Graded on a Curve:
Big Star,
Nothing Can Hurt Me

Celebrating Jody Stephens on his 70th birthday.Ed.

The Memphis group Big Star has long been a favorite of folks who love smartly conceived guitar-based pop-rock, and while few bought their records when they were hot off the presses, their status as an enduring cult staple is undeniable. After a long relationship with discerning turntables everywhere, Big Star received the Big Screen treatment with a documentary titled Nothing Can Hurt Me, and the soundtrack collects unique mixes of material long-considered classic. That the songs included here could easily slay a busload of Big Star newbies is testament to not only the band’s everlasting importance but also to the admirable ambitions that made this 2LP set and its accompanying film possible.

Over the last few decades the music documentary has really become one of the steadiest (some might say unrelenting) currents in the whole vast field of non-fiction filmmaking. And this shouldn’t be any kind of surprise. For everybody loves music, or so it’s often been said. But this doesn’t change the fact that some musicians/bands are far more deserving of having their story represented on film than others.

Simply stating that a very few groups are more worthy than Big Star of having their existence outlined through the medium of the film doc can initially smack of extreme devotion and perhaps even flat-out hyperbole. For just like the old saw that everybody loves music, it’s just as often been said that everybody has a story, and even, nay especially, in the non-fiction field the plain facts of the narrative ultimately aren’t as important as the way the events get told.

But if we dig a little deeper, the documentary’s inherent connection with the “real world,” or specifically the manner in which things don’t always work out the way we’d like them to, is especially resonant to the tale of Andy Hummel, Chris Bell, Jody Stephens, and Alex Chilton. For unlike the life of Ray Charles or the early years of The Beatles, Big Star is far from a good fit for the Hollywood treatment, or at least for the situation as it currently stands in the movie-making industry.

The band did get a reliable theme of the bio-pic down pat however, namely early commercial success followed by a long struggle with adversity. But in this case, the chart breakthrough wasn’t specifically related to Big Star, coming instead through Chilton’s status as a teenaged blue-eyed soul phenom in The Box Tops (and therefore still very germane to the group), and the period of hardship was multi-pronged and complicated.

Not only did the lack of sales figures and personality tensions cause Bell to leave the band after the recording of ‘72’s #1 Record, but Hummel also made his own exit after ‘74’s Radio City. That left only Stephens and the emotionally off-balance Chilton, and they ended up creating one of rock’s all time great messes-as-masterpieces with Third/Sister Lovers, the record first appearing in ’78 via PVC Records.

I’ve yet to see the film for which Nothing Can Hurt Me provides the soundtrack, so I’m unclear as to just how director Drew DeNicola handles the later trajectory of Big Star’s story. For starters, there was Bell’s death by car accident in ’78 along with Chilton’s continued self-destructiveness and eventual emergence as a solo artist in the ‘80s, activity that coincided with the rising cult status of the band as their music became a major inspiration for ‘80s College Rock and by extension large portions of the Alternative and Indie Rock playbooks.

Later on, Chilton and Stephens recruited Posies-members Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow for “reunion” live shows and even a new album, In Space in 2005. And then on March 17th 2010, just three days before a scheduled Big Star gig at SXSW, Chilton died of a heart attack. In place of the show came a star-studded tribute that even included Andy Hummel. And then just a few months later Hummel was also struck down by cancer.

There’s certainly enough positive amongst the tragic to make for a redemptive if bittersweet filmic conclusion, and I suspect that DeNicola has attempted just that. But it ain’t exactly a suitable Hollywood ending, though a good (or even better) small-budget flick could certainly be based upon the Big Star saga. But the reality is that even though they developed into one of the cornerstones of cult and even made it onto The Tonight Show in their reincarnated phase, the group never got particularly big.

And their first three albums have attracted as passionate a following as any highly lauded records in the entirety of the rock canon, but on more than one occasion Chilton openly belittled them as overrated. He was dead wrong of course; one of the first things you learn about artists in any field is that it’s sometimes necessary to take their self-assessments with a grain (or a pound) of salt.

For the straight scoop is that Big Star is one of the greatest bands of any stylistic stripe in the whole rock shebang, and one that was doubly star-crossed; not only was the distribution of their records poorly handled by Stax, but in early-‘70s terms the band zigged while nearly everybody else was zagging. And where their cohorts in Mk 1 power pop Badfinger and The Raspberries scored the hits, Big Star had the depth upon which true longevity is founded.

So much depth that even if their LPs had been well-stocked in every record store in the land at the time of release I still suspect they only would’ve become moderately popular. At the risk of coming off elitist, some music, even material that at its core is unabashedly accessible in nature, is just too damned good for widespread popularity. So while it makes a lot of sense to corral Big Star in with the power pop brigade and it’s also not inaccurate to describe them as a spiritual godfather for R.E.M. and The Replacements, I really think their closest peers are NRBQ and The Flamin’ Groovies.

The reason for this grouping isn’t really based on a lack of sales, though the fact that these three didn’t storm the charts is definitely related to what they do hold in common, which is classicism. Each of these bands took a big, long drink of rock’s undiluted, non-highfalutin waters and then turned it into their own superb thing.

Poor distribution in Big Star’s case aside, they all sadly came too early in the music’s development to gain large audiences, for their individual modes of expression weren’t geared to any kind of easily digestible nostalgia trip (I’m lookin’ at you, Mr. Springsteen). And of the three, Big Star proved the most prescient of future rock moves by far, and it’s why the group’s records still provide such a contemporary kick, though that shouldn’t suggest that their oeuvre sounds like it was recorded yesterday.

