#405: Big Star, "Radio City" (1974)

Brooklyn Masonic Temple, November 18th, 2009.

There’s a beat-up white sedan parallel-parked on Clermont, three grown men sitting inside with the windows rolled down, even in this bracing November night air, and “Back of a Car” tipping out of their stereo. We’re walking to a bar before the concert, and we pass this car, and I make a note in my mind of these three grown men in their car, listening to Big Star. The voice of their hero, seeping through a tinny car stereo, into the ears of buddies, uniting them in the moment. This was life on that late November evening, on the verge of winter, picking up our thoughts from the ground where they whipped around in the wind with the fallen leaves.

Sitting in the back of a car
Music so loud can't tell a thing
Thinking 'bout what to say
I can't find the lines

We come back from the bar tipsy and buzzing, watching our breath appear before our faces, short-lived. It’s still cold inside, the vast hall filling slowly with concertgoers blowing into their hands to stay warm, lining up at the bar. We order beers and find seats in the balcony; I sit on the edge of my seat. My heart tingles as they arrive on stage. Alex is wearing a coat; he fiddles around in his pockets, pulls out a pair of reading glasses, then folds his coat and tucks it behind the guitar amps. I take a picture of this moment, finding it impossibly endearing - one of those moments that are so simple in life, a little bit of nothing, but the nothing that make up the majority of our existence here. Fiddling in pockets. Folding a coat. This is existence.

The photograph is out of focus; you can see the blur of my excitement, my hands shaking, alive with anticipation of the show ahead.

When Alex plays he prefers to stand towards the back of the stage, he’s almost shy, laughing while looking down at his shoes. No showboating. He’s uncomfortable in the spotlight, happier to live through his fingers as they travel up and down the neck of his guitar. Happier living through music. The consensus in later reviews of this show was that it was a little sloppy, a little careless, but in a way that made it a real Big Star show. Most people there were just happy to be there, to share the same space with a band that seems to never have really existed at all, that came and went, and then came back again, alive once more.

I take another photo that night of Alex; in this one Alex is blurry, walking back after the show to collect his coat again. It looks as if he’s barely there: as if he’s liminal, on the edge of life. A ghost. It’s a trick of photography, how cameras capture light, but of course since then I’ve attributed a far greater meaning to it.

Alex died almost exactly four months later.

You better not leave me here... How could you leave me here?


I didn’t really intend to make this an essay about death. This album isn’t defined by Alex Chilton’s death: it’s punctuated by it. It’s an odd, errant drumbeat. A closed parentheses on a footnote in the liner notes. It shouldn’t even matter. I set out, in fact, to write the precise opposite: I wanted to make it an essay about how alive everything is when I listen to this album. How underneath Jody’s drums on “Back of a Car” I can hear the hiss of summer insects outside the car windows, how there in Alex’s voice is a sunset, a good one. Sitting on a hill above a city, any city, your city, the sun setting, the car stereo on, your heart beating hard because you think you might be falling in love. That’s what this sounds like. Like those moments in life when you feel so alive and so head over heels in love with the world that you can’t imagine ever leaving it. I love you too.

Life is a messy tangle of shitty and awkward and boring moments, too. The whole album sounds to me like this kind of living. Like sloppy, honest-to-goodness real living. Drunk sex and vinyl booths in bars (“Mod Lang”) and the feel of your pillow on your cheek the next morning (“What’s Going Ahn”). A photograph of a bare lightbulb and a sex position poster in a blood red room. The crumpled up love letter that is “Way Out West.” Folding a coat.

And then, after all these moments, after the shitty and the boring and the euphoric, we go. Everything is here and then not here: those insects hissing in the background are only around for one season, before their song fades and we’re left alone to ponder what comes next. The leaves go brown and crisp and fall. We see our breath in the air. And there it is: mortality. Humming underneath everything. Reminding us what Alex sings in “Daisy Glaze”:

You’re gonna die. Yes, you’re gonna die. Got to go.
You’re gonna die. You’re gonna decease.

That’s it. That’s life. That’s being alive. The lyrics belie the music: that soaring guitar, those urgent drums. He makes dying sound so alive. Because that’s exactly what being alive is about: we butt our heads against our own mortality, and when we strike against death hardest, with the most urgency to live: that is when we feel the most alive.

Alex Chilton bumped around the universe, believing in astrology (of course he believed in stars!), fighting to stay alive himself some nights, drunk on couches, in booths at TGI Fridays, fucking and passing out. I like to think that when we die our atoms become a part of the universe. I like to think that these songs belong to the universe. That these songs make our universe. Those handclaps on “O My Soul” and “She’s a Mover” and that sloppy harmonica on “Life Is White”they have entered the world, stirred the ghosts.

A haunting.

We should be terrified: we should be quivering in our shoes, waiting for the grim reaper to descend. I think he’s there most of the time. But I swear to god even Death stops to listen too when “September Gurls” comes on. I loved you; well never mind. And in that moment of carefree carelessness we’re so alive, and Alex Chilton is suddenly so alive, that we terrify the grim reaper himself, life fills our chests, and nothing matters in that moment. Not even death. Death is background to living, a hiss under the drums. End parentheses. Nothing matters, and at the same time everythingfumbling through coat pockets, waking up, seeing our breath in front of our facesmatters now more than ever.

—Zan McQuade

Photography by Zan McQuade