SIFF 2013 Face the Music Preview: Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

Leigh Bezezekoff

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt MeDirected by Drew DeNicola(USA, 2012, 100 minutes)

Festival Screenings:Tuesday, May 21, 9PM at SIFF Cinema UptownWednesday, May 26, 8:30pm at SIFF Cinema Uptown

Last year’s Oscar winning documentary Searching for Sugarman shined a spotlight on an artist who, despite obvious talent and critical acclaim, somehow slipped through the cracks and never enjoyed the mainstream success he was destined for until later in life when a journalist tracked him down and revealed his bootlegged music was as beloved as Bob Dylan and The Beatles in South Africa. Memphis band Big Star didn’t have quite so dramatic of a tale to tell as Rodriguez, but their musical career also dissolved before they realized how much of an impact they had on future generations of musicians.

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me is a feature-length documentary about the legendary band that inspired bands like R.E.M., The Replacements, Wilco, Elliott Smith, the Flaming Lips, The Posies and countless other musicians but never achieved much more widespread notoriety than their song “In the Street” being used as the title theme to That 70’s Show.

The film traces the band’s history from the late sixties when singer Alex Chilton sky-rocketed to stardom at the age of 16 with his band The Box Tops (“The Letter”) to the serendipitous meeting with Big Star founder/guitarist Chris Bell. Chilton and Bell could have been America’s answer to McCartney & Lennon had the band not imploded due to failed record sales, personal breakdowns, and Bell’s untimely and tragic death in 1978 (thus earning him a spot in the infamous “27 club”).

It’s as much a love letter to the band as it is a cautionary tale about getting swept under the rug. Archival footage and interviews with family, friends, and those along from the ride show how dreams can be dashed by the music machine.

”Big Star's lack of commercial success seemed to [Alex Chilton] to be a judgment on the quality of the music, and he himself didn't feel the Big Star material was really any least that's what he said. His answer to any request to re-form Big Star had been thanks but no thanks.” – Ken Stringfellow

Ken Stringfellow (The Posies, REM, Big Star) sat down to share some thoughts on what the music of Big Star means to him and how he and fellow Posie Jon Auer began playing with the reincarnation of the band over 17 years ago.

Ken Stringfellow & Big Star's original drummer Jody Stephens by hammershaug
Ken Stringfellow & Big Star's original drummer Jody Stephens by hammershaug

How did you first find the music of Big Star?

I'd been reading about them for some time... seeing them referenced in record reviews. The records were not available in Bellingham WA, where I went to high school, that's for sure. Then came "Alex Chilton" by the Replacements in 1987. I was such a huge fan...but still...those records were hard to come by. Well, impossible, actually. The Posies started in 1988 and Jon Auer moved down to join me in Seattle; he soon had a job at Discount Records on Univ. Ave., and we got our hands on a re-issued vinyl of "Radio City".

Almost simultaneously, our bass player, Rick Roberts, who was working at Peaches Records on 45th, got a hold of the import CD with most of the first two albums on it. We were hooked immediately, and "Feel" became part of our live set straight away. The CD was especially astonishing--the clarity and depth of the recordings was as impressive as the beauty of the music. I mean, compare the crisp sound of "#1 Record" to the sludgy sounds of Grand Funk Railroad or whomever was having hit records in 1971...these Big Star albums were magnificently recorded. But the songs, the clear longing of Chris Bell's almost tortured vocals...that went straight to the heart. Mixed with Alex's sublime cool. Stunning combo.

What was their impact on your own style of writing/playing music?

I think we had been influenced previous to that moment by the clever wordplay of XTC, Elvis Costello, can hear that on our first album (recorded before we'd heard Big Star). We were young and hadn't totally connected to our deepest emotions yet, it was hard for us to put that into words. Big Star gave us a template of music that was melodic to a degree that would be at home on a Beatles album, but there was a depth of feeling and a maturity to the emotions that was much more grown up. It wasn't really playful music, but it was still in a pop song format. That was a great beacon for us to head toward.

