Big Star's first record

The Box Tops hit six more times, but had problems collecting the royalties. The band's producer, Dan Penn, didn't allow them to play on more than a handful of their own recordings, and Chilton wasn't allowed to contribute more than a couple of his own songs. He stormed off stage midway through a 1969 performance, moved to New York, and spent a year playing guitar in Washington Square. "The Box Tops are only marginally my records," he said a quarter of a century later. "I listen to them and I hear Dan Penn. I don't hear me."

When I play "The Letter," I don't hear Chilton either. His voice is roughened by thirty takes and a night's worth of drinking - it has none of the upper-register strain, and none of the sweetness, that makes his later work so memorable. In the early 1970s, Chilton's vocals were translucent - he sounded remarkably young. On "The Letter" he sounds much older, but nothing like his older self. What his two voices have in common is that both strain hard at the seams.

"Get me a ticket on an air-o-plane," Chilton sings. "Ain't got time to take a fast train/Lonely days are gone/I'm a-goin' home/My baby, she wrote me a letter." But Chilton's determination never translates into action: The ticket agent never responds. The reunion never takes place. Nothing really happens, and by the song's end we're still standing at the counter, begging for a seat. We never learn why Chilton scorned the girl, or how he managed to win her back. "Listen, mister, can't you see/I've got to get back to my baby" is the closest he comes to an explanation, before cutting himself off with a gruff, ambivalent "anyway."

His next band, Big Star, had a different trajectory: It was a spectacular failure in its own time, and a tremendous posthumous success. The adolescent indifference Chilton's "anyway" hinted at turned genuine, and painful. He spent a decade shuttling between New York and Memphis, worked as a lumberjack, and eventually took a job washing dishes in a New Orleans restaurant. By then a dozen hero-worshiping bands had claimed his indifference for their own, and turned it into a pose again -a stand-in for the indie-rock strategy of self-sabotage as preemptive strike (against, among other things, the very market forces Big Star had unsuccessfully courted). That Chilton himself had never chosen to promote aesthetics of beautiful failure was a central irony of his career. But perhaps because Chilton really was ambivalent, and always had been, his career wasn't really made up of choices.

Big Star's first record was released in 1972, but despite glowing reviews, it was barely distributed by the Stax label, which was then on the verge of collapse. It sold only 4,000 copies, and quickly disappeared from print. "This is off our first album, called #1 Record, which can't be found anywhere," Chilton told a radio audience a few years later.

Chilton's immediate response was to resume his aborted jasminlive career, then abort it again by allowing himself to be talked into a one-off Big Star reunion. Despite the absence of founding member Chris Bell - who'd also quit, and never did return - that performance went over so well that Big Star re-formed and released a second record, called Radio City (1974). This album won another round of rave reviews, but was hampered by the same distribution problems and sold even less than the first. The band broke up again, re-formed again (now an informal two-piece), and made one last record - Third/Sister Lovers (1974) - which continued the process of attrition by failing to be released at all. (A bowdlerized version was issued, semi-officially, in Europe, four years later.) As far as today's mainstream audience is concerned, Big Star's greatest success came twenty-five years after the band's break-up, when the producers of "That 70s Show" looked to Cheap Trick to record the sitcom's theme song, and Cheap Trick re-recorded #1 Record's "In The Street" as "That 70s Song." Chilton, who receives seventy dollars every time the program airs, took to calling it "That 70 Dollar Show."

It's Third/Sister Lovers that Chilton is best remembered for. "He was enjoying it to the extent that he would commit himself," the album's producer, Jim Dickinson, told me when I asked about the album's genesis. "Alex was an artist who'd been screwed really badly, twice, and you had to understand the 'fuck you' aspect. Which was: 'OK, I have proof that I'm going to be exploited and that I'm not going to be paid, and ten-to-one, whatever I do is going to get fucked up. So I'm going to be the one who fucks it up.'" As a result, the melodies on Third/Sister Lovers stopped just short of unraveling. Isolation and escape were the recurring themes: "Get me out of here/I hate it here" ("Nightime"). "This sounds a bit like goodbye/In a way it is, I guess" ("Take Care"). "Nothing can hurt me/Nothing can touch me/Why should I care/Driving's a gas/It ain't gonna last" ("Big Black Car"). In "Downs," a hymn to barbituates, Chilton sang, "Isolated as far as you go, I'm well versed in the walls of worst."