No, one of the great feats of Big Star’s discography is that it sounds simultaneously timeless and yet specific to the era in which it was made. And the soundtrack to Nothing Can Hurt Me does a fantastic job in communicating this dual nature, though at this late stage heavy-duty Big Star buffs will not only not find it revelatory, but some will possibly be debating whether another purchase of posthumously-compiled product is warranted.

Now, folks that possess all of the original records, a smattering of the bootlegs (which were fairly common back in the ‘80s), Rykodisc’s Live (a document of a ’74 studio performance recorded for broadcast on New York’s WLIR), Norton’s Nobody Can Dance (a mix of rehearsal tapes and a ’71 pre-Bell live show in Memphis), Rhino’s 4-compact disc extravaganza Keep an Eye on the Sky, and a bedroom nightlight designed in the shape of Alex Chilton’s impressive head will likely pony right up for this 2LP platter without a second’s hesitation.

But fans cherishing the first three LPs who somehow managed to compose themselves and resist taking the box set plunge back in ’09 might’ve also shown similar restraint earlier this year when Nothing Can Hurt Me was originally offered as a limited Record Store Day item. That yellow-vinyl pressing sold out in a blink of an eye, so it’s no shock that Omnivore Recordings has quickly returned it to print in a black-wax non-limited edition. So, Big Star biggies who found it easy to deny partaking in the album due to the restricted number of copies might find it a little more difficult to veto the purchase this time around.

For if it’s an overstatement to declare that Nothing Can Hurt Me is a mandatory acquisition for those well-versed in band’s body of work, it’s just as easy to vindicate the record from any kind of predatory mercantile interests. While the four sides are dominated by new mixes of familiar material, the differences are very often large enough to make their resurrection far more than just a gesture toward the unquenchable thirst of the group’s most die-hard fanatics.

I’m thinking immediately about the pedal steel and Bell’s vocals on his excellent composition “Try Again,” originally from #1 Record. On this version, the pedal steel is far more country-rock inclined and the prominence of the singing is increased substantially, causing the tune’s incarnation here to register as something much more than a minor bone tossed into the hungry jaws of the completist.

Elsewhere, the distinctions come with a judicious subtlety. For instance, the “Movie Mix” of “September Gurls” is just a touch livelier than the original version, the changes felt rather than explicitly heard, and the presentation in no way alters the tune’s inherent perfection. This is unsurprising since John Fry, who sat in the producer’s chair for Big Star’s first two albums, also oversaw the details in the conception of Nothing Can Hurt Me’s soundtrack along with being the executive producer for the film.

Not everything here’s down to a different mix, however. Most notable in this regard is the opening demo version of Radio City’s first track “O My Soul.” Here the guitar is thicker, drenched in even more deluxe Southern swagger as it tangles with Stephens’ loose, aggressive drumming. The keyboard accents of the album version are noticeably absent, and this early take also runs a full two minutes shorter in duration, but there’s also a sweetly bratty edge to Chilton’s vocal tone, particularly the way he ends a couple of lines with the word “now” early in the tune.

But there’s also the twenty-five second fragment “Stroke It Noel (Backward Intro),” which presents an expansion of an idea that was edited down to almost an afterthought on the Third/Sister Lovers’ version. The only drag is that it doesn’t actually lead into that exquisite tune, which along with “September Gurls” is this writer’s most-loved Big Star composition. Don’t worry, I pulled out my dinged-up copy of the PVC edition and soaked up its strung-out baroque-pop grandeur for the umpteenth time.

And the fact that this curious if brief artifact is included but the full version of “Stroke It Noel” is absent brings a little extra weight to one of this set’s most winning characteristics. Specifically, this sounds like the soundtrack to a film holding a very even-handed approach to the Big Star legacy. Again, having not watched the movie I can’t be sure, but not only is there no “Stroke It Noel,” but minus its intro the record only includes three tracks (out of a total of twenty-one) from the sessions that produced the prickly and amazing third LP (and all of them doozies; “Holocaust,” “Kanga Roo,” and “Big Black Car.”)

Listeners whose main interest in Big Star lies in Third/Sister Lovers (folks who found a gateway into the group through This Mortal Coil instead of The Replacements, for instance) will likely be disappointed, but attempting to please the individual camps of Big Star fandom doesn’t seem to be the agenda here.

Instead, it appears that presenting an even-focused picture of the band as an actual band is the biggest part of the point. And since very legit arguments have been made that Third/Sister Lovers is as much of a damaged Chilton solo LP as it is a Big Star rec (though this is certainly arguable due to Stephen’s contribution to the album), the limitation in focus makes good common sense.

By extension, two cuts are culled from Chris Bell’s posthumously-released and quite stellar 1992 solo album I Am the Cosmos, the powerful “Better Save Yourself,” and the truly sublime track that provided the record with its title (also issued as a single in ‘78), and their appearance here creates nary a trace of disconnect. But if it sounds like ol’ Alex is getting the short-shift, don’t fret. His gentle folk nugget “All We Ever Got from Them Was Pain,” gleaned from his post-Box Tops pre-Big Star 1970 Ardent Studios sessions, is included as well.

However, all this talk of longtime Big Star fandom really shouldn’t be the point, for Nothing Can Hurt Me is the soundtrack to a film that will provide a large portion of its viewers with their very first taste of the group. And as an introduction the album succeeds extremely well.

While it’ll likely serve for many as just their initial dip into band’s highly potent waters, the thoughtful construction and moments of sheer distinctiveness found here will retain their value long after #1 Record, Radio City, and Third/Sister Lovers’ have been devoured top-to-bottom. And for a band that’s encouraged so much intense devotion over the years, this circumstance is quite fitting.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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