How did you and Jon get involved with playing with them?

We were such fans that by the time we were looking to make our 2nd album, in 1990, Big Star was first and foremost on our list of influences. We investigated recording at Ardent Studios in Memphis, where the Big Star albums had been made, as well as landmark albums by REM, The Replacements, Led Zeppelin...etc. that we loved. Ultimately we decided to stay in Seattle but getting in touch with the studio put us in touch with its spokesperson (to this day), Big Star's drummer Jody Stephens. We couldn't believe it, when the (pre internet, folks) brochure came to us in the mail with his signature on the cover letter (Uh, a brochure was a kind of a website, but on paper...uh...never mind). So we stayed in touch, sent him some records, and he became a fan of hours. Again, we couldn't believe it. I remember asking our A&R guy at Geffen records in like 1991..."I wonder, do you think it's even possible to meet Alex Chilton?". And two years later...we were in Big Star.

Alex had been poo-pooing reuniting with Jody or anybody to play Big Star's songs; he rarely played them in his solo sets. Oddly, he was happy to perform with the Box Tops from time to time, arguably a less musically weighty project. But Big Star's lack of commercial success seemed to him to be a judgment on the quality of the music, and he himself didn't feel the Big Star material was really any least that's what he said. His answer to any request to re-form Big Star had been thanks but no thanks.

The band hadn't played since 1973. Some college radio DJs in Missouri rang up Jody about playing as Big Star, who forwarded the request to Alex for routine denial. Except that this time, Alex said...'why not?'. Their first show in 20 be in a tent near the University of Missouri, in Columbia unlikely...but how Big Star, too. The thing is, since 1973, Chris Bell (who'd quit anyway in 1972) had died; Andy Hummel had no interest in playing music at that point. The band's swan song, "Third/Sister Lovers" had been made by Jody & Alex only. Who to round out the band? Known Big Star fans with marquee value were called -- Mike Mills from REM (too busy at that time); Paul Westerberg of the Replacements, Matthew Sweet (neither of whom wanted to potentially tarnish the legacy of this band); Chris Stamey, who now is Big Star's greatest archivist, oddly declined for reasons I've never asked him.

Meanwhile...Jon & I were basically beating the door down to do it. And we had Jody's vote. He'd heard our note for note covers of "Feel" and Chris Bell's "I am the Cosmos" a way, with our built in vocal harmonizing abilities, and the fact we'd inserted as much Big Star DNA as we could into our own structure, we were kind of the right guys for it. I know, presumptuous...

Eventually we convinced the promoters we were up for it...and that led to 17 years of playing as Big Star around the world.

Did you ever end up recording at Ardent Studios?

Yes, we made a final Big Star album, 'In Space' which was released in 2005, at Ardent. I also made two albums with a project called "Orange Humble Band", where Jody Stephens was playing drums, and the Posies recorded a song there. So quite a bit!

You had a pretty meteoric rise with The Posies. Did you and Alex ever talk about success in the music business?

Haha. NO. We talked about nearly everything else.

Do you have any advice for musicians today about sustaining a career in music?

Not really. It's very individual what works at any time for any person. If there was a guidebook...well, it would already be out of date by the time you finished reading it. My life is improvised every day from what opportunities are out there. I will say this--the person that's younger than you, that's not got their shit together, that hasn't worked out their skills very well yet--that person could be John Lennon or Deadmau5 or whomever in a couple years. Never judge a flower from the bud. Encourage everyone. There's room for everyone to be successful. Other people's success around you will only benefit you.

Ken will join original Big Star drummer Jody Stephens along with Sharon Van Etten, Kurt Vile, Marshall Crenshaw, Pete Yorn, Richard Lloyd, Mike Mills (R.E.M.), Chris Stamey (The dB's), and a slew of other artists to celebrate the music of Big Star in a free concert in Central Park this summer.

Big Star's Third LIVECentral Park (New York)Sunday June 30thFree!

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