The title of the post is a reference to something in the post. Get it? Okay, let me dive right in. Saturday afternoon my mother sent me a Facebook message to check out the documentary about the band Big Star on Netflix (It’s Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me for you curious folks). Not aware that such a thing even existed, I jumped at the chance, as I’ve loved Big Star going back to the early 90s when R.E.M. name-checked them in a few interviews and I discovered the Replacements. Oh, for those of you who don’t know the Replacements song, I present Alex Chilton:
So. Watched the documentary Saturday night, and it really affected me. I’m sure some folks aren’t aware of what happened with Big Star/who the band was, so thumbnail version: Memphis band starts up and recruits Alex Chilton, who was lead signer for the band The Box Tops (who had a few big hits). The vision for the new band was to form a sort of Beatles for the ’70s, blending psychedelic sensibilities with a rawer feel, sort of Lennon and McCartney meet early Rock’N’Roll. the architect of the band’s sound, though I did not know it until I watched the documentary, was a Memphis songwriter named Chris Bell, who would play guitar, sing backup vocals, and help write songs alongside Chilton.
The band’s first album, #1 Record, is…well, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but if you’re into power pop it’s almost a holy grail. Early reviewers said that almost every track on the album could be a single and it’s no lie. I mean, listen to this and remember that it’s from 1972:
For my money, that’s one of the greatest power pop songs ever written. It’s not quite the Beatles, but it ranks up there. For a variety of reasons, the album never hit. Marketing was inadequate and best and their distribution sucked. In the documentary they tell stories of people calling the studio asking how to get copies of the record because they couldn’t find it.
After the failure of the album Chris Bell kind of lost his mind. He erased the master tapes and attempted suicide. The band debated even going on, but after a successful show for critics decided to go for a second album. Bell didn’t make it through the early stages of the second album, absconding to France after contributing to two songs and a handful of demos.
If the distribution for the first album was bad, distro for the second was an unmitigated disaster. It managed to sell even fewer albums, barely leaving the warehouse, as their record label, Stax, started to have financial problems. By the time they recorded their third album the label was done with supporting the band and didn’t even release it; it wouldn’t see the light for day for many years. The remainder of Big Star imploded shortly thereafter.
Chris Bell, in the meantime, returned to the US and ended up working at a restaurant while trying to write songs for a potential solo album. Alex Chilton tried to help him get it out there by putting together a 45″ for him between 76 and 77. He recorded quite a bit of material for the solo album, but it would never get released in his lifetime. He died in a tragic car accident in 1978, never knowing the ultimate fate of his music.
That brings me around to why I’m posting this story: I found myself relating most to Bell’s story. Here was a guy with a vision, something a little different from the mainstream. He was troubled, yes, and likely would have struggled even if Big Star had become a huge success, but he understood the quality of what they were doing and how it could move people. It doesn’t surprise me that he went crazy when they failed to find an audience, especially with so much of it out of their hands.
What really gets me, however, is that Big Star is now a well-respected and well-known band. They had an enormous influence on a huge swath of bands and are covered to this day. Bell has even been cited as a member of the “27” club, of rock legends who died at 27, with his name in the same breath as Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, and Janis Joplin. He’s posthumously recognized as a genius songwriter.
Yet he saw none of it. I can’t help wondering: if you told him that he would be recognized for his songs but wouldn’t see it until after he died, would he be satisfied? Would that be enough? It made me ask the same question of myself, and I think it’s something that speaks to a lot of us who continue to plug away even without the defined mainstream success.
For those of us who don’t define success as material gain, is the potential of posthumous recognition enough? I had to really think through it, which is why I took my time posting this. I think yes, it is. My definition of success is speaking directly to someone, no matter where or when, communicating some of my own reality and finding a common ground with that person. I’m inherently never going to be first party or even second party to that process, so why would the limitations of time matter? I can’t speak for Chris Bell and what he might have said, but it does help a little to know that he achieved something for which he fought so hard. Let’s hope others of us can do the same.