I've been built up and trusted, broke down and busted,
But they'll get theirs and we'll get ours if you can
Just hold on. — "Ballad of El Goodo," Big Star
t began with a number-one record. In 1967, Dan Penn took a 16-year-old Alex Chilton and his band the Box Tops into American Sound Studio in Memphis and recorded "The Letter." It ended on March 17, 2010, in New Orleans when Chilton collapsed while mowing his lawn and died.
What happened during the 43 years in between isn't always easy to define. What is certain, though, is that in spite of his mercurial nature and a seemingly deliberate attempt to court obscurity and commercial disaster, Chilton became a hero to generations of independent-minded musicians. Big Star, Chilton's post-Box Tops project, is widely recognized as the definitive American power-pop group and possibly the most influential cult band since the Velvet Underground. Although the group failed to produce a hit in the 1970s, their music has become retroactively synonymous with the era because of the sitcom That '70s Show, which debuted in 1998 using Chilton's "In the Street" as a theme song.
On Saturday, May 15th, Big Star, with the assistance of several special guests, will honor Chilton's singular and enduring music by breaking out all the should-have-been hits like "In the Street," "September Gurls," and "Stroke It Noel" for one last show at the Levitt Shell in Overton Park.
"I guess 'last' means different things to different people," says Jody Stephens, Big Star's drummer and the only person to play with the band in all of its various incarnations.
"It may be the last time that this group of musicians comes together," Stephens continues, singling out guest artists like Van Duren of the Baker Street Regulars, songwriter Amy Speace, and R.E.M.'s Mike Mills, who are sitting in with the band as a way of paying last respects to Chilton. Stephens says that nobody in the current permutation of the group, which includes John Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies, is comfortable carrying on as Big Star. "But this is not the last time I'm going to play these songs," Stephens says, turning his attention to a show bill hanging on the wall at Ardent Studio that describes the group's October 29, 1994, appearance at the New Daisy Theatre as a "Farewell U.S. Performance." "Last is something that looks good on posters," he says.
Chilton always had a complicated relationship with his hometown. Had he lived a little longer, this weekend's concert in Overton Park would have been his second appearance in Memphis with Big Star since the erroneously dubbed "farewell" show at the Daisy. It would have been the band's first set at the Shell since a 1974 concert, which was recorded direct to two-track and eventually released by Rykodisc in 1992 as Big Star: Live. The concert had all the makings of a triumphant homecoming. It has since been re-imagined as a musical wake.
Chilton isn't the easiest man to honor. He didn't like to dwell on the past and wasn't always comfortable with the idea that his work with Big Star lived up to its reputation. Tribute shows don't sound like the sort of thing the famously cantankerous honoree would be inclined to participate in if he had a choice in the matter. As Stringfellow says in an interview for Nothing Can Hurt Me, a soon-to-be-completed Big Star documentary, "It would be weird and probably the most unnerving thing Alex could do if one day he said, 'Yeah, I'll answer your questions.'"
"He told us matter-of-factly that he didn't want to be interviewed," says Nothing Can Hurt Me director Danielle McCarthy, who will be visiting Memphis throughout May wrapping up her documentary.
"He said, 'It's not the sort of thing I'm inclined to do,'" says McCarthy's creative partner Drew DeNicola, who wants to get the syntax exactly right.
"But it's more about the material than it is about the personalities," Stephens says, refocusing the conversation on the things that really matter. Instead of remembering the band's notorious feuds and failures, he connects to the group's creative moments.
"Something just clicked for me when we were playing the 'Ballad of El Goodo,' Stephens says, describing the moment when he first became aware that Big Star was doing something different. "That moment was very special to me. It was just an amazing song with great harmonies and unusual guitar sounds."
Additional artists scheduled to appear at the Alex Chilton tribute include original Big Star member Andy Hummel, Brendan Benson of the Raconteurs, Norwegian recording artist Sondre Lerche, and soul and jazz singer Susan Marshall. Ardent recording artists Star & Micey open the show.
Tribute to Alex Chilton
Levitt Shell, Overton Park
Saturday, May 15th
Showtime is 7 p.m., tickets are $20