Big Star had feigned disinterest on its earlier albums; it's not hard to trace Kurt Cobain's anthemic sense of anhedonia back to the "I loved you/Well, never mind" of Radio City's "September Gurls." But on Third/Sister Lovers, the songs themselves seemed cobbled together, catch-as-catch-can. Chilton wrote the lyrics for "Jesus Christ" by turning pages in the Broadman Hymnal, and taking a line from every page; he wrote "O, Dana," for a girl he had a crush on, followed around for a week or so, but never really talked to. One of the best songs, "Stroke it Noel," was rewritten at the last minute, when a friend arrived at the studio with a string quartet. "They say we're lazy men," Chilton sang in the revised, semi-improvised lyric: "Drinking our white wine/We could go right insane/'Cause we can buy the time." But the record was less haphazard than it seemed: Listen to the way the interweaving of vowels in the first line (thEY sAY we're LAzy men) - and the heavy, staccato beat of they, say, we're, and 'ay - cut against the grain of the almost unstressed second line: The juxtapositions expressed the exact opposite of Chilton's lyric, and putting sound and sense together, you were left with: "I can do this, and choose not to."

These days, the Box Tops records (which are well worth listening to), #1 Record and Radio City (which are available on a single CD), and Third/Sister Lovers (which was finally released, in something approaching a definitive version, on Rykodisk in 1992) are the only example of Chilton's work you're likely to find in your local megastore. But Chilton, who lives semi-reclusively in New Orleans, and continues to play and record, did release one more masterpiece.

A bookend, of sorts, to Third/Sister Lovers, Like Flies on Sherbert (1978) was made with the same producer, Jim Dickinson, and featured many of the same Memphis studio musicians. It, too, was a ramshackle affair; according to Robert Gordon's excellent history, It Came From Memphis, Chilton, had spent a good many hours hanging out at CBGB's, in New York, during the club's mid-seventies glory days, and like the punks he'd met and mentored there, he was drunk and contentious throughout much of the recording process.

The editors of the New Trouser Press Record Guide said that the result sounds "like a bunch of drunken louts running amok in a studio with no producer to restrain or guide them," and the record as a whole "painfully confirms the degradation of a once-major talent." But if Chilton had wrecked himself, he'd done so gloriously: Like Flies on Sherbert reached back to Southern slave songs (on a manic cover of the Carter Family's arrangement of "No More the Moon Shines on Lorena") and Sun Records rockabilly (on the Jerry Lee Lewis-isms of "Girl after Girl" and "She's The One That's Got It"), scraped away the refuse, and forced a dark, anarchic vein of Southern music through the narrowest of apertures - punk rock, as it was played by the Ramones and Modern Lovers. The album returned Chilton to his garage-band roots, and allowed subsequent generations of punk and garage-bands to reach back to the roots of rock itself.

You hear clear traces of Sherbert in chaturbat groups like the Cramps, who are alleged to have stolen a car and driven to Memphis to record with Chilton; the Gories, who were also produced by Chilton, and sparked a Detroit rock revival which culminated in bands like the White Stripes; and the Replacements, who wanted to record with Chilton (and were, in fact, produced by Jim Dickinson). Like Flies on Sherbert was the first record to take Big Star's collapse as a starting point, and to set about the difficult task of building again. And it was Chilton's rawest, roughest, most revealing work.

