Counterbalance: Big Star’s ‘Third/Sister Lovers’

Lo they did rejoice, the bright and pure of voice. And the wrong shall fail and the right prevail. A 1978 (or 1974) cult classic is this week's Counterbalance.
Big Star
Third/Sister Lovers

Note: For those of you keeping score at home, Counterbalance has stepped away from the most acclaimed albums of all time and is instead examining the role of critical acclaim more broadly, using a wide range of albums as examples. Do not be alarmed.

Klinger: I must confess, once we made the decision to untether ourselves from the chronology of the Great List, I felt a little like a kid in a candy store. But with unlimited choice comes unlimited uncertainty. Where to begin? I found myself still thinking in terms of those albums for which critical acclaim is still inextricably tied to their overall cachet. And that led me right to Big Star.

You can’t tell the story of Big Star without talking about critics. It’s an essential part of the group’s backstory, much like when Jim Morrison saw a Native American on vacation that one time. Their first album, #1 Record, met with tremendous critical acclaim, but Stax Records’ inability to distribute it effectively led to dismal sales and the departure of guitarist songwriter Chris Bell. Then a PR guy from their label had the idea to host a rock writers’ convention in Memphis as a showcase for the group, which brought about an even greater groundswell of support. At which time Stax promptly went bankrupt, leaving their second album Radio City to languish in the warehouse somewhere in Memphis.

Following that further disappointment, bassist Andy Hummel left the group, leaving drummer Jody Stephens and songwriter/guitarist Alex Chilton to their own devices. The result, Third/Sister Lovers, wasn’t officially released until it seeped out unannounced in 1978, possibly without the official endorsement of the musicians. So it hits what appears to be the critical trifecta: 1) Massive critical appeal, 2) Minimal sales, and 3) A “lost” album with an interesting story behind it.

Mendelsohn: Yes. That is fascinating. Absolutely fascinating. Not to get off track right off the bat, but tell me again why you don’t like Radiohead? I mean, Big Star was a prominent influence on R.E.M., who was in turn a pretty big influence of Radiohead, and after listening to Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers, it is apparent that Thom Yorke and Co. also spent some time listening to the musings of Alex Chilton.

“Big Black Car” and “Holocaust” could very well have been written and released by Radiohead 20 years after the fact. What’s the deal, Klinger? I’ve spent the week listening to this record wondering where exactly it all went wrong for you. You like Big Star, you like R.E.M., but you aren’t on the Radiohead bandwagon. I’m confused.

Klinger: Because Radiohead never wrote a song as effervescent as “Thank You Friends”. Or even “Stroke It Noel”. It’s just that simple. Whatever you want to say about the darkness and bleakness and general alienation in many of the songs here, there still beats a pure pop heart in there somewhere. In fact, given the somewhat checked-out headspace Chilton was occupying, it’s possible that a lot of the bone-chilling dread that’s infused throughout this record is the handiwork of producer and notable Memphis eccentric Jim Dickinson, who took Chilton’s “you’re the producer” challenge to have his way with an already pretty stark 12-string guitar ballad called “Kanga Roo”. Dickinson added layer upon layer of spooky feedback atmospherics and scattershot drumming, and in the process created an impressionistic masterpiece that inspired a generation of oddballs.

Mendelsohn: That is true. The word “effervescent” certainly isn’t in Radiohead’s vocabulary. Unless there is a word for that in Esperanto. But it’s not just the atmospherics or the occasional fits of bleakness or alienation. There is the languid pacing, the stark piano or guitar balladry, Chilton’s near falsetto warbling and washed-out vocals, the waves of feedback — all of these things inform Radiohead’s music. Go back and listen to The Bends or OK Computer.

Klinger: I’ve done my time listening to Radiohead. Still, like those lovable Oxonian scamps, Chilton was clearly no stranger to willful perversity, and that’s often as clear in the peaks as it is in the valleys. The song on here that always kills me is “O Dana”, which seems to well up from out of nowhere to build up to a brilliant, shimmering chorus that stops just as soon as it starts. Chilton just leaves you hanging there, wishing he’d just come through once more with that “come on, come on”. But of course he doesn’t — because he’s Alex Chilton, and he would prefer not to. Instead we’re left to focus on the drugs and petty squabbles that are strewn all through the lyrics. It’s actually a pretty neat little encapsulation of his entire career as a refusenik extraordinaire.

