Being a major influence on R.E.M. pretty much automatically makes a band one of the primary sources of what would become alternative and indie rock. Such is the case with the early 1970s rock band Big Star. For proof that this influence is not simply secondhand via Athens, Georgia’s finest, do yourself the favor of watching the 2012 documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me.
Big Star singer and guitarist Alex Chilton first become famous as the 16-year-old kid who sang the 1967 #1 song “The Letter” (“Gimmie a ticket for an ae-ro-plane…”) by The Box Tops. Four decades later, however, his name is probably better known to more people not for singing million-selling singles but for being in a band that hardly ever sold any records at all. (Thanks at least in part to that one song by The Replacements.)
On Saturday, June 13, scores of Bostonians will gather at Brighton Music Hall to honor Chilton, who was born and raised in Memphis, lived in New York City, and died in New Orleans five years ago. The idea for the show dates back to last year’s Americana Music Festival and Conference in Nashville. Boston-area digital marketer and music promoter Dino Cattaneo approached Chilton biographer Holly George-Warren, who was at a book reading with Big Star drummer and lone surviving member Jody Stephens. Cattaneo had—along with his wife Susan—only recently thought of the idea of an Alex Chilton tribute, and he asked George-Warren if she would like to participate.
“When she accepted,” Cattaneo told me via email, “I knew that I had to actually put the show together.”
In doing so, he recruited Big Star cover band Sister Lovers, Berklee professors Bonnie Hayes and Susan Cattaneo, 2014 Boston Music Awards winners Will Dailey and Ruby Rose Fox, and fellow Beantown musicians Dennis Brennan, Jenee Halstead, and Christian McNeill. Before any of these take the stage, however, George-Warren will read from her book A Man Called Destruction.
And that Jody Stephens fella, who played on all three Big Star albums with Chilton…he’ll be there, too. Stephens was kind enough to speak to me by phone from Memphis about Big Star and the tribute show.
Have you participated in any other tribute shows similar to the upcoming one?
I did something with Holly down in Nashville during the Americana Music Fest. I was already there, and that was fun. Other than that, it’s the occasional Big Star’s Third live show. That’s pretty amazing to be a part of. [Former Alex Chilton collaborator] Chris Stamey put this production together and it is epic. Chris is amazing. There’s so many people involved and there’s a string section, too. And, you know, plane tickets and hotel rooms and all that. But boy did we underestimate the power of Chris Stamey. We even did it in Australia and that blows my mind! Not to mention Seattle, and L.A., and New York twice, and Memphis, and Austin, Texas.
Tell me about the unfortunate experience that you had in Cambridge in 1974 when you opened for Badfinger?
We had a van and a trailer. It was parked in a parking lot with an attendant. But somehow during the course of the evening, somebody unhooked the trailer and stole the van with the guitars in it and the amps. I think we had a small trailer which held my drums, so I got lucky that they didn’t grab my drums. We borrowed equipment from a group called The Sidewinders. A guy named Andy Paley was in The Sidewinders, and I think his brother, and Billy Squire I think. They were really nice folks to let us borrow their equipment.
Just to speak to the venue, it was called The Performance Center, and it had theater seating as well as tables, I think. It had a Bose sound system, so it was brilliant place to see a band. It was perfect. It was an awesome venue to play. I don’t know if it still exists. Apparently not.
What surprises you about the songs that have taken on post-Big Star lives of their own?
Of all the Big Star songs that have been covered, the one that surprises me most is people covering “Kangaroo” [from Third/Sister Lovers]. This Mortal Coil did it, Beck has covered it live, Jeff Buckley – I actually saw Jeff do it live, it was amazing. It’s remarkable how many people have covered that song. It wasn’t the obvious one for people to cover. “September Gurls,” [covered by The Bangles] “The Ballad of El Goodoo” [covered by Evan Dando], those I can understand. “Kangaroo,” for me, was such an amazing capture of where Alex was emotionally, and with his lifestyle. That’s what the magic was of it, to me.
And, of course, Cheap Trick’s version of “In the Street” became the theme to That 70s Show.
Yeah. I wish I’d helped write that song. I haven’t seen the figures of what it makes. Alex and Chris [Bell, original Big Star guitarist] wrote that song in ’71, and years later a TV show picks it up. It’s mind-blowing. It’s cool.
Was there ever a period of your life in which Big Star seemed like a distant memory, almost a lark, or were there always reminders of it?
There always seemed to be reminders. I went to Europe for five months in 1978. I arrived in London in March and left London in August, and spent a little time on the continent. There was always something in the press about Big Star, whether it was someone looking to buy a Big Star album or there was a band that referenced Big Star or a writer that referenced Big Star. There was always at least one thing in a publication. Then in the very early 80s, Mike Mills and Peter Buck started talking about Big Star in their R.E.M. interviews. There always seemed to be something.
BOSTON TRIBUTE TO ALEX CHILTON. SAT 6.13. BRIGHTON MUSIC HALL. 158 BRIGHTON AVE., ALLSTON. 617.779.01c40. 6PM/18+/$15. CROSSROADSPRESENTS.COM/BRIGHTON-MUSIC-HALL.