Friday, April 17, 2009

I Am the Cosmos (Part 2)

America is losing. We haven't lost, and there's reason for hope. But over the last several years, there's a been rising, unspoken sense of loss among average Americans. In the million different battles a nation or a nation of individuals can face, we are cumulatively losing.

Some battles are big: the economy, health care, foreign conflicts, civil rights, etc. Some are small: a crumbling bridge, a public school without heat, a broken music industry, etc. America's success as a nation has always rested on the successes of its individuals. But there is a sense that individuals are losing, that they have less say in their own private destinies. Millions of Americans are down a touchdown with two minutes left, primed for a comeback drive...but they don't have the ball.

You can see it in an abandoned Detroit auto-plant. You can watch it like the Dow. You can hear it--and the absence of it--on the radio. You can hear it in the music of so many artists who quit, shut down, re-tooled, stopped trying to matter to America, and started trying to matter to their zip code. If you can't be universal without Universal, you're losing.

Or, you've already lost.


In 1971, a band without a name started recording an album without a title. They had never performed publicly, never received any press, had no money machine behind them to catalyze their success. Like so many other bands of talent, they found each other, then found the music, then found some mics and hit record. There was nothing about this band--excluding their talent--that would suggest they would take on the world and win someday. There was no omen for success, no path laid out.

So, the band without a name took a break one night from recording their album without a title and stared across the street at the neon blue sign of the neighboring grocery: Big Star. It was perfectly tongue-in-cheek, as epic and self-deprecating as the songs they were writing. What to call the unreleased album/future classic, then? #1 Record, of course. Like any good band, they laughed at their dreams and got back to work. But, like good band, they were only half-kidding.

#1 Record was released by Ardent Records in 1972, in conjunction with Stax and Columbia.
Hailed at the time as a contemporary masterpiece, the record's influence only grew. It inspired generations of new artists, from REM to the Replacements to the Counting Crows, Paul Westerberg, Matthew Sweet, Teenage Fanclub, the Posies, SubPop founders Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt...the list is endless. For its tragic heroism, its vulnerability and self-awareness, its aesthetic triumphs and its wounded lyricism, #1 Record was a ground-breaking record and instant classic. Decades later, it would take its place among so many publications' Best Albums of All-Time lists, lauded by everyone from Rolling Stone to Robert Christgau.

The record's leadoff single ("When My Baby's Beside Me" b/w "Don't Lie to Me") was predictably embraced by radio. The record's distribution, however, was nonexistent. While the music was played nationwide, the album itself was practically unavailable for purchase. Additionally, a promotional tour was never fully planned, much less booked. All across America, The Brilliant Big Star became a tantalizing rumor, and you couldn't find out if they were true.

#1 Record
sold 4,000 copies.

Disenchanted by the commercial failure--and ego-bruised by the songwriting credited to bandmate Alex Chilton--Chris Bell left the group near the end of 1972. With no tour booked, no money, and no viable business plan from the businesses they were tied to, Big Star was without momentum.

The group informally disbanded until a one-off concert at a local convention reunited them a year later. The reunion led to new songs. The new songs led to new sessions at Ardent. Those sessions would become Big Star's sophomore album, Radio City. For its dynamic songcraft, confident production, and daring innovation, Radio City drew even more critical acclaim than #1 Record. The second record expanded upon the first in every way, delivering its aesthetic promises while pushing the limits of what a pop song can be. In many ways, it was the flip side of the same coin, the Dr. Jekyll to #1 Record's Mr. Hyde, a gorgeous payoff after a cagey setup. As such, the two are rightly packaged today as one giant double-album, #1 Record/Radio City.

While Big Star artistically progressed (with press and radio in tow), business history repeated itself. Short, disjointed tours were booked to promote the new record and introduce the band to the cities that heard them. The record's distribution was again woeful, guaranteeing that even rabid fans would need a bootlegged-miracle to own an album. It was a perfect storm of bad ideas and neglect by a triad of defunct and failing companies. The Big Star Story could be taught in MBA classes today as a cautionary tale, a virtual "what not to do" guide for breaking bands.

Despite the failure, Big Star continued to succeed. With every fawning critic, every friend-who-has-a-copy, their legend grew. Being a Big Star fan became akin to joining a club, exclusive not for intellectual snobbery but for sheer material wealth. It meant something to own a Big Star album. All across America, millions of teenagers picked up a guitar and sang "Thirteen" without irony. Then they formed their own bands, and those bands formed new bands, and those bands are on your iPod, your theme songs, your car commercials, your movies and TV. They inform your lifestyle, then the next generation of bands.

But that's now. Back in 1975, as Big Star's legend grew, the band faded. Bassist Andy Hummel left the group after Radio City, understandably "tired of being broke." A third record (Third/Sister Lovers) was a glorified Chilton-solo project, frequently brilliant but something other than Big Star. Predictably, it was under-promoted and languished. In 1978, original guitarist, singer, songwriter, and co-producer Chris Bell died in a car accident, ending any hope of a Big Star reunion.

As the original foursome (Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Andy Hummel, and Jodi Stephens), Big Star released two classic albums, played 20-25 concerts, sold no records, never glanced a Billboard chart, had no hits, made no money, then they quit, shut down, stopped trying to matter to America. A group of individuals created something invaluable, something transcendent, put it out into the ether, and walked away. For all their success, they failed. For all that they should've won, Big Star lost.


