By Willaim Burns
What is it about tragic figures in rock-n-roll? Those bands that snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, those overlooked, damaged individuals who can barely walk a straight line but when given a guitar could make the gods weep with envy. There are plenty of musicians who have fallen by the wayside, thousands of bodies in repose on the altar of three chords and yet they don’t have that special aura of tragedy that elevates the obscure, the forgotten, the outsider, the loser. We all know the famous deaths, the OD’s, the dueling egos, the hubris, the excesses that doom most bands and musicians but does suffering from any or all of these states of being and unbeing create that eternally cool agonizing existential hero? Perhaps the more famous, popular, and celebrated the artist, the less tragic their ends become. Yes, it is a shame that Elvis, Buddy, Jim, Jimi, Janis, Marc, John, Sid, Joey, Johnny, and Dee-Dee, are gone and that the Beatles, Beach Boys, and Zeppelin ended in lawsuits, acrimony, and vomit, but is it tragic? Is a mental breakdown an automatic Pass Go card to tragic stardom? Maybe. Yet why are the holy fool-geniuses Syd, Roky, Brian, Daniel, and Skip so much more terribly fascinating than those supposedly “crazy” train wrecks like the Lady Macbeth of rock, Courtney Love? To be truly tragic, the seeds of greatness need to sprout but never take root, dying on the vine, plucked before ripening, malnourished by neglect, misunderstanding, and catastrophe. These beautiful failures, canonized by misfortune, are predestined for disaster by the very urge to create and share with the herd, an inevitable self-destruction caused by the deafening collective silence of a cold indifferent universe. Trampled under by consumerism, ignored by those they despise yet crave attention from, passed over for much lesser talent, treated as freaks, weirdos, psychotics, or as nothing at all, this disregard engenders a purity and authenticity lacking in the famous, well-known, and illustrious. The tragic band/musician engages in a Sisyphian struggle to push the boulder of significance to the huddled masses living in quiet desperation but collapses under the wrath of the those conjoined gods of ignorance and bad taste.
Some tragic bands destroyed themselves and other are destroyed by fate, but they all deserve our sympathy. Sure, the Stooges, the New York Dolls, the Heartbreakers, Love, the MC5, Nico, the Germs, and the 13th Floor Elevators didn’t have to become drug addicts and junkies, but they did, and their track marks, arrests, and casualties are forever reminders of the price of being trailblazers, pioneers, transgressors, iconoclasts that venture into unknown territory that we are afraid to trespass in. Their destructive behaviors were both a balm and a death wish, cursed to be before their time, crucified by those who knew not what they did yet would celebrate these scapegoats years after in the safety of hindsight. Could the Velvets, Husker Du, Joy Division, or Nick Drake have escaped their destinies to be physically, psychologically, and/or spiritually destroyed? Sure, some are now immortalized but at what price? Do they take on our collective psychic and social travails, transforming them into art that is then left unnoticed, criticized, spat upon, and rejected? Or in the case of Saint Kurdt, consumed and regurgitated by the drunken frat boy hoi polloi?
My personal tragic band is Big Star. Four boys living and creating in that fascinating time, the ennui and uncertainty of the early 70’s. Down in Memphis, in the heart of the blues, soul, and r +b, Chris Bell, Alex Chilton, Jody Stephens, and Andy Hummell were reinventing pop music. Now, when I say “pop music” I don’t mean the current form of contrived, cookie cutter, flavor of the minute, I-Tunes downloadable abortions whose perpetuators demand that other phony artists get self-fawning video awards. When I say “pop music,” I mean the type of music founded on the harmonies and melodies of John, Paul, George, Roger, Gene, Ray, Pete, and Graham. By the early 70’s, this type of wide eyed pure pop gold was seen as anachronistic in the face of a changing social, political, and musical landscape. Big Star, named after a local grocery store chain (how coolly uncool), were fighting against the cultural tide and in staring into the musical abyss created a work of stupendous splendor that would get beaten down by the then current bullies of thuggish, shirtless hard rockers, buck skin jacketed singer songwriters, and mind numbing prog musos. Big Star even kicked fate in the crotch by calling the album #1 Record. But, in retrospect, no other work of art created by human beings was more aptly named. Alas, it was not to be, as not only the capricious music scene worked against them but the lack of distribution of the album prevented the gospel to even be heard. Big Star didn’t even have the opportunity to cast their pearls before swine and the crushing disappointment of having a masterpiece fall upon non-existing ears completely undermined the confidence of the album’s architect, Chris Bell. Depressed, feeling rejected and hopeless, Bell quit the band he started, descended into a drug induced oblivion, and had a series of mental and physical breakdowns. Big Star soldiered on as a three piece with Chilton coming to the fore and, in a million to one shot actually produced a work that met, and some say exceeded, the magnificence of their first album. Radio City was a stunning work of genius different than but similar to #1 Record. So in an unbelievable coincidence, another masterwork was produced that could have been placed in the pantheon of rock music but would the fate of their second record be different than first? That fickle mistress decided to royally screw our boys a second time with Radio City getting even less distribution than #1 Record had, which would be less than squat. Twice burned by the music industry and forces beyond their control, Big Star called it quits in 1974.
After three years of magic, Big Star was less than a footnote in the story of rock, more like that little yellow monster in those nail fungus commercials on the footnote of the story of rock. Chilton, like Bell before him, would spiral into drug binges and psychotic episodes that would produce one of the most unhinged yet poignant albums in rock history called Sister Lovers (often erroneously titled Big Star’s Third) but would never recapture the quirky wonder of Big Star’s two albums. Chilton would recover from his demons and still records and tours today, even with a reconstituted Big Star featuring pop disciples The Posies. Not a bad ending for a tragic band, huh? Well, let’s return to our wayward artiste Chris Bell. Bell seemed to never quite get over the rejection of his magnum opus but slowly returned to playing music during the later years of the seventies. He would record in fits and starts, collecting enough material for an album but received rejections from all of the labels he submitted his work to. Bell’s post-Big Star work would finally reach the slowly growing cult of believers in the form of a single containing two heartrendingly sublime compositions that proved that rather than dissipating Bell’s talents, the inner and outer turmoil and angst suffered by our young Werther intensified his already considerable abilities. Positive responses from the single raised Bell’s spirits and even led him to start to make overtures to Chilton and Stephens to reconvene Big Star but the furies seemed to have had it in for poor Chris as he would die in a car accident in 1978, just as he was making his comeback. Oedipus wishes he could have suffered a fate that tragic. Bell and the rest of Big Star have become an inspirational touchstone for many successful (and unsuccessful) bands and musicians and have even spread to the mainstream through the use of their track “In the Street” as the title song for an inane sitcom called That 70’s Show. Chilton seems nonplused by the posthumous fame and accolades but one wonders what Bell would have felt about seeing his dream finally come to fruition.
So, what is it about tragic bands and musicians? Is it their underdog status? Their down and out chic? Their chutzpah in the face of apathy? Their lobster-like tenacity? Our feeling of musical superiority in championing artists nobody has ever heard of nor listened to? All of these questions might never be answered, but whenever I hear “Love Will Tear Us Apart” or “I Am the Cosmos,” I can’t help but feel the ghosts of Ian and Chris hovering close by as reminders of those who did it not for the fame, but because they had to and nobody else would. Rest in peace.