Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Number Nine/September: Big Star, September Gurls

Big Star, September Gurls

In terms of musical discovery, I find myself often turning to the influences of those who influence me. Reading about an artist’s musical education often effects my own explorations into past genres and movements. In a beautiful, somewhat karmic turn, the influences of my influences become my own influences.

I find musical biographies the most interesting way to discover new, or otherwise unheard, music.  Digging deep into the history of music is as interesting and digging into actual, archeological history: what you find from the past informs the future. That’s why Magic Sam is almost daily listening for me. That’s how I discovered the Red Dirt Music movement, Jimmy LaFave, Stoney LaRue, and Jason Boland. 

In the same vein, I love a good name drop in songs. A few songs come to mind: Adam Duritz lamented Richard Manuel’s  (The Band) suicide along side the metaphorical impermanence of his own life in If I Could Give All My Love. John Mellancamp is pretty big name dropper (R.O.C.K in the U.S.A). The Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon has made a brilliant career out of not only name-dropping, but wholesale lyrical montage, or is it collage, by taking lines from famous rock songs and seamlessly weaving the lyrics into his own. And, as we shall explore further later on, Paul Westerberg famously paid reverential homage to Alex Chilton and declared we could all use a ‘little Big Star” in the class ‘Mats track, Alex Chilton

I’m spanning across some divergent ideas here, but the point is: I feel listening to an artist who really moved you necessitates digging into their musical heritage. The same holds true for contemporary artists who run in the same packs. But, this is September, and history class is in session, so let’s dwell there, back there, not in the back of the classroom, but in the stacks. Dust off your vinyl, pull out your vintage t-shirts that you bought when brand new and let’s talk about a band I have always loved, to a degree, but have a complicated relationship with: I'm talking about the aforementioned Alex Chilton's Big Star.

I came to Big Star, and Alex Chilton, because of Paul Westerberg and The Replacements. Big Star, I know a little about; The 'Mats? I worship at their altar, so it was almost a necessity that I dig into someone they wrote a song about.

But, as often happens, one man's treasure doesn't always turn out to be the same or the next. The reason I say my affinity for Big Star is complicated is simple: like a lot of short lived bands, their catalog runs the entire spectrum of absolute greatness to songs that, while I might not call them bad, do probably speak to why they never hit it bigger than they did. They wrote great songs, and they put of some junkers. I feel a band like The Who exists on the same level: some of the greatest rock songs ever written and some of the worst. Literary minded folks could say the same for say, Charles Dickens. Big Star has that appeal and occupies that strange place between greatness and…mehhhh. The great stuff is just that; a lot of the rest of it is filler, at best.

I think that inconsistency has kept me from making a total embrace. But this is also me being utterly, assholishly subjective...I've had this discussion about the Grievous Angel, Gram Parsons. I think his short lived career was marked with nothing but brilliant, but I know a lot of folks thinks Return of the Grievous Angle is the starting and stopping point when it comes to evaluating his output. 

Add to the fact that the hipsters have gotten ahold of Big Star  (at least their t-shirt) which makes any relationship to a band, movie, book or whatever a heck of lot more complicated. 

Big Star's Alex Chilton is an eponymously blistering tribute to one of Westerberg’s heroes. The lead singer of Big Star, Chilton never hit it huge, or as huge as he probably should have, but he was a critics darling, and many a rocker’s legendary founding father of power pop. You’ve heard Big Star, for sure, but a lot of you (not you, SMM readers), might not know it. Their most well known track owes its celebrity to serving as the theme song to That 70’s Show. In the Street. Google “Big Star Hanging Out”—you’ll know exactly what I’m talking out.

While Big Star had many great songs, my favorite remains, and believe me, this doesn’t put me in unique company—a lot of people love this song—September Gurls. It’s a brilliant, chiming, churning pop gem, as great a radio song as I’ve ever heard. It makes its way onto almost all of the mixes I make, and I can't think of a song I more want to hear when I’m sipping drinks on a summer day.  Or that goes better with any beautiful girl you fall in love with, even if it's from across the room or jsut walking down the street.  September Gurls is two minutes and 56 seconds of a pop jewel in the crown of love songs. And will always be the soundtrack for a heart that breaks way too often at meeting, and losing, one of many girls from one of many dreams.

It was never a big hit, but September Gurls makes multiple lists of greatest pop songs ever. The Bangles covered it on their 1986 LP Different Light, and much in keeping with the theme of this post, it was their version that led me down a long path to Big Star (influences of influences, remember?). Though I should state that since I was listening to The Bangles, in 6th grade,my musical tastes hadn’t quite refined yet to the point where I would not listen to The Bangles. The Replacements followed within a few years, after I’d grown a little more discerning. Yet, now that I’m even older, I can kind of get down with The Bangles, and see they had some great songs—their cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s Hazy Shade of Winter has a fiery snarl that the original folk duo could never have achieved…not that they needed to, but again, I love seeing how the influence of a precedent setting artist informs the later one, and how different the sound becomes.

All that being said, influential or not, popular or not, Big Star deserved more. And not this enlightening bit of trivia from MTV.

Thanks, Katy Perry.

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