In Humboldt County, one of the places you can cool off in summer is the Eel River. I know this because I’ve been reading books about, among other things, the medical cannabis industry in California. Books like Too High To Fail, Pot Farm, and Humboldt. The stories in these books depict a lush, green, dangerous world light-years removed from my own. Although I had a pretty idyllic childhood by 1970’s suburban America standards, my biggest adventures at that time consisted of riding my bike (by myself!) to the P&C in Geddes Plaza, buying a Coke (in a glass bottle) and then maybe stopping in to Dom’s Coffee Shop to play a few games of Asteroids before I got kicked out for not being a paying customer.
By contrast, one of the characters, Emma, in Humboldt, used to hike with her friends down a muddy road in the woods to cool off by skinny-dipping in the Eel River after it had been swollen by the spring rains and was deep enough to swim in. Not to mention that Emma’s mom and the parents of most of her friends were pot farmers.
This is not to say that I wish my childhood was any different from what it was, even if the closest I ever got to Emma’s experience was riding through a mud puddle on my way to the Solvay Pool. I’m only thinking about this now because of my own capacity for being altered by small details. A few words in a book, a minute observation, can send me down my own muddy road of what-ifs. Like Nabokov’s pesky sandwiches, I can’t help thinking about other people, other places, other possible lives. Even though I know the only one I can possibly live is my own.
It’s probably because, as much as I don’t want to admit it, summer is almost over (the breeze that blows through my window as I write this is a decidedly fall breeze) and even though it was a special one (as they all are, really), I can’t help thinking about all the adventures not taken. Of all the things I might have done. Of just one more day on the island. Of one more night with family and friends. Of one more dip in the pond. Of even one more hour, or minute, at the beach. I know we can only lead one life at a time, and to inhabit it fully, without regrets. Still, I can’t stop looking for that muddy road in the redwoods that leads to the eternally perfect swimming hole. And then diving in.
What do I know about this album? Not much. I just listened to it for the first time today.
I know that Alex Chilton, after leaving the Box Tops in late 1969, moved back to his hometown of Memphis and started recording his own songs (not the ones hand-picked for him by his Box Tops producers), at Ardent Studios, the same studio that would record and release Big Star’s #1 Record in 1973. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves just a little bit.
In 1970, Big Star hadn’t even been formed yet. I don’t know all the facts, but my guess is Alex hadn’t even met Chris Bell or Jody Stephens or Andy Hummel. He was already a seasoned music industry veteran at 19 years old, finally free of his obligations to be a hitmaker, but ready to try something new. He enlisted John Fry (Ardent’s founder and producer-to-be for #1 Record and 1974’s follow-up, Radio City) and engineer Terry Manning to helm the sessions.
Listening to this album now, which wasn’t released by Ardent until 1996 and then reissued by Omnivore in 2012, it’s hard to believe it was recorded one year after Woodstock. The vibe is loose and playful, but full of swagger. Chilton’s legendary twin gifts, genius and ambivalence, are in full view. Here he most closely resembles his heir, Paul Westerberg, also an incredibly gifted but legendarily lazy songwriter who nevertheless wrote one of the greatest rock peans of all time. Laurel Canyon-esque melodies sidle up to grungy, sloppy covers, while pop gems and soulful ballads lurk in between the grooves. Chilton moves easily, almost too easily, between Gram Parsons-style country rock and pre-Ramones punk.
To this writer, the real hidden treasure is “The EMI Song (Smile For Me).” A plaintive opening lyric gives way to a driving piano riff that would make Leon Russell smile. And on the Omnivore reissue, we get to hear it twice, in its finished version and in an alternate, mono mix. Both versions rock. Then, highlighting his chimerical spirit, he sings a raunchy blues rip-off, “All I Really Want Is Money.” These two songs, side by side, one achingly beautiful and the other crass and seemingly tossed off after a day-long drunk, encapsulate Chilton’s entire career in less than eight minutes.
The weird and wonderful thing about music like this is that, like a book or a painting or a poem, once it leaves the creator’s hands, it becomes ours. I’m hearing this record for the first time today 43 years after it was recorded. I would have been three at the time. Even so, it sat in a Memphis vault for 26 years before it even saw the light of day. If anything, it shows that our personal musical history, the one we take for granted, is only a small fraction of what it might have been. Millions of parallel universes exist. We might not hear the soundtrack of our adolescence until 20 years after it was put down on tape.
I don’t know much else about this album and frankly, I don’t want to know. There’s Pitchfork and Wikipedia for that. All I do know is that this album moves me. I listened to it on the way out to my favorite swimming hole tonight. I parked by the side of the road at dusk and hiked a pine needle-strewn path through the woods until I got to a quiet secluded spot, stripped off my sweaty, ash-encrusted landscaping clothes, and eased myself into the water. I heard distant voices across the pond, but saw no one. The sun was setting and the water was silky and luxurious against my skin. It washed the dirt, and the day’s cares, away.
I know Alex Chilton had no idea that this is what his album would be used for. He gave it to us and now we run with it, letting it take us to the swimming holes or the dive bars or the honky-tonk joints or the deserted football fields at night where we drink beer while the cop cars drive by in the distance and we laugh and crank the Stones even louder. It’s truth and fantasy at the same time. Our birth and death. Our childhood and old age, two conflicting ideas, held in our minds at exactly the same time. It’s impossible, they say. I say: not so. We are dying and living, drowning and swimming, and music is our steady girlfriend or boyfriend through it all. But Alex doesn’t know this. He’s just a kid in a Memphis studio. How can he know?
I see him on the cover above, backlit against the window of somebody’s mansion (his mansion?), giving him the appearance of a cigarette-smoking angel in a white shirt and bell-bottom jeans (which, in my opinion, is what all angels should look like and would make me believe in God again). And just look at that long hair. Hair I’m trying to grow right now but will probably have to cut off before I get fired. Like his hair, this much awesomeness and sublime beauty is almost too much to bear.
And I’m in love. With that song.
“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.