Big Star's story is beautifully told on 'Nothing Can Hurt Me'
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Like so many influential bands whose offspring proved more financially fruitful than their own offerings, Big Star resides in that nearly untouchable sphere alongside the Velvet Underground and the Stooges — seminal groups who made incredible albums and fell apart before realizing the importance held in their own work.
Since those days more than 40 years ago, the Stooges have reunited off and on to put on blistering shows and record new music. The Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed and John Cale have made great music and even reunited briefly in 1992. There are other bands that enjoyed such a broken but ultimately successful arc, of course.
But Big Star never got to have their moment in the sun. Shortly after the turmoil surrounding the band and the increasingly commercialized musical landscape splintered the enterprise, Chris Bell was killed in a car accident. And though a reconstituted Big Star reunited in the 1990s and started to see their work appreciated, their leader, Alex Chilton, died of a heart attack in 2010, a conditioned exacerbated by his lack of health insurance.
Big Star’s story is one of pop brilliance, and it’s one without the happy ending so many bands got to enjoy. But it is a hell of a story, and it’s one that’s set to be told in a documentary titled Nothing Can Hurt Me. Hopefully, the film will help bring the band out of merely the realms of musicians and other like-minded aficionados.
In anticipation of the documentary (to be released this summer), the producers have unleashed a double-LP soundtrack of rough mixes, alternate takes and demos that span Big Star’s three records, dabbles in late-70s solo outings and constructs an alternate history of the band that feels nearly as thorough as their sweeping 2009 four-disc box set, Keep an Eye on the Sky.
That history, of course, was one of near genius undercut by poor management, flagging record sales and tragedy. Big Star’s three proper records are rightly hailed as classics. That term is so fitting, in fact, that there’s an immediate sense of familiarity and timelessness upon the first listen of any of their albums. That speaks highly of the influence the held on the great bands and tastemakers that came after them, both within the realm of “power pop” and elsewhere.
The music here never feels unfinished; indeed, if this was a listener’s first exposure to Big Star, it would be believable to hear this and think this was simply a “greatest hits” collection. Where it does differ from the studio masters is that it does feel a little looser at times, with laughs and studio cues giving the set a light-hearted feel that belies the heaviness of the subjects.
Take “Feel,” the first track on their 1972 debut #1 Record. It carries a fun melody, upbeat guitar line and bright drums while Bell strains his voice over a tale of rejection. The dichotomies in the band’s approach are even more stark when taking “In the Street,” an anthem to teenage loitering, and placing it alongside Chilton’s chilling “Holocaust,” which carries the same, nearly unbearable weight of Neil Young’s “Soldier.” It all points to the ultimate mission statement of Big Star’s music — this band’s songs rocked, but those songs were haunting.
The band also fell apart, a piece of the history that isn’t ignored on Nothing Can Hurt Me. Bell’s solo “Better Save Yourself” and “I Am the Cosmos” are included on side four, along with Chilton’s “All We Ever Got From Them Was Pain.” They’re songs with tremendous weight that fit in nicely with the incomplete history, and reveal the road map the band might have followed had history been kinder.
So in the end, the story feels unresolved. It likely always will; while they had a nice revival in the past two decades in terms of recognition, Bell wasn’t there to enjoy it, and Chilton isn’t here today to see his band’s story reach closure. But we still have the music, and thanks to Nothing Can Hurt Me, today we have a little more of it.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org