But only in the past few years did the record become widely available--the version released in 1998, on Memphis's Peabody label is preferable to the poorly sequenced and incomplete album released in Britain last year. Like Chuck Berry's best songs, it's a rock and roll Rosetta Stone, and well worth seeking out. Come Friday, I'll try to post a sampling of the songs mentioned above. In the meantime, here are a few songs about dreaming, and dream girls, building up to Big Star's own, epic "Dream Lover." Chilton told Dickinson he only played ""Dream Lover" thrice in his life: Once when he wrote it, once when he played it for his girlfriend, and once when he played it in the studio. "One of those times was one time too many," he said. As is, it's a spider-web of a song: You're never quite sure if Chilton's lover is the woman of his dreams, or the kind of woman you only meet in dreams. Which, I suppose, is party the point....

I just thought I could do better

At its best, American music has mirrored dips in the nation's emotional life, fluctuations in the marketplace, and America's ability to live up to its own, assimilationist ideals. At worst, it's recorded the occasional collective failure to do so. But in the case of Sylvester Stewart - who is better known as Sly Stone, and was perhaps America's most popular musician at the time of my birth - the promise was so great, and the betrayal so grand, that Stewart himself is squirreled away from view, releasing none of the music he's said to be recording, at a Garboesque remove from the world.

There's been no word from Sly Stone in well over a decade, and no sight of him since 1993, when he showed up, unexpectedly, at his own Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and left without saying a word. His last known visitor came and left in 1996. So it was a shock to see that one of the records displayed most prominently on Starbucks' counters this year bore the credit: "Produced by Sylvester Stewart."

The album itself wasn't much to write home about: The latest remix record to come along, it features artists like Big Boi, Moby, and D'Angelo looping, rapping over, and otherwise updating decades-old Sly and The Family Stone tracks. (A Sony Records representative I spoke with declined to say whether the album really was produced by Stone, or merely approved by his representatives.) But its appearance - alongside that of the fourth greatest-hits album Stone's fans have been treated to in lieu of a proper career retrospective - raises old questions about the aspects of Stone's career we've chosen to celebrate, and the lengths we've gone to in avoiding others.

As of this writing, Stone's best work, There's a Riot Going On, can only be bought in bowdlerized form, with the title track unlisted and the once-provocative album art (a red-white-and-black American flag) replaced with a snapshot of Sly and the Family Stone performing a stadium show. Despite the deluge of greatest-hits albums, five of Sly and The Family Stone's eleven LPs are out of print, with the rest waiting to be remastered. And for all the pages devoted to James Brown, Marvin Gaye, and Sam Cooke, Stone's name has gone almost unmentioned in the music books. (An excellent oral history by San Francisco rock critic Joel Selvin finally appeared in 1998, but not one of the seven New York City bookstores I checked stocked the title, which I finally tracked down on Amazon.)

Girls, guns, and ungodly amounts of cocaine all played their roles in Stone's fall from grace. "He was the cocaine king," a bodyguard named Hamp 'Bubba' Banks told Selvin. "I saw him going down Hollywood Boulevard with a little violin case and he looked like the Morton salt woman." But James Brown liked his angel dust, Marvin Gaye lived and died in a cocaine-induced psychosis, and Sam Cooke was killed in sad, squalid, circumstances - and these facts are mere footnotes when we compare them to the accomplishments. Why should Stone be the exception? Perhaps it's because, more than only other musician of his generation, Stone had the confidence - and chutzpah - to present himself as the star-spangled incarnation of American dreams. And so, Stone's fall from grace was fraught with more symbolism than any career could bear.

He was born in Denton, Texas in 1943; the Great Migration carried the family to California, where Stone's father worked as a janitor and his mother joined the local Pentecostal church. Both parents were musical, and at the age of four, Stone joined his siblings in The Stewart Four. (In 1952, they cut a gospel record - "On The Battlefield of The Lord" b/w "Walking in Jesus' Name" - and Sly sang lead.) By the age of nineteen, Stone was a DJ (on KSOL), the author of a national dance craze (The Swim), and the in-house producer for a San Francisco hit factory called Autumn Records (where he recorded the Beau Brummels, Bobby Freeman, and early incarnations of the Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead). He wore Beatle boots, dated white girls, and drove a green Jaguar. He never had to cross over; only cash in.

