Tuesday, May 26, 2009


Just released...the audio version of the book,.  

Some housekeeping to start the week...By request, here's a larger version of one of the photos in the book of Big Star performing at the Rock Writers Convention.  The photos were taken from a contact sheet, quite small, and very dark so they were difficult to work with as you might imagine. 
Here's a link to more about the Big Star boxset:

I reread Bud Scoppa's article last night (link below) and it got me thinking a bit about why Big Star has been often imitated but never duplicated.  One main reason I think is that Big Star didn't confuse melodies with chord progressions.  A lot of power pop sounds to me like someone came up with a (jangly) chord progression and then kind of strung a (predictable) melody across it.  You can almost hum the melody as you're listening to a song for the very first time.  Big Star wrote melodies that stood on their own.  Listen to the instrumental track for any Big Star song and you'll be at a loss to imagine or predict the melody.  

Thanks again to everyone for your positive comments about the book so far.  As you might imagine, writing a book about something people feel very passionate about (and know a lot about ) is a bit daunting.  But after holding my breath for a while awaiting for public opinion, I'm exhaling and relaxing.  If you like the book, please consider leaving positive feedback at Amazon.com (link in the column to the right).  It definitely helps to get the word out.  And while you're at it, fill in your Big Star collection.  If you don't have all three discs, now's the time to stock up for summer and get ready for the box set.  

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day.  Just back from a week cleaning out my mother-in-law's home near Boston (anyone looking for a fixer-upper right on the ocean?).  Three stories, one huge dumpster filled to the top, and no internet access.  Fortunately, The Harvard radio station was having a Dylan marathon with seemingly everything he ever recorded, including a lot of boots (being Harvard they might have some access to some good lawyers just in case...).  Thanks to all for your posts and notes.  I'll be back in the Big Star galaxy of stars tomorrow.  In the meantime, dig this just-posted Big Star piece by Bud Scoppa (who if I'd decided to expand the scope of who I interviewed for the book would have been at the top of the list...)  

Monday, May 18, 2009

Happy Monday.  A few notes before heading down the highway to Boston for the week.  

Heard from John Fry at Ardent.  The Big Star box set is slated for a September 15th release.  Details as they become available.

Larry (blogger) raised a few points in a reply to one of my recent posts.  (He agreed with me – and Alex – about that the Radio City lyrics are effective at creating an overall impression or vibe for each song.  You don't need to break them down line by line.)  When I played with Alex in 1981 we were doing at soundcheck at the Mudd Club and I heard guitarist Jim Duckworth call Alex "Butch".  I quizzed Jim about it and he said, "Yeah, that's Alex's nickname."  So for 28 years I thought that I had cracked some secret code to the lyrics to September Gurls ("I was your Butch, you were touched").  Even had a little part about it in the book.  Then I asked Alex, John Fry, and Jody Stephens about it and no one could remember Alex ever being called Butch.  So the mystery remains...

As far as The Blue Reimondos and Peter LaBonne (in the book)...I've got it in mind to do a long piece about him soon and post a few mp3s once I figure that out.  One of the most wildly talented musicians I've ever heard anywhere, he's so far off the grid (he lives in a cabin in a remote part of the Adirondacks - mostly recording for his own amusement / edification and a few lucky friends) he gives a whole new meaning to the term "outsider".   He can be heard on the New Orleans sessions Richard Hell did in the 1980s with Zig Modeliste (fantastic guitar solo on The Hunter Was Drowned)  and his only solo disc: Meditation Garden (on Travis Chandler's Sonic Trout label).   (Yours truly did the cover art – it's a good collection of some of Pete's more recent low-fi cabin recordings.  He plays all the instruments.  His thing is so unique it'd be almost possible for him to record with other musicians at this point.)  

Keep those cards a letters coming.  

Friday, May 15, 2009

Friday morning.  Had a nice note from David Bell (Chris Bell's brother) about the book in which he expressed appreciation for presenting a sensitive topic in a balanced way.  If I'd been writing a Big Star bio rather than a book about a single record (that Chris didn't play on) I would have definitely included a more in-depth balanced picture of Chris than the rather skewed (and somewhat erroneous and / superficial) portrait that's been painted over the years.  It's really a shame that the sensationalist stuff gets amplified and the human side gets lost when it comes to rock and roll (one reason I think that being Bob Dylan is probably one of the most difficult jobs in the world if you're Robert Zimmerman).  As I've always maintained: genius usually comes with a price tag that few can comfortably pay.  

