Best recent WNY-related book
Bruce Eaton visits Radio City
Has there ever been a cooler album opener than “O My Soul,” the “drink till we drop” first track of Big Star’s immortal Radio City? And has there ever been a sweeter tortured love song than “September Gurls”?
I’m the wrong guy to answer these questions—Bruce Eaton is a better choice. A frequent Spree contributor, Buffalo native, and programmer for the Albright-Knox’s stellar Art of Jazz series, Eaton is the author of the latest book in Continuum’s stunning 33 1/3 collection, in which noted writers tackle some of the greatest albums in music history—everything from Kick Out the Jams to If You’re Feeling Sinister.
Eaton’s selection of Big Star’s Radio City is a classic one for many reasons. Alex Chilton’s Big Star is the legendary lost power-pop band behind three shoulda-been-chart-toppers: #1 Record, Radio City, andThird/Sister Lovers. The reclusive, often difficult-to-pin-down Chilton is deserving of a study himself, but approaching him through Radio is wise, as it is the quintessential Big Star album. Eaton discovered it the way many did—not through ad campaigns or radio play, as there really were none—by simply spotting it in a record store, and recalling something read in the pages of Creem. “I had a good feeling Radio Citymight be worth the six quarters,” he writes. Thus began a journey into Chilton’s universe, one which later brought Eaton into contact with AC himself; Eaton “reached [his] summit” on June 26, 1979, as Chilton joined the author’s band onstage at McVan’s nightclub in Buffalo, the first of several encounters.
In addition to the personal details, the book breaks down the Big Star sound and myth in stunning fashion. Fascinating details are unearthed, including the band’s own opinions (Chilton on “September Gurls”: “It’s not a song that grabs me to this day”), info as to why the album was not heavily promoted (“Columbia executives deemed the cover to be pornographic by virtue of a day-glo poster of the Kama Sutra partially visible in the background of William Eggleston’s cover photo”), to in-the-studio tidbits (Chilton on “O My Soul”’s guitar work: “I think that was probably copping the lick from Dave Edmunds”).
The book does not go into great detail regarding Chilton’s recent output, but it doesn’t have to. This is Radio City’s story, and as such, it truly demonstrates why Big Star is so important, and why commercial success never quite came to pass. But what’s most special about the book is the way Eaton captures the precise moment that a record changed his life, and what that means. It happens to many of us—it certainly happened to me—but to be able to put that feeling into words? It takes real talent, and Bruce Eaton has that in abundance. “To me, the definition of a great record is simple,” he writes. “When you finish playing it, you want to play it again.” For Big Star fans, the same is true of Eaton’s Radio City.