In 1967 he tried, with the kind of band A&R; executives only dream about: Sly and The Family Stone was multi-gendered and multi-ethnic. Most of the Livejasmin members were, in fact, related; everyone sang, and everyone played one or more instruments. (Sly could play most of them.) Bassist Larry Graham - who "invented" the slap technique of playing his instrument, and now records with the artist intermittently known as Prince - was a virtuoso, and the band itself must have looked like a walking PSA. They honed their chops in an East Village where, at their best, they might have gone up against the Velvet Underground.

Their first album, A Whole New Thing, mixed rock and roll with soul, gospel, doo-wop and, surreptitiously, jazz. It was funky, hard-nosed, and fairly uncompromising music, but the sound wasn't quite formed, and a dismal showing in the marketplace inspired Sly to come up with an idiot-proof variation on the theme.

The songs that followed - "Dance to the Music" and "Everyday People" come to mind - were full of flashes; deep textures and brilliant, disconnected passages that form the backdrop of more than a few hip-hop classics. But the cynicism broke through: "He hated it," Stone's saxophone player told Selvin. "'Dance to the Music,' dance to the medley, dance to the schmedley. It was so unhip to us. The beats were glorified Motown beats. We had been doing something different, but [those] beats weren't going over. So we did the formula thing."

The results were influential. Stone's performance at the 1969 Newport Jazz Festival stirred Miles Davis to form his first electric band, his songwriting allowed Motown artists to look beyond the top forty, and his style and sartorial sense inspired Prince, P-Funk, Andre 3000, etc. By the early seventies, Sly had supplanted Brian Wilson as a prime architect of the Gold Coast sound, and his band's multi-voiced, many-layered arrangements provided a clear alternative to James Brown's severe, stripped down structures.

The group made its fortune, and a show-stopping Woodstock set turned Sly into a superstar. But instead of reveling in America's embrace, Sly traded the Booker T. Washingtonian integrationism he'd championed for a sort of Du Boisian disconnect: On his sole 1970 release, the "Thank You Falletinme Be Mice Elf Again" single, Stone thanked his audience for the party, but explained that he "could never stay." On There's a Riot Going On (the album title was a rejoinder to Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On?"), he recast his heretofore formulaic invitations to stand, sing, or dance: "Feel so good/inside myself/I don't need to move," he explained in the album's opening lines. And, in case we'd missed the point, he ended the album with a slow second draft of "Thank You": A few years earlier, Sly had sung about making it if we tried. On "Thank You (For Talking To Me Africa)" the "you can make it" trailed off into a scream. Riot's first single, "Family Affair," spent three weeks atop the pop charts, and sold two million copies (the album itself sold a million). But, having taken it home and absorbed the message (which Greil Marcus likened to "a jar of acid thrown in America's face") a goodly percentage of Stone's listeners seemed to turn their backs on the band. Sly and the Family Stone never hit the top ten again.

Instead, Stone began to break up the Family, and become his own worst enemy. In 1970, he missed twenty-six out of eighty concerts. The following year, he missed twelve out of forty. When he did show up, actual riots broke out, and when he appeared on television, he was often late and always stoned. Rolling Stone headlines from the time - "Sly Explains All as Washington Burns"; "Sly Slips, Gate Dips, Sis Skips"; "Sly Busted Again; Que Sera, Sera"; "The Struggle For Sly's Soul At The Garden" - read like the stage directions for an on-screen suicide.

Sly made other, excellent records, but the album titles - Heard You Missed Me, Well I'm Back!, or Back On The Right Track - sounded like apologies. In time, he took to singing in a whisper (see "Sylvester," above). Arrested on drug charges, parole violations, or failure to make his child support payments, he spent stretches of the eighties in jail, or hiding from the authorities. He was said to have become homeless and - eventually - hunchbacked. A composition called "Eek-Ah-Bo-Static Automatic," appeared nineteen years ago, on the soundtrack of an affirmative-action farce called Soul Man - it was Stone's final contribution to American song.

