It was a long time ago now: Charlottesville, VA in the mid 80s. I’d been introduced to the music of Big Star by a girlfriend who was, by the time this particular story begins, an ex. Some time after the break-up, I was in a record store, & I picked up an album called Big Star’s 3rd: Sister Lovers. The cover showed a portrait of the band’s lead singer, Alex Chilton, in contrasting blue & black tones. If my memory is faithful, I believe I knew one or two songs from the album before I took it back to my little cottage apartment to play it—I’m almost positive I knew “Nighttime.” But even that small amount of familiarity really didn’t prepare me for what I was about to hear.
To this day, I don’t know that I’ve ever been obsessed with a record album quite the way I was with Sister Lovers—the title I always identified with it. I listened to music differently then, it’s true: music created a whole world that I was able to walk into & inhabit. Since I began playing music more seriously in the 90s, I’ve lost that ability—I don’t mourn its loss, because now I hear something different & wonderful in a different way when I listen to music. But it’s true that at the time, music almost had the world-altering potential of a new love.
Coincidentally (or not coincidentally, as I believed then), my obsession with Sister Lovers began at almost the same time as a new love entered my life, & at the same time as I began to write a series of poems that were probably the best I wrote during my Charlottesville days. To me, the music from Sister Lovers was a backdrop to those poems, just as it was a backdrop to my life.
Things, as they sometimes do when we are young & prone to intense poetic passions, went from wonderful to devastatingly horrible—I say this in a detached way—after all, it’s many years ago now. But I think it’s important for me to say, because I’m trying to convey something about a terrific box set, Big Star: Keep on Eye on the Sky (Rhino), & because my association with Big Star’s music is intensely personal, I think I should be clear about that up front. In the interest of full disclosure, I also should say that while I like the first two Big Star albums quite well—#1 Record & Radio City—they never completely captured my imagination in the way Big Star’s 3rd did (some of Chilton’s post Big Star material, particularly Like Flies on Sherbert & Bach’s Bottom also intrigued me a lot).
For those who aren’t familiar with Big Star, the group formed in Memphis in 1971, & included Alex Chilton & Chris Bell as a sort of southern Lennon-McCartney, backed by Andy Hummel on bass & Jody Stephens on drums. That particular configuration (more or less) recorded #1 Record for Stax in 1972 & Radio City for Columbia (which had bought Stax out) early in 1974. The band name “Big Star” was ironic—besides the obvious, there was also a supermarket chain in Tennessee called Big Star; Chilton had already had the experience of a #1 record at age 16 when he sang “The Letter” with the Box Tops—& had turned down a chance to sing lead with Blood, Sweat & Tears. Of course, the first album, #1 Record also had the same irony.
But back to the box set—first, the obvious: this is a collection of some seminal rock music. Big Star’s influence on many of the 80s' alt rock bands was huge & freely acknowledged—R.E.M’s Peter Buck put Big Star’s 3rd on a par with Highway 61 Revisited, Revolver, & Exile on Main Street, & the Replacements—among others—also credited Chilton & Big Star as shaping influences. But there’s more to this box set than simply being a compendium of Big Star’s songs.
Tho I may not have put this into words, I believe one thing that’s always appealed to me about Big Star & Alex Chilton is the sense of a music in process. Chilton carried this to extreme levels on Bach’s Bottom (an obvious take-off on Box Tops), where he deconstructs his own (& other people’s) songs in the studio in a fascinating act of creative destruction. While Big Star never went to such extremes, the demos & alternate & unreleased tracks reproduced here are far more intriguing & provocative than the usual collection on compilations. In the case of Keep an Eye on the Sky there is a real sense both of evolution & of the fluidity of creation—not simply that the song started as this & ended as this, but an examining of various & even disparate possibilities for each song. The insight into the process for all three albums is fascinating, but the window this box set opens onto Big Star’s 3rd: Sister Lovers has provided me with quite remarkable food for thought.
The box set contains two versions of almost every song from 3rd; both a demo & the actual recorded version—actually there are demos for all the songs on the original lp version, but Rykodisc re-issued 3rd in the early 90s in the form—as I understand—Chilton originally intended, & this added five tracks to the lp. Interestingly, the five tracks that were added have always seemed to me to muddle what otherwise seemed a clear concept album—to this day, I don’t know what Chilton meant by including “Whole Lotta Shaking Going On”—but the box set probes the question more deeply by including two versions of the previously unreleased “Lovely Day,” a buoyant pop song that plays in stark contrast to some of the albums very dark moments, such as “Holocaust” & “Big Black Car.” “Lovely Day” at some point morphed into “Stroke It Noel,” the lead off song on the vinyl version (check it out in the video below). We see the gorgeous song “Nighttime” transformed from the sweet love song of the demo to something else—a sweet love song tinged with a distinct air of darkness—for more on "Nighttime," please check out my post on Just a Song right here.
I’ve had an interesting email exchange with Audrey Bilger, who regular Robert Frost’s Banjo readers know for her contributions to the blog, about Big Star’s 3rd. Audrey tells me she’s always seen the album as being suffused with light, & there’s certainly a lot to be said for that position—plus I always respect Audrey’s opinion when it comes to music, because she’s one of the sharpest music critics I know. For me, the album’s light has always been set off by an underlying darkness—consider “Kanga Roo” & “Big Black Car” below. While the box set doesn't answer the questions about underlying intent, it certainly enriches & enhances an examination of the album's themes. Oh yes: I should point out that Audrey's spouse, Cheryl Pawelksi, co-produced the box set. Ms Pawelski has had a successful career in the recording industry, producing compilations & re-issues of groups ranging from the Beach Boys & the Band to Vince Guaraldi & Sonny Stitt.
Keep an Eye on the Sky is a 4-disc set; the sound is superb. Discs one & two cover #1 Record & Radio City—including precursors to Big Star, like Chris Bell’s earlier band, Icewater, performing “All I See is You.” The demos for 3rd begin on disc two—& these are gems in themselves, especially ones like “Blue Moon” & “Femme Fatale” (yes, the old Nico song by the Velvet Underground) with Chilton accompanying himself on acoustic guitar—while disc three is all Big Star’s 3rd. The fourth disc contains a live performance from 1973—since Big Star was more of a studio outfit than a live band, this is a rarity, & a welcome one at that. The set is rounded off with a 100-page book (I’m thinking 100 pages is more than a booklet) containing essays about Big Star & lots of pix.
If you’re interested in music from the 70s, or alternative rock music—or simply in uniquely powerful music, you really must check this box set out.