“Won’t you let me walk you home from school?/Won’t you let me meet you at the pool..?” ~Alex Chilton/Chris Bell, “Thirteen”
First, some numbers. When 1980 dawned, and the Seventies were finally over, I was thirteen years old. By the time I first heard them, the band Big Star had been broken up for over ten years. Big Star’s first album, released in 1972, appropriately titled #1 Record, came out when I was five years old.
When 1980 dawned, I had already been shaped by the decade before, even though I didn’t know it yet. I had marched in a Bicentennial Parade around my elementary school in red, white, and blue clothes my mom probably sewed for me. I had expressed my nascent liberal bias by voting for Jimmy Carter in a mock election in third grade. I had listened to an eight-track of Eagles Greatest Hits more times than I could count on the way to camp in my uncle’s red Chevy van. At the end of fifth grade, when we “graduated” to Hazard Street Middle School, I had the high school principal’s daughter, who was in my class, sign my right arm in brown felt marker that I vowed never to wash all summer. (“Tammy” it read, in that loopy girlish cursive that just screamed cuteness and puppy dogs. My mom made me wash it off that night). I dreamed about Farrah Fawcett and the famous red swimsuit poster that my parents would never let me own. (I started a fan club and pretended that I knew her phone number. Well, the area code at least). I watched the original 1975 film Rollerball on HBO when my parents weren’t looking, wishing I could be like James Caan’s Jonathan E, bashing in opponents’ faces with spiked leather gloves. ( I even invented a dice Rollerball game that I still have my hand-drawn rules for, somewhere. Thanks, Mom, for saving them. I forgive you for making me wash Tammy’s name off my arm. And for not letting me go to The Who show at the Carrier Dome in 1982). Iran. Hostages. “Fuck You, Ayatollah” bumper stickers. And so much more. More than I can even remember.
The 1980’s would usher in my real education, musical and otherwise, but if I really think hard about it, the Seventies was the true decade of my youth. I grew up then, as much as any American suburban teenager ever grows up. And I didn’t know it, but there existed a soundtrack to my adolescence that I hadn’t even heard yet, and wouldn’t hear until much later. But I’m listening to it again, even now. Even right at this moment.
My introduction, my letter postmarked from an alternate universe, came as a musical aside: the song “Alex Chilton” on the Replacements’ fifth album, Pleased To Meet Me. A killer rock song, it also contained this line; “I never travel far/Without a little Big Star.” At first, I had no idea who or what Paul Westerberg was singing about. Wasn’t Big Star a Southern supermarket chain?
Then, like so many musical doors opening as they had always opened for me before, I walked through and started investigating. Although in 1987 there was no internet or Google. I had to do my research the old-fashioned way: go to an actual record store. There I discovered, on vinyl, the Memphis-based, power-pop-before-there-was-power-pop band Big Star.
When Michael Stipe of R.E.M. mentioned in an interview somewhere that Big Star was a huge influence on him, suddenly knowing about Big Star was cool, and just like it was a few years before when R.E.M. came out with Murmur, I felt as though I was the only kid in the world who liked them. Who really understood what ex-Box Tops wunderkind Alex Chilton or moody perfectionist Chris Bell were singing about. By 1987, my childhood was over but my ears were just catching up. Like R.E.M. before them, Big Star had become my band, an entry point into a private world where no one was allowed. Besides, they had already broken up, so it wouldn’t do any good to wish they had become famous.
Now, in 2013, there’s a new Big Star documentary out that will hopefully introduce them to a new generation of fans. But to my mind, it’s too little, too late. Three of the original four member have died, most tragically Chris Bell in a car crash in 1978 at the age of 27. The soundtrack to the film is in record stores. A box set was released a few years ago. Most of their music is available on Spotify or iTunes. The feeling that Big Star is my band is fading, and I’m grateful for that. More people know about them now. More people are listening. They only put out three albums, about 40 finished songs total, not counting crappy live recordings, outtakes, and demos. That’s not a lot of music, but this Star burns bright.
Reading this over, I realize this isn’t the post I wanted to write. I wanted to write about the nostalgia I feel for the Seventies. For wearing tube socks pulled up to my kneecaps with stripes that matched my shorts. About my favorite “Oh No! Mr. Bill!” t-shirt, the one I got at the Champion factory outlet store in Westvale Plaza, where you could pick an irregular t-shirt out of a bin for $1.99 and then bring it over to the counter where up on the wall there were hundreds of iron-on decals that you could choose from and that the clerk would press on with a hot steam iron while you waited. I wanted to write about pre-teen crushes, about riding my bike with the banana seat and the fake stick-shift to the Solvay Pool (shown above) where you’d get a little key on a brass ring for your locker so you could stash your street clothes while you swam and hoped you’d see your One True Love in her two-piece bathing suit. I wanted to write about how in the summer the old Italian immigrants would turn the garages of their single-story ranches into makeshift living rooms by replacing the doors with huge screen inserts and even moving their couches and TVs into their garages so they could watch Love Boat or Quincy or The Streets of San Francisco in the cool comfort of their concrete dens, the dens that would glow at night as we rode by on our bikes. I wanted to write about my hot tube-sock summers and my trips to the pool or to Don’s Coffee Shop to play Asteroids and my first crushes and the blue TV glow coming from the screened-in garages at night. I wanted to thank Chris Bell and Alex Chilton for writing the song “Thirteen” way back in 1972, when I was only five years old so that when I grew up I could listen to it over and over and over again and think about my childhood and about how a Memphis, Tennessee childhood was probably no different from a Solvay, New York childhood and about how the Seventies were probably the same everywhere. I wanted to thank them for writing the soundtrack to my childhood, a soundtrack I wouldn’t hear until I was well into adulthood, in just fifteen short lines. I wanted to thank Chris and Alex for giving me the courage to grow my hair long, even though it’s summer, because even if I can’t quit my job because I need the health insurance for myself and my family, I can still give a silent, floppy “fuck you” to the boss every time he looks at me. But mostly I wanted to write to tell them that like a summer’s day at the pool, or the passing of time, or a first kiss, no words can ever really express anything at all about these things. But that’s OK. Even this isn’t what I really wanted to write.
The truth is, I’ll never be able to express what I really want to say about any of this with words.
Only music can perform such a feat.