Here's a few unpublished excerpts from my interview with David for the book

At times Chris could be reserved  but if he knew you and was comfortable with you he could make you pee with laughter.  His sense of humor was so sharp and very subtle and dry.  His lines would come out of nowhere and he’d have you on the floor...He and I shared a common spirituality.  There was some pretty decent songs out of the group America and he preferred things  that weren’t just beating you over the head.  More between the lines.  It’s really hard to say where he would have been [had he lived]....Something that stood out for me was working with Geoff Emerick in London at AIR [mixing tracks that appeared on I Am The Cosmos].  I was just amazed that Chris didn’t have more deference. That he was as sure of himself as he was.  To kind of have a little back and forth with Emerick.  "No, that’s not what I want."  Hands on controls and faders and knobs.  And I’m thinking, "Come on boy this is the Beatles engineer.  Someone who knows what he does."  Except Chris wasn’t phased by that...We’re creatures of our environment.  When he felt appreciated.  When he felt, "Okay, I can do what I know how to do"..the lightbulb came on.  He started shining. 



Monday, May 11, 2009


There's an ongoing discussion of the book at the Steve Hoffman music forum (link above).  I wasn't aware of the site before now but it seems like a good place for intelligent discussion and new information.  Really enjoyed the album by album run through the Boz Scaggs catalog.  Thanks for the tip!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The book is now in stock at Amazon and ready for shipment.   Back with more updates soon.  

UPDATE SUNDAY MORNING...Radio City has hit the Top 20 Rock Books on Amazon...currently sitting at #17.   Somewhat amusing are the books ahead of it on the list (along with the expected Beatles, Dylan, Clapton etc)....Motley Crue, Bret Michaels, Nikki Sixx, Slash, RHCP bios.  Not sure I would have referred to their audiences as "literate."  

On the same list is the Don Felder (Eagles) autobiography.  I love to read musical bios. – even for artists that I don't particularly care about – and I thought Felder's was one of the best in recent memory.  An interesting story about a poor kid from Florida who hung out with the Allman brothers, gave Tom Petty guitar lessons, went to the Berklee School of Music, played in a jazz fusion group that recorded for CTI, went to CA and toured with David Blue and Graham Nash, and ended up in the Eagles when he was called in as a session man for a single track on On The Border.  Got asked the next day to join a band that was already falling apart.  From there, it's a cautionary tale of power and money in the music business.  Love the part where Glen Frey fires the tour manager when they're in Europe because the Marlboros he had FedExed overnight were in soft-sided packs.  Glen no like...boo-hoo and bye-bye.  

Friday, May 8, 2009

Brief update.  Amazon.com is showing now that the book will be in stock on Tuesday, May 12th.  Thanks to all for your patience.  There's a recent thread at the Steve Hoffman music forums (stevehoffman.tv) that discusses the book.  Those who've seen it (they ordered directly from the publisher) have given it a big "thumbs up."  Thanks!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Here's an excerpt from the book about the song What's Going Ahn.  As unified as Radio City sounds as an album (thanks in large part to John Fry behind the mixing board), it was actually somewhat cobbled together from a variety of sessions.  What's Going Ahn stands out as the only track recorded outside the main RC sessions that was engineered by John Fry as a formal session (She's A Mover and Mod Lang came out of late night informal sessions by Chilton and Richard Rosebrough and Morpha Too and I'm In Love With A Girl were done by Chilton after the formal RC sessions).  

Alex's acoustic demo for this song is simply stunning and will hopefully be included in the forthcoming Big Star box set.  (There's also an equally strong demo for Life Is White.)  Unlike a lot of demos, these are something far more than vague or rough sketches.  The entire arrangements for the band are laid out in detail with just one guitar.  Alex's vocals will send shivers down your spine – they're on par with Thirteen.  As Jody notes later in the book, Alex might not be the most technically gifted singer, but he can connect with the listener in a deceptively simple yet deep way.   And note Andy's reference to songwriting in Alex's bedroom, pictured above. 

