: When all that [the reunion] was starting up, I had a few conversations with Jody about the fact that they were going to do it, but infrequent conversations. And before I knew what had happened, they had settled on the Posies, which was probably a real good way for them to go do it. They could pick up two guys who were already gigging professionals, and were into the same kind of music they were in, to help round out the group. And it would have been very difficult for me to go do it with them, because of my career, and everything. I thought it was a great thing. We were going a have a little resurgence. It was pretty cool.
I knew [the resurgence] was going on, and there came a point where people at Universal Music found me, and apparently had been looking for me for a long time. And they sent me a royalty check, and I said, “Wow! You mean I’ll actually get paid for having done that? And was kind of cool (laughs).
Stringfellow: That gig was destined in our minds to be a one-off. I wasn’t sure that Alex would have any sustaining interest in doing more. It was already shocking that he was willing to do one. But then the live album got released, and then we had offers to play. It got kind of busy, that first year, 1993, 1994. But then, after that, there would be things here and there, now and then.
Auer: It’s been misreported that Alex requested that we do certain songs, and all this kind of stuff. He cared what songs we didn’t do.
Stringfellow: The songs we play are the ones that he feels comfortable playing. There’s a lot of songs that he’s like, “You know, this was a me that was a long time ago, and that’s not me anymore.” And he’s moved on from that viewpoint.
BT: How did The In Space record, released in 2005, come about?
Stringfellow: First, in 2001, when we were playing, in London, I can’t remember which song we were playing, Alex [told the crowd], “This is a song that we’re going to put on our next record. We’re going to be working it pretty soon.” And the rest of us were like, “Oh, how interesting.” And then, somewhere else in there, we did get together in Memphis to rehearse, and once again brought up the idea of trying some other vintage Big Star songs that we hadn’t played, and Alex said, “All of this is interesting, but we don’t we just make a new record? It’d be much more interesting for me.” And we said, “That’s a great idea.” And so we did.
Stephens: The mission was to write and record a song a day. I think we had 15 days to do 15 songs. And then we were going to weed it down to 12 songs, and mix those. So some days, we’d come in and Alex would introduce an idea, and we’d all sit down in the studio and work it out. Things went pretty well. It’s interesting how pressure sometimes works in one’s benefit, because you just get out and start doing stuff.
Stringfellow: We didn’t write anything in advance. We just showed up, and decided to see what happened. We set up live in the big room, and whoever had the idea, we’d start running it up. Pretty much, about three run-throughs before we were all ready, we would’ve already recorded it by then.
Stephens: I know people think that “Love Revolution” is pretty silly, but it is. It’s supposed to be a song with a sense of humor. You listen to it with headphones, and there’s some wacky cool parts that Alex and Jon are playing. When they were overdubbing the horn parts, a guy named Nokie Taylor, and maybe Jim Spake did them. They were running through it, and got to the end of it, and Nokie said, “Hey, I think I got it now. Let’s do this again.” And Alex said, “No, it’s fine. We’ll use that.” That was kind of the spirit of it. It worked well, because it just sounds fresh.
Auer: Here’s my take on Big Star. I think it was always a very collaborative affair. Certainly Alex has gotten the lion’s share of credit for Big Star, and he has this whole other myth surrounding him, and the lore about Alex Chilton. It’s always the question I get asked, “What’s Alex really like?” But if you look at all of the Big Star records that have been made, they all have been really different. And after working on a Big Star record, with Big Star, for me, it’ll never be as good as any of those other records, of course, but I can say that working on that record was a very collaborative affair. Alex was ultimately the captain of the ship, but he definitely let people take turns steering that ship. He didn’t always want to be holding the wheel. It kind of implied to me to look at those records, and realizing who was involved with them, it depended on who was involved with them.
I think initially for Alex, this might have been just a gig. But I don’t think he would keep on doing it, and doing it as well as he’s been doing it if he didn’t enjoy it. I’ve seen him have a lot of fun with it. And I know that he does a lot of other stuff. We all do other stuff. But there’s a good feeling surrounding it. And not every gig is amazing, but when it does happen, it still feels like its still vital. Even if they won’t let on, there’s still some meaning in there.
Stephens: I continue to be amazed at how well things come together on stage. It sometimes seems like its a mystery. It’s always a mystery as to how things are going to turn out, it seems. But Alex is a really talented, and resourceful, and a creative guy with a little bit of a twist on things. It’s always fun to hear his performances unfold, as well as Jon and Ken. We all have this chemistry on stage that seems to work pretty well.
Stringfellow: One of the nice things about Big Star is that they’re unburdened with being identifiable with 1971, in that sense. It’s not hearing “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” and going, “Ah, Woodstock.” Nobody cared about them then, so they didn’t get imprinted on all of this as part of that year. So that’s one of the special things about Big Star. They were like buried treasure.
Auer: Playing with Big Star is a dream gig. I’m certainly professional and capable enough that I know how to get down to business, and really enjoy playing with the band, but there was a time where it really freaked me out that it was all occurring. And I just happen to be good at utilizing denial (laughs). The truth is, it’s not very often that you get to join one of your favorite bands, and it’s a complete honor to be a part of it.
Hummel: Still to this day, I think the second one, Radio City, was absolutely outstanding. When people say that its their favorite record, or how much they love it, I’m not overly surprised. I’m surprised they ever heard it, or found out about it, to begin with. Because it was so obscure, and so there were few copies to begin with. But I’m not at all surprised from a standpoint of the quality of music, because I always thought it was great stuff.
Stephens: If they were just about to dive into [Big Star] songs, I wouldn’t say anything. I’d hate to color how they hear those songs for the first time. It’s much like how I’d rather not have someone describe a novel to me, or a movie. But outside of that, Big Star’s music always seemed to be a discovery, because people either heard it by chance, or they would read about it. But there wasn’t a tremendous amount of information, so when they sat down to listen, I don’t think they had any preconceived ideas, it was a real fresh discovery.
John Fry: People have asked me when I am going to write my memoirs, like I needed to leave behind some sort of legacy. If you put the Big Star boxset together with Chris’ I Am The Cosmos reissue, that could be my legacy. Those two came closest to my heart.