1993 was a great time to be an Alex Chilton fan…especially if it was the year you first got into his music.
Perhaps your introduction came via the big shout on Saturday Night Live from Adam Duritz, no less, who paid tribute to the Memphis rock icon by reworking the lyrics to the Counting Crows hit “Mr. Jones” to “I wanna be Alex Chilton” with no apparent apologies to Bob Dylan before singing “We all wanna be in Big Star” in the chorus. Over 23 years later, it remains the one cool thing that guy ever did.
And, of course, what Mats fan didn’t put Chilton on his or her radar the second that certain song from Pleased to Meet Me hit the speaker?
But it’s understandable if you felt underwhelmed when you picked up either the #1 Record/Radio City or Third/Sister Lovers two-fers that were out in stores during this time without ever hearing them before. Even more so if you dialed back even further and started with The Box Tops. In 1993, the power pop we were listening to at the time had serious edge, be it The Lemonheads or Matthew Sweet or Bash and Pop or Throwing Muses or Belly or The Breeders or Veruca Salt or even Nirvana when Kurt was at the height of his powers as a master pop songwriter. And for a young mind hopped up on Butch Vig, Andy Wallace and Steve Albini productions, some ears were a little too green to appreciate the brilliance of John Fry and Jim Dickinson amidst such a thick wall of guitar fuzz.
So, for me, this ‘ 93 lineup of Big Star comprised of Alex and Jody Stephens with Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer of The Posies—already white hot that year following the release of their classic 3rd LP Frosting On The Beater —really hit the spot. Yet with the uncanny guitar combination of Auer and Chilton, they managed to update the sound with a healthy balance of 120 Minutes crunch that certainly appealed to those of us who picked up on Big Star via The Replacements. That being said, Columbia was personally my first exposure to Big Star’s music, having picked it up on the good word of Holly George Warren in Rolling Stone back then and undoubtedly upon the approval of Paul, Bob, Slim, Tommy and Chris as well.
Now, having been listening to Big Star in all of its critically hyped splendor, Columbia: Live at University of Missouri 4/25/93, for me, remains the best live Big Star out there. And now as part of this past Record Store Day, the complete performance of the reunited Memphis pop icons’ blistering classic of a concert at the University of Missouri on April 25th of 1993 is finally available uncut and uninterrupted. And when you listen to this concert in its totality,
“The Ballad of El Goodo”, “Thank You Friends”, “Way Out West”… they all seem to speak directly to a generation of kids raised on John Hughes movies and R.E.M. cassettes even though they were written and recorded a good year or two before most of them were even born. Yet somehow, with this new lineup, that little extra amplification helped these songs feel right at home amongst the Weezer, Breeders and Belly songs we were all ingesting in great doses at the time. The performance of the late Chris Bell’s “I Am The Cosmos” with Chilton on lead vocals is a particularly special moment and a beautiful tribute to his fallen friend, while that wild cover of Todd Rundgren’s “Slut” offers a killer glimpse into what this version of Big Star might have sounded like had they gone into the studio immediately following this gig. As for the previously unreleased material, let’s just say the version of T. Rex’s “Jeepster” is quite possibly the best cover of the song on record, while a gorgeous reading of “Thirteen” retained the same sense of bruised innocence it harbored in 1972.
In a recent interview I had done with Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip, the conversation topic had gotten to Alex Chilton, and we had both come to the agreement that he was always a man who transcended the term “legend.” He was never a man of the past, but rather of wizened warrior of the here and now. Whenever you would hear his name in the context of Big Star, it was never “Alex Chilton of the 60s hitmaking pop group The Box Tops” but Alex Chilton of Big Star. And when he went solo, it was never strictly, “Here’s the new album from Alex Chilton of Big Star,” but rather, “Here’s the new Alex Chilton.” His was a name that transcended supplementation, mainly because the albums he was making as a solo act were just as good if not arguably better than anything he did with The Box Tops or Big Star, quite honestly.
But the way that Chilton and Jody Stephens performed those Big Star classics at the University of Missouri with Auer and Stringfellow as their second half truly helped skeptical fans like myself truly realize just how brilliant these songs were. In 2006, this Mach 2 lineup finally got around to making a studio album together called In Space, which remains one of the lost treasures of the Chilton universe. But it would have really been amazing if they had gotten into the studio with Jim Dickinson and John Fry back in 1994 to expound upon the momentum attained by this magnificent live album.
“Big Star wrote and recorded sophisticated, meticulously crafted pop songs but played them like true-blue rock-and-rollers, with the intensity, the edge and the grunge deliberately left in,” wrote legendary rock critic Robert Palmer in his liner notes that were featured in the original release as well as this reissue. “In the 1990s, this approach has become the very essence of guitar-band rock, especially in its ‘alternative’ manifestations.”
Over 20 years following its initial release, Palmer’s words ring truer than ever.