But Stone's fate was't entirely of his own making: In a neat reversal of the stock rock narrative, the American mainstream welcomed his cynical overtures, but couldn't make sense of his authenticity, and ambivalence (about, other things, the American mainstream). And yet, that abivalence - with its neat echo of Du Bois' "double consciousness" - told us more about what it is to be human in America than integrationist fantasies like "Everyday People" ever did.* That it also spoke to realities the mainstream has yet to accept made Stone's Starbucks' CD a doubly ironic artifact - proof positive that, profitable as it might be to remix and recycle our history, the original article carries a price we're still unwilling to pay.

This isn't exactly subtle in Kayne West, either.

BONUS GRAFS FROM WEB DUBOIS' THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK:

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, - an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife, - this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.

The Qualities: Doo-wop a la Sun Ra. There's something magically off-kilter about this song, which should be familiar to MW afficionados, and we're using it to kick off a four-day post of our New Year's mix. This is the fourth draft - it takes us a few weeks to get these things just right, which they never quite are. There's no real subtext to it - no socio-poilitical agendas, no women we're sending semi-coded messages to, just songs we've fallen more or less in love with - or, at worst, songs that seemed like good segues.

Small Island Pride: AKA Theophilus Woods, was born in Grenada, and recorded the two songs you'll find here in Trinidad, in 1956. We found both on a Smithsonian/Folkways compilation called Calypso Awakening, which contains the recordings one Emory Cook made during Carnival's not-quite-post-colonial-but-getting-there heyday. Not quite commercial releases, not quite field recordings, they're the only tracks I've heard that gave me some idea of what these songs must have sounded like in their natural habitat. Small Island Pride, who recorded with minimal accompaniement, is especially good. This track (and "Carnival Celebration," which kicks off tomorrow's post) = highly, highly, highly, highly, highly recommended.

The Paul Mwanga & Depiano songs are both from a German compilation of Congolese music circa 1961. The liner notes for track 3 read: "Merengue in Kikongo, recorded on 6.6.1961.... Mwanga sings about the enemies of Congo's independence, who wantg exploitation to continue, how they come and go and that their road should be blocked." (Preferably with bodies?) Track four - a Cha Cha Cha - takes "Ah, Mobutu!" for a chorus.

We know almost nothing about the Buena Vista Fight Club, but according to Australia's Fat Planet, this Spanish-Civil-War-Meets-William-Gibson mash-up was big whoop in Croatia. "Broadway Jungle" = early Maytals at their Tootsiful best. And "I'm Going Back To Africa" is from the third disk of Trojan's Calypso Box, which seems to consist of Calypsos recorded in England, for the PYE label (which later signed the Kinks) - also on the eve of Trinidadian independence. A nice contrast to Small Island Pride, and a lovely Calypso in its own right....

Tracks 8-15 (out of a total 27) tomorrow!

So many weepy white guys, so little time!

I liked alot of what other people liked only probably not as much as they did:

Damian Marley, Kanye, Wolf Parade, Iron & Wine, Sufjan Stevens, Gorillaz, Danger Doom, Strokes, Futurehounds, Three 6 Mafia, Amerie, LCD Soundsystem, Seu Gorge, New Pornographers, Soft, Sigur Ros...

The blog Neiles Life has his top 20 indie/pop/rock songs you can download here including a worthy Teenage Fanbclub single.

Martha Wainwright, whose song "Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole" is crushing and triumphant and -- unlike the post I took great joy in writing for it -- doesn't contain a single false note.

Noz at Cocaine Blunts... has posted his top rap singles for the year. Its a thorough effort but the results seem to suggest that whoever stole the soul didn't return it in 2005. I think Antoine de Saint-Exupery best characterized the current state of rap when he posed: "Are we making chewing gum for men or men for chewing gum?" Though to be fair, he posed the question backstage at the VMAs, when he was still out-of-sorts for receiving no nominations and because a member of The Game's entourage had just cussed his ass out for wearing a cape.