Mendelsohn: “O Dana” also happens to be the track that I think typifies this record. It shows off flashes of brilliance, reels you in just enough, and then quits. That’s this record in a nutshell. I don’t want to just chalk it up to Chilton’s fickleness. Third/Sister Lovers just seems so incomplete — probably owing to the fact that the label just sort of released it. Does it bother you that this record plays almost like a demo tape, full of disparate ideas that could have gelled into something truly special?

Klinger: Well, I’d argue that it already did gel into something truly special, and I’m not sure if further polishing would have refined it. (Also, it wasn’t even Ardent that just sort of released it. Third was drifting around as a bootleg for a few years before the tiny indie label PVC released the first edition. It was later released by Ryko with a bunch of bonus tracks that make the album sound even sketchier, to my way of thinking.) The magic of Third is in its ramshackle nature, and I think that’s baked right into the songs as much as it’s rooted in the production or arrangements. In fact, several of the songs are made to seem even more fully formed thanks to some sumptuous string arrangements from Carl Marsh, who transforms songs like “Take Care” and elevates drummer Jody Stephen’s contribution “For You” into something far beyond its original simplicity.

At the same, whatever pleasure can be gleaned from Third/Sister Lovers is tempered by the understanding that this was an album that was made by some people who were barely keeping it together. Chilton was in the midst of a chaotic relationship with Lesa Aldridge, and while her contributions to the album are often felt more than heard (especially since Chilton is alleged to have wiped a lot of her recorded tracks in a fit of pique), the lunacy surrounding their romance is central to the album’s myth. Also to hear a lot of people tell it, much of the Memphis scene in the mid-1970s was awash in a sea of really janky drugs, the kind that make a song like “Holocaust” make sense. But it’s that whole push and pull between pop and paranoia that keeps me coming back to Third/Sister Lovers, even more so than their first two albums.

Mendelsohn: Now see, that little bit of context goes a long way to explaining the mystique of this record. Third/Sister Lovers transforms from being simply a precursor-to-alternative-music cult album to a tragic masterpiece birthed from the wreckage of a failing band that refused to let the weirdness drown out the pop that powers the majority of these tracks.

But I’m still left feeling like there is something missing. Although, that may have a lot to do with the drug-induced paranoia that permeates the record. Plus, Third/Sister Lovers is a bit of a junkie grab bag, sort of like the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St. The songs are brilliant, but the cohesion is lacking. What I’m really curious about, though, is that song “Jesus Christ”. Is there really a Christmas song on this record? Or is it some weird ironic statement? I get really confused every time it comes on.

Klinger: Yeah, that’s a curious one there, given how completely earnest it seems (but then again so can “Thank You Friends” if you can tune out the sneer in Chilton’s voice, and that beautiful “who made it all so probable” line). It’s worth noting, though, that there was also an odd undercurrent of religiosity running through that scene as well. Although he had left the group, Chris Bell was constantly grappling with his spirituality (among other things), and I understand that drummer Jody Stephens and producer John Fry would eventually come to identify as born-again Christians. So it’s hard to draw the line and say exactly where sarcasm ends and sincerity begins. That could explain why “Jesus Christ” was never covered by one of the more major alternative acts, who could have propelled the song into holiday Gap store ubiquity. It’s too overtly Christian-sounding for that, and too sarcastic-sounding to be embraced by the masses.

And ultimately, that’s the real point about Big Star — and “alternative” music, for lack of a better term, in general. There’s a certain type of person who listens to Big Star and hears the pop craftsmanship and the indelible melodies that lie just below the murk. And then there’s another type of person whose brain gets stuck on the not-conventionally-beautiful voices and the general off-ness of the whole thing. I’m at a loss to understand what neurological functions are at work there, but I’m convinced that they’re real. Is there a discipline that studies the psychology of taste? Because there’s something to that, I’m thinking. It’s pretty clear that critics, rock geeks, and the like are predisposed to hearing the beauty in the dirt and unearthing the shimmer that’s always under the surface of music even when it seems to be at its bleakest. That’s what draws these sorts — even decades after the group first sputtered out — to Big Star, and to Third/Sister Lovers in particular.