Tonight’s 7:45 screening features a Q&A with Jody Stephens (quoted in Bruce’s book below) and the filmmakers.
A bit about the film from the press kit:
BIG STAR: NOTHING CAN HURT ME is a feature-length documentary about legendary Memphis band Big Star. While mainstream success eluded them, Big Star’s three albums have become critically lauded touchstones of the rock music canon. A seminal band in the history of alternative music, Big Star has been cited as an influence by artists including REM, The Replacements, Belle & Sebastian, Elliot Smith and Flaming Lips, to name just a few. With never-before-seen footage and photos of the band, in-depth interviews and a rousing musical tribute by the bands they inspired, BIG STAR: NOTHING CAN HURT ME is a story of artistic and musical salvation.
Here is a short intro and an excerpt from Bruce Eaton’s brilliant 33 1/3 on Radio City which you can buy here.
The dynamics of the formation of Big Star are often condensed to point that misses a key element of the story: that after a period of musical exploration post-Box Tops, Alex Chilton was eager to play in a real rock band, even if it meant plugging into someone else’s artistic vision. Here’s Alex describing his journey from ‘The Letter’ to joining an established band led by Chris Bell back in their hometown of Memphis, and drummer Jody Stephen’s account of how the the group seemed special from the very beginning. Alex would later say, “Big Star was one thing. I was another thing.” but by all accounts he and Chris worked together as a formidable creative team in the band’s early life.
Excerpt from Bruce Eaton’s Big Star’s Radio City. Now available on the iBookstore on your smart phone at www.itunes.com/333sound.
‘The Letter’ was the number one record in the country in September ’67. Just prior to that, the number one record had been ‘Ode To Billie Joe’. And just after ours, the one that replaced ours was ‘Light My Fire’. And that sort of shows the cultural divide developing there. And we were sort of on the Top Forty side of things and there were all these other bands that seemed important.
These were the latter days of the big package tours. They weren’t the norm anymore. The Box Tops probably played a hundred nights with the Beach Boys from 1967 to 1969, maybe more than that. We played three or four long tours with them. Carl Wilson more than anybody else taught me more guitar. Carl and I would hang around together a lot and I got him to show me all the Beach Boys songs and that was great. I don’t think there was any other guitar player I learned more from than Carl.
The band finally broke up completely—people had dropped out along the way. I think the very last thing I did with them on a gig was early 1970 around January or February but the recording contract called for more stuff to be given to the record company so through 1970 I did some sessions to fulfill the recording contract. I started trying to write a song or two in 1969. Terry Manning and I got together after I left the Box Tops and did some recordings. I was trying to learn to write. Trying to learn to play. All those things.
We would approach some things in a very organized way and some other things we would just be wailing off the top of our heads with the tape running. Working with Terry in early 1970 we pretty much had the run of the place [Ardent
Studios] when the studio wasn’t rented by somebody. And so I was acquainted with the place a little bit and Chris could go in and do things anytime he wanted. He’d been hanging around there for some period of time already. I went to New York for a year. Not working, just hanging out. I met some people who were folkies and some bluegrass aficionados and picked up a bit from them and practiced a lot. I tried to figure out what writing a song was about and wrote a couple of the tunes that came out on Big Star albums. ‘Thirteen’ I wrote when I was still in New York. I’d always been fascinated by folk-style guitar players—the fingerstyle guitar playing. I guess that in the late 1960s, early
1970s I tried to learn to play like that too. I’ve never considered myself be a great guitar player or anything. I may be a good musician but it’s not the specific instrument that’s the thing for me. It’s the structures of music that interest me.
Believe me, there are 300 high school kids in New Orleans who play better than I do. They may not be guitarists but they’re more accomplished musicians.
My sister had been a big Kingston Trio fan in the early 1960s and I liked that stuff, and Bob Dylan came along and before he became a rocker I was listening to his records. In those days in Washington Square you could walk out and
Brooklyn Jewish kids were playing bluegrass. I met a couple of those people, one in particular named Grant Weissbrot.
Grant and I became buddies and hung out a lot and I learned a lot about mountain music from him and some of his friends. Also I seemed to hang around with a lot of the rock writers of those years—like Richard Meltzer and people like that. Not that they were my big buddies but I did seem to go to Max’s Kansas City a lot and in the back room these writers hung out in a sort of Parisian world of chatting about politics and art and that sort of business. I didn’t really get into the music that was going on there. I remember coming back to Memphis in Spring of 1971 and sitting with Chris Bell in a bar and he said he heard some of the stuff I did with Terry and liked it and asked me if I’d join their outfit. I had seen their group play. They were quite an enjoyable group to go see. I heard some stuff that Chris had been doing around the studio and liked it and thought this might be a good idea. So about the Summer of ’71 I came back to Memphis and we started getting together and playing and running down some of the tunes we would record.
Chris was the main one that I knew and I guess that I had met Andy a time or two and I’d never met Jody before. We just got together and started playing and I had a song or two and we learned it and Chris had a few and we learned those.
Jody Stephens: Alex had been in New York and came back to Memphis and came to see us at the V.F.W. hall with the thought of joining the band. My memory is that one minute he wasn’t in the band and the next minute he is in the band. Once we got through the first song we played, it was like “Wow! I’m in a band that sonically, creatively is as meaningful to me as the bands whose material I’ve been covering for years.” Great songwriters. Creative guitar players—something other than standard guitar leads and parts and sounds. I can remember first working up ‘Ballad Of El Goodo’ and it just kind of blew my mind. I was thinking, “This is really incredible.”