Listen: New M. Lockwood Porter single "Chris Bell" pays tribute to the less-celebrated heart of Big Star
This happens very rarely, but every now and then, I'm actually in step with some kind of larger musical zeitgeist. My lifelong affection for Big Star — thanks, Dad — only grew deeper with last year's documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, which told the tale of a band that, more or less, struggled for its entire existence to be heard, only to achieve what could be considered widespread popularity roughly two decades after they stopped making music.
One story that film also teased out was the tragic narrative of Chris Bell, who maybe wasn't as charismatic as his co-frontman Alex Chilton, but boy, could he write a song, and boy, did he have some demons. Bell died, like so many of the greats, at the age of 27.
So I was excited, needless to say, when Berkeley's M. Lockwood Porter released his new single, "Chris Bell," a tribute to the late songwriter in which Porter's earnest '70s power-pop influences are made very clear. Porter's debut LP Judah's Gone garnered some critical praise last summer, but we haven't heard much from him since; now, he'll be doing a mini-tour of sorts to support the release, starting with an opening spot on Mirah-headlined bill tomorrow night [Thu/6] at Brick and Mortar. Give the track a listen, and below, read some of what Porter wrote me when I asked about his inspirations for the song.
I've claimed Big Star as one of my favorite bands for almost 10 years. I got into them around the time that I was about to go to college. I was in this phase where, artistically, I believed that you had to totally reinvent or revolutionize the musical language in order to make valid art (I was 16, okay?). When I discovered Big Star, along with a few other bands, I realized that pop/rock based music could sound fresh without adding too many bells and whistles as long as there was honesty and a unique point of view behind it.
[After watching Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me], I learned that he was as important, or even more important, to the creation of #1 Record than Alex Chilton was. Second of all, Big Star's lack of commercial recognition, along with the fact that critics seemed to focus on Alex Chilton as the genius behind the band, were among his reasons for leaving the band. Third, after he left the band, he went into a depression that he never fully escaped. He got into painkillers, heroin, and some of the interview subjects in the film suggest that the car accident that killed Chris Bell might have been a suicide. I've also since read rumors that Chris Bell was a closeted homosexual, and that his shame might have been an additional reason for his depression. I don't know whether that last part is true or not, but all of these facts together gave me a huge amount of sympathy for him.
It made me very upset that even I — someone who considers #1 Record to be a desert island album — had given Alex Chilton most of the credit for Big Star's effect on my life (not that he wasn't important, as well). I started thinking about how much "Alex Chilton" by The Replacements (whom I love) had played into the mythos of the band, and that's where the first line of the song came from.
In the film, someone points out that Chris Bell is a member of the 27 Club. That got me thinking about this whole romance and mythology that exists around people like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, etc. — rock stars who died young. I did not want to write a song that attempted to create a similar kind of mythology around Chris Bell. I felt like it would have been tacky and disrespectful to do so. In the documentary, Chris Bell's brother and sister are interviewed. Their pain over Chris's death still seems very raw. He died nearly 40 years ago, and they still miss him deeply. I wanted to try to write about Chris Bell with that perspective in mind, rather than writing something that could have come from some lazy rock journalist.
Also, I love Neil Young, and there's that infamous line in "Hey Hey My My" ("Rock and roll is here to stay / It's better to burn out than to fade away") that ties into the whole tortured rock star mythology because of the Kurt Cobain connection. It's also just a happy accident that the line "Rock and roll is here to stay" is also in Big Star's "Thirteen." When I realized that coincidence, I knew I had to put that into the song.
And now, because he makes me feel feelings, let's listen to some Chris Bell, shall we?
M. Lockwood Porter (w/ Mirah, Ages and Ages)
3/6, 9pm, $12
Brick & Mortar Music Hall
1710 Mission, SF