Just before his death, Chris Bell made a solo record called I Am the Cosmos. The title track*** is classic Big Star, as fine as anything from the first two records and finer than anything he or Chilton made after. The song begins with a defiant strum, a clarion call, then a declaration of spiritual victory:

"Every night I tell myself I am the cosmos/I am the wind."

It is a mantra, a ritualized chant, a desperate plea with the gods: put me in charge of my own destiny. It is intensely vulnerable, helpless but not yet hopeless. In a few opening seconds, we get the sound of one man's effort to reclaim his own autonomy, to take control of his own life, to reclaim his own success. Hope hangs in the air.

Then, a jarring minor-chord and a sign from above:

"...but that don't get you back again..."


A friend of mine believes the best band on earth is unknown. He says that, at any given time, there's an anonymous band in a South Pacific tiki bar, or a Eastern European living room, or anywhere, that is as good as anyone...but we'll never hear them. He says it's luck's unhappy math, a cruel numbers game: for every great band we know, there are dozens equally as good but less fortunate. They toil in obscurity, then fade away.

I've always disagreed with my friend, because I think the best bands earn their breaks. I think that ambition, and competitiveness, and a relentless, obsessed pursuit of success is a key characteristic for any great band. The cream rises to the top, because part of being the cream is that you don't let yourself fail.

I believe this because my favorite artists--and pop culture's favorite artists--did earn their breaks. I know the stories of the Beatles getting rejected by every shortsighted rep at every major label until a bastard stepson subsidiary picked them up and pawned them off on George Martin as an afterthought. The Beatles were the Beatles partly because they and Brian Epstein simply wouldn't be denied, no matter how many rejections came first.

In the late 60's, the best unknown bar band on earth created something so new, vital, exciting, fully-formed, and accessible that they became superstars on sheer merit and force of will; they became Led Zeppelin because no bar could've contained them.

At the time he was writing letters to friends about an inevitable major label bidding war and writing songs for Nevermind, Kurt Cobain was sleeping under a bridge.

And if you really, really, REALLY believe that there were hundreds of Bob Dylans, just wandering around the West Village in 1962, simply unlucky not to run into John should go your way and I'll go mine.

The fact is, luck exists. But it's often the preemptive excuse of the lazy and untalented. It is what people say to make themselves feel better when they 1) aren't good enough or 2) are too lazy to try***. I've simply never bought the theory that some of our best bands toil in obscurity and die anonymous. Big Star is closest we got to "Rock's Great Unknown Band," and it took a once-in-a-generation perfect storm of three businesses failing at once for them to tank commercially. Even then, they were praised in national publications and played on hundreds of radio stations. Today, they're as popular as ever, and their legacy thrives. In other words, we had one Big Star in forty years, and even they didn't go unknown.

In the post-Napster world, however, the landscape has changed. The music industry (outside country and hip hop) still isn't selling music, and still doesn't know how. A fractured--and potentially failing--industry leaves out one half of the winning equation. Bands that would've flourished with their major label in the 60's and 70's now might not seek a major label deal at all. They might not seek any label. They might not seek a national tour. They might not seek radio play. Any band--even good bands--have necessarily redefined what success means.

Take My Morning Jacket, one of America's best and most successful post-Napster bands. Their first classic album (It Still Moves) went nearly unnoticed despite major label backing. Ten years and five records in, they're just now pushing gold status. They've lost members due to the strain of touring and limited financial gain. And they're a model for post-Napster success, an example of what it looks like when the cream rises to the top in 2009.

For every My Morning Jacket striving for global popularity, there are dozens of worthwhile bands just working the neighborhood. Nobody's sitting on the front stoop, staring at a grocery store, contemplating world domination. Artists carve out a tiny corner of a subgenre of a miniscule fragment of a section of the population and try to become a part of that person's lifestyle.

For the first time, I think, our destiny might not be entirely up to us. Maybe the talent and determination of the individual matters less. Maybe the downside of the post-Napster world (and all its supposed artistic populism) is the upshot of star-crossed bands. We had one Big Star in forty years. How many in the next forty?


There is a sense that America is losing. There are plant-workers and night-shifters and artists alike working toward their own destiny, and there is a sense that what we're doing might not matter, that we're fighting a battle that we might not win. Then we wake each day and keep fighting, keep working.

So every night I tell myself I am the cosmos. I hit play in the morning when I get up sore; I hear it at night when I'm breathless and down; it hums through the daylight like an old song in space, shot back through the ether, crystallized, new again; I hear it each time like a plea, I sing it like a prayer, I repeat it like a chant, and it hangs in the air like hope.

Every night I tell myself I am the cosmos. Then I hit repeat, and the lights go out.


***Out of necessity, I'm linking to the Posies' cover, which is adequate and loyal to Bell's original.

***Please don't mistake this point for the ever-popular "anyone can do anything if they pick themselves up by their bootstaps" credo. I'm talking about talent and work ethic in one artistic field, not all job opportunities for those in less fortunate circumstances. You will not hear me tell people on welfare to "stop crying and get a job" in this space. (But you will read it on the side of my truck.)

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