So I guess moistworks owes you a list, and they are songs you wont be seeing anywhere else:

The Top 25 Songs of 1978

We try not to be too didactic here, but I think this list is basically definitive. That said, not too much thought went into this. In fact every minute spent was maybe 59 seconds too long.

This list isn't particulary reverent to Music Hall-of-Famers; notable omissions include Springsteen, Queen, Kinks, Dire Straits, Roxy Music, Jackson Browne, Black Sabbath, Dylan, The Clash, Clapton. Theres no Billy Joel songs from The Stranger. Though I love what Billy Joel is doing with his life: crashing Renaults in the sand, embarrasing himself at polo matches. Hitting rock bottom just takes forever in the Hamptons. And not a crumb from Fleetwood Mac's Rumors. But that record has reached a point of such classic rock ubiquity now, that I can't hardly imagine it actually coming into existence for a first time. It's like trying to admire one's own lungs.

Nor have I tried to imagine I was a blogger back in 1978 (i might have run a Blue Oyster Cult blog) and draft a playlist that would have been prophetic and hiply contrarian for the times: no Kraftwerk, Stranglers, Television, Big Star, Buzzcocks, DEVO or The Jam.

No, I don't make lists very often, but when I do, Im all heart - I make them on nothing but pure instinct. Thats why most of my grocery lists just have the word 'BACON' repeated in capital block letters from top to bottom Shining-style.

Here we tell ourselves stories to make sense of the world

A blond walks into a carwash. But what do we do when the narratives fragment, and the waves of sense recede? What do we make of the ice flows of meaning? A screenwriter pulls onto his street, only to find his house burned to the ground and his dog lying dead in the driveway. His wife runs out of the neighbor's house; her dress is torn and bloodied. My god! says the screenwriter. It was terrible, says the wife. Your agent came by. He shot the dog, burned the house. Raped me. Wait, says the screenwriter. Did you say my agent was here? Meanwhile, the rest of us get stuck with Syrianas, and Aeon Flux. Well, it'll take more than that to answer the nagging questions this website was designed to explore: Where does freedom end, and intellectual property begin? Are ostriches birds, or mammals? Should we register to vote? Why do the terrorists hate planes and public transportation? At least we're American, we tell ourselves. We live in America, we think in American, we only even date Americans. But the more we repeat it, the less things seems to mean.

Take, for instance, the Jews. Or, better yet, the Wu-Tang Clan: Can it be/That it was all so simple then? Just a few years ago, we were little boys and girls, reading Ranger Rick and dreaming about komodo dragons. Now that we're older, we spend our time worrying over world affairs and reading as many books as we can on National Security. We've read Ghost Wars, Assassin's Gate, Platform, The Year of Magical Thinking. We've put "Planes Gone Wild!" on our Netflix queues, and listened to Hendrix's "Third Stone From The Sun" over and over again - sometimes on pause. But the more we read, watch, and listen, the less sense things seem to make: Once again, the Wu-Tang Clan: "Tears fell from our daughter's head/As she cried giving the white man head." Is there out there a more elegant summarization of the human condition? If so, where, or why not? Just thinking about it makes our heads spin. So: If anyone's got ideas/suggestions/mantras, or /koans. leave them in the comment box, below. We're still here - and we're listening.

That's right, folks: Thanks to Daddy's credit cards, we bought three of these babies, for $3,650 a pop. And, thanks to our patrician disdain for intellectual property laws, the first thing we did when back in Astoria was toss 'em up on the internet. So: Don't let the labels fool ya: The Cosmic Rays and The Qualities were both Sun Ra projects - early efforts to solidify what our nation's leading music critics have come to call "a sound." What kind of sound? We think of it as something mid-way between a toaster and an elephant: A great big sound, and a bit burnt around the edges. And lest you think this sound of Sun Ra's goes unrecognized in the slimy, beer-soaked corners of our indie rock universe, we're also presenting Hoboken fuzz-merchants Yo La Tengo, with a multi-voiced interpretation of "Somebody's In Love." In which somebody always seems to be in love with the guy or gal to the left of them. And a certain, secret someone might just fall in love with you.