#434: Big Star, "#1 Record" (1972)

“I was outside at this bar on the nicest day of the year so far, and there was this little boy—I don’t know—how old are little kids when they’re about two and half feet tall and can’t walk right yet? You know, when they run around on tip-toe with both arms out like little birds because they don’t have any balance—what’s that, three or something? It’s so fucking cute, they just instinctively sense that if they put their arms straight out they might not eat it, but this kid ate it bad--BAM—and busted his nose, howled for like ten minutes. I heard his mom say it was his first bloody nose. Can you imagine? First Bloody Nose: that’s a damn mile-marker. He got scooped up, his mom wiped his face, and then he went after it again, arms out, like Ain’t no one goin’ to turn me ‘round.”

“When I first heard Big Star, I was in college in Ohio, far from home. My friend slid the CD into the car stereo, and I asked him whether Big Star was named after the grocery store. He looked at me like I was crazy, but I knew Big Star first as the place my teenaged sister disappeared most nights to work as a cashier, where she pushed carts into tight rows under the street lights’ incandescent glow, to pay for the car she’d totaled almost immediately after it showed up in our driveway. When I heard the opening of ‘Feel’

“—Yeah, that first, nasty, descending progression of ‘Feel’—the cheap guitar tone of fucking champions; that’s the strut of dudes who are pretty certain they’re going to rule, guys who figure the words Big and Star as reasonable, even just, descriptions of the endeavor, a logic that extends to the title #1 Record: this the unassailable logic of untried champions. Yeah, that guitar part sounds like Manifest Destiny as discovered in somebody’s mom’s basement—”

“—When I first heard ‘Feel,’ when I first heard Big Star in my friend’s car in Ohio, it was like sliding back into Memphis in an instant: that winding Midwestern road disappears and I’m in the backseat of my mother’s car, six years old. We’re pulling into the Big Star parking lot to pick up my sister—sixteen-years old, so wild and mysterious—from her night shift. Those neon lights, those warm, brilliant opening chords of ‘The Ballad of El Goodo’ slide over my skin and I’m in Overton Square in 1972, and everyone’s at a show at TGI Friday’s or out on the street, traffic blocked up in all directions. All I can feel is all that promise, the energy of all those crowds on that street which would be abandoned in ten years’ time, the buildings left empty and shuttered.”

“In its most fantastic moments, you get the sense listening to Big Star that, in the trans-Atlantic ping-pong match of bad-boy blues rock that occupied so much of the sixties and seventies, these boys from Memphis had actually learned something. Like really bright kids at school, they’d paid attention, and learned something useful, something they could practically apply. The delivery on #1 Record is so assured because there’s no prior experience to diminish their certainty and that’s heartbreaking in hindsight. There’s a tenderness buried beneath the bluster that makes it actually infectious—”

“By the time Big Star chooses their name, sitting on the curb, staring at the Big Star grocery store’s neon lights, Alex’s voice is completely transformed: he’s in his twenties when he records the vocals for ‘Thirteen,’ and he sounds his own age, maybe for the first time. His voice is stripped down and vulnerable but never precious, more aching than sweet.”

Agreed. Not precious, not even a little. ‘Thirteen’ is in essence, not just a perfect pop song, but it manages to sound actually sincere and un-self-conscious, like the artifice is inseparable from the experience. It’s fantastic and devastating. There are moments on the record that are eerie and almost uncanny. Jesus, why is that, that when rock music is accurate, like clinically accurate in its description of heartbreak, when rock music is so accurate, so representative of human affairs, that it’s always conducted by the hands of children? They were kids!”

“For Alex, thirteen was the year before it all took off, the year before he stopped showing up to classes at Central High School and his deceptively gruff voice, sounding decades older than it was, started showing up on the radio. While other kids went to school, Alex showed up in televised, lip-syncing performances with the Box Tops. They mime playing at the organs and guitars, making faces at the camera, improvising bizarre dance moves, barely keeping up the guise. Alex can hardly hold eye contact with the camera but he’s trying, his hair hanging lank over his sharp-angled face, lips curled into a grimace that might be hiding a grin. And that’s him, too, later—Big Star was always the thing pushed right up against its opposite: ‘Thirteen,’ both ode and elegy to adolescence. The band name and the album title both suspended somewhere between a sincere boast and an ironic joke. Jody seemed worried that calling the album #1 Record might jinx them. But each track was—is—so inarguably good, so irresistibly catchy. Like you said, infectious…”

“Yeah. It’s the incautious enthusiasm, the novel understanding of defeat, the way a thirteen-year-old knows defeat. I know it’s impossible, but their first record sounds like a near complete absence of self-consciousness. I know that can’t be true in fact, but it feels and sounds like some moment of innocence, some little hermetically sealed chamber, with the lid taken off. Like pop music was still capable of being un-self-conscious.”

“Listening to Big Star now, I still somehow manage to dream up a new ending, where the records sell the way they were supposed to, where Chris Bell doesn’t die at twenty-seven years old, where Alex Chilton doesn’t die at all, ever, but keeps making weird, perfect music that seems somehow new each time I hear it. In this imagined ending, I can mention Big Star in a room full of people and everybody knows them, where everybody argues over which Big Star song they love most.”

“Listen to Third/Sister Lovers. It’s the lonesomest record in the world, not just on its own, not just because there’s defeat practically oozing out of the speakers, but because there was a beginning in #1 Record and a middle with Radio City and Third is the end. I just don’t know how to talk about Big Star without talking about the whole run. They were a perfectly narrative band: beginning, middle, end. It’s like Plato’s house band or something. I think about that kid outside the bar—for him, that bloody nose was still just an aberration: get a bloody nose, pick yourself up, run around some more. Big Star makes a great record that eats shit, they get up and make another record, and another, figuring next time maybe they won’t get a bloody nose. What I want to know is, would Big Star have done it if they knew how fucking bad it was going to hurt?"

—Joe Manning & Martha Park