What’s Going Ahn (Chilton/Hummel) 

‘What’s Going Ahn’ predated the formal Radio City sessions 

and, in all likelihood, the Rock Writer’s Convention itself. It’s 

commonly—and mistakenly—believed as having originated 

in the informal late-night recording sessions at Ardent due to 

the participation of Richard Rosebrough. But, as is often the 

case with Big Star, the truth is different from the legend. 

Richard Rosebrough: ‘What’s Going Ahn’ was a formal 

session that John Fry engineered. John Fry did not engineer 

too many live sessions so it was a blessed event. We cut that 

in the A Studio at Ardent. There were some other folks that 

was there. Danny Jones may have been a part of that. It 

probably predated Rock Writers Convention. 

Alex Chilton: ‘What’s Going Ahn’ was recorded before 

all the rest of it. Perhaps. I was learning about the studio in 

those days and could come in on off hours and do things. 

I did a session for ‘What’s Going Ahn’, thinking that it 

might be a solo record or something. But that later just got 

absorbed [into Radio City]. ‘What’s Going Ahn’ was a John 

Fry session with Richard and I and the bass player Danny. 

It was a formal recording session . . . all three of us simulta- 

neously I think. It might have been Tommy Cathay playing 


Although there’s no track sheet to give additional clues to 

the recording, the acoustic demo once again demonstrates 

that Chilton arrived at the formal session with the arrange- 

ment for the track virtually complete. By adjusting the bal- 

ance control on a decent playback system you can highlight 

the acoustic guitar track in one channel and get a pretty 

good of how the acoustic demo sounds. 

Richard Rosebrough: I didn’t hear that song a whole 

lot before we recorded but there Alex was very structured 

and very tame and sweet and lovable and persistent and on 

top of things. It always came out of his soul whether he was 

in a controlled state or in chaos. Back in the very early days, 

Alex not nearly as chaotic as he became. He was persistent 

and deliberate and expressive. He would work on something 

over and over until he got it right. And if it wasn’t going 

right he’d say, “This isn’t happening. Let’s forget this.” 

Although Chilton is quite dismissive of Radio City’s lyrics, 

he did give them at least some ongoing thought, changing 

the first line of the second verse from “I’ve forgot every- 

thing” on the acoustic demo to “I’ve forsaked everyone.” 

Andy Hummel: If I recall, this is a song written in one 

of those songwriting sessions at Alex’s. We hung out at 

Alex’s in his bedroom and listened to LPs on that cool little 

KLH stereo of his frequently there for a while. I don’t think 

it would be possible to say I wrote a particular thing or Alex 

wrote a particular thing. The song was basically his idea. 

I just helped by throwing out the occasional chord turn, 

lyric, whatever. I think I took ten-percent writer credit or 

something like that. It’s his song. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

One of the features of the book is an oral history from Alex Chilton that dates back to his family arriving in America in the late 17th century up to his joining Big Star.  (An excerpt has been posted at the 33 1/3 blog.) How does that relate to Radio City?  Why is important or even of interest?  Good questions.  

First of all, I think it's of great interest because that's the way Alex chose to tell his story.  Plain and simple.  The Big Star story has largely been told by writers who weren't there getting information from people on the periphery.  One of the reasons why I was able to get everyone involved in Radio City to participate was that I  was only interested in hearing what they had to say, not those with tangential connections trying to insert themselves into the middle of the story after the fact.  I wasn't there either but decided to skip the middlemen. 

One reason I think Alex started with the long historical view perhaps as a way of getting across that his family and musical roots go deep into the Mississippi Delta – blues and jazz, r&b and popular song.  Even when he joined Big Star he had mostly been playing folk and bluegrass for the previous year or two.  He also had (and has)  a great musical curiosity and saw joining Big Star as a way to explore being in a proper rock band after the rather haphazard Box Tops.  Alex made no bones about it that Big Star was Chris Bell's musical vision.  He gladly plugged into it and thrived creatively but never saw himself consigned to that one artistic box.  With Radio City he was consciously working within the established Big Star franchise sound but had the freedom to push things in different directions just enough to generate the underlying tension that makes the record so great.  And when Big Star was no more, he was free to be pursue his own muse.  The few years of power pop are but a little blip in the Chilton family saga.  

Those of you wondering as to whether or not the book gets lost in tangents (a la Dusty In Memphis), rest assured - it lays out the road to Radio City (including the fascinating story of John Fry and how he developed into a genius engineer) and gives you a track by track guided tour of how it came together.  My next post will give you a sample...