BIG STAR: I NEVER HAD ANY DOUBT ABOUT IT
Stream: Big Star “Lovely Day” (demo of “Stroke It Noel”)
Big Star’s three albums were each classics in a different way, and each catastrophes in a different way, too—while the music was exactly as it needed to be, the music business never connected in the way it should have, and it took decades for the band to find their rightful status. The beautiful box set Keep An Eye On The Sky is available now from Rhino and their first two albums have been reissued by their home label Ardent, along with a two-disc Chris Bell set. Drummer Jody Stephens speaks from the studio he’s been visiting since 1971. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
You’re in Ardent studios—what are you looking at right now?
Jody Stephens (drums): Interestingly enough, I am looking at a map of where Abbey Road Studios is. I’m figuring out what the nearest tube stop is because John Fry—the owner, founding father and Big Star mentor—and I are going to London tomorrow and we have a tour set up for Abbey Road at 9:30. John’s been before but it’ll be my first time actually going inside. I’ve appreciated it from outside the walls.
So Ardent meets Abbey. What are you hoping for?
Jody Stephens:I’m sure it’ll be moving when I walk through the doors, but I’m excited. So many great things happened in that studio. After the tour I could give you a better read of the emotional trip, but I’m really excited about it.
What’s the ultimate Beatles artifact you’re going to look for while you’re there? The desk chair that squeaks at the end ‘Day In The Life’?
Jody Stephens:Or the alarm clock! I think Studio 2 was where they did most of their work—it would just be fun seeing that and walking the halls that the Beatles walked—amongst many others, I’m sure, but the Beatles played such a role in what I’m doing now. My even being in music to begin with is because of the Beatles and their story is there at Abbey Road. But other than that, I’m sitting here in my office and John Fry’s is across the hall from mine and I’ve been looking at this scenery on and off since November 1971.
All this new unreleased Big Star is coming out now—where are you sourcing it? Do you have some vault full of old tapes?
Jody Stephens:Apparently, we do. Adam Hill has been in the tape vault—there is a real tape vault, and it’s upstairs—and it’s pretty interesting what he’s come up with in the process of getting it all transferred.
What’s the most common misconception about Big Star? Something that doesn’t fit in the legend of ‘the best band that never made it.’
Jody Stephens:One thing that rarely talked about is the excitement of being in the studio with John Fry. As these songs got recorded and as they unfolded and parts were put down—acoustic guitar parts, electric guitar parts, background vocals like on ‘The Ballad of El Goodo’—those were all just remarkably magic moments. And we’d be in the studio mixing back when mixing was done manually, meaning that every fader move had to be done for that particular mix. It would be like Twister—everyone moving faders and stuff, assigned to a specific task. We’d get the song mixed and sit back and listen to it and it would just be an incredible rush—for me anyway. An amazing sonic experience—this sense of wonderment like the universe revealed itself. That’s one thing that’s rarely talked about: the excitement of creation.
I heard sometimes they’d have to tell you to slow down.
Jody Stephens:Actually, they told me I had to speed up! I would slow down—I’d be getting off on it so much and it would become so profound that I’d start slowing down. It’s funny—you just lapse into that state sometimes and that’s what happens.
Was it like that the first time you started playing with them? Or only after you got together?
Jody Stephens:Could be, but the difference is that this was our own material that originated with the band and it was exciting because it was something that—well, primarily Alex and Andy and Chris—were creating. This was the first time I was recording material that was as exciting to me as the Beatles and some of the stuff I’d been covering. Sometimes it’s overwhelming—it’s hard to describe. It’s just creation—like, where does this stuff come from? These melody lines and guitar leads and stuff come out of the creative recesses of people’s minds. It really is mind blowing.
Is it safe to say that John Fry was the George Martin of Big Star?
Jody Stephens:I would say that it is. He really was our mentor. He was the label owner and our engineer and executive producer—he mixed the stuff. To a large extent his mixes played such a large role of people’s perception of this music and certainly its presence. People don’t realize that the guy behind the console mixing the material can have such a profound effect. They couldn’t do anything about performances—those are all human—but sonically, he could be as creative as he wanted to be.
Wasn’t it his dream that Big Star would tour around in a Lockheed Constellation?
Jody Stephens:John had a pilot’s license and many of us went to the John Fry school of flying. I had about 11 hours when he sold his plane. He has a little single engine but he also had a twin engine Comanche that we’d tool around in. It’s just one of those things that you talk about and speculate—but it definitely was a Constellation because we all thought it was a pretty cool looking plane.
How many years did it take until Big Star flew around in airplanes?
Jody Stephens:We flew around in John’s Twin Comanche. We had a photo shoot in Mississippi and the photographer’s grandmother had a house down there and we got it in our minds that it would be cool to use that for a set for a photography session. John flew us down in the Comanche. There was a grass runway just a stone’s throw from the house—this was in ’73, I think. In the box set there’s some photos from that session. But that’s the only plane. Big Star never made any money and I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘Gee, I wasn’t even born when Big Star was big.’ We didn’t really have an audience outside of rock writers in the early ‘70s. It’s something that developed because music journalists wrote about us and would mention us when they’d discover a band that sounded like us. And people that were way into music would go ‘Who’s this Big Star?’ and do some research. So it took eighteen or twenty years for an audience to develop.
And the band only ever played twenty shows?
Jody Stephens:Yeah, if that. It was stuff that John King—our marketing guy—set up for us. We played at Max’s Kansas City once—we traded spots with the band that was the remnants of the Doors after Jim Morrison left and one was with Ed Begley, Jr. It’s funny because I don’t know Ed Begley but someone told him about it and he said, ‘No, no. I didn’t do that—I’d remember it.’ But I still have a copy of the ad that Max’s Kansas City took out in The Village Voice that says ‘Big Star and Ed Begley, Jr.’ We opened a matinee and evening performance with Badfinger in Boston. We really didn’t do that many dates because we couldn’t find a booking agent, nor did we ever have a proper manager—that’s why we played so few dates.
What was your favorite show? The rock critic’s convention?
Jody Stephens:Probably that one. You would think we’d be under a lot of pressure playing to rock writers—and certainly a roomful of them—but it was more like we got together to play for people that made up our audience and our audience was made up of rock writers then. People that has written really nice things about our records—well, I guess just our first one then. It was an invitation by John King, Ardent’s marketing guy. I think they had high hopes for organizing writers, just getting people talking and that sort of thing. Big Star sort of drifted apart then came back together to do this for the rock writers. We weren’t the main band in the spotlight either—Stax was promoting two other bands at the time and we were an addition to the evening’s shows, so we just went up and had a good time and apparently so did the audience. They had an open bar and apparently open minds. People like Cameron Crowe were there. Bud Scoppa is a great writer and a good friend of mine now. As a matter of fact, Bud was an A & R guy for Zoo Records and when the band got back together in 1993, Bud stepped up and said he wanted to record it and put it out on Zoo. It’s why we’re still playing. Richard Meltzer was there. A lot of pretty legendary writers were there.
Did you get to do shots with Lester Bangs or something?
Jody Stephens:No, and I’m kind of surprised we didn’t have more interaction with the writers.
They were too far gone?
Jody Stephens:There were other events I attended, too—well, maybe I just can’t remember. Hell, I was still basically a kid. That was ’73 so I was still 20. The other guys were all older.
What about these insane recording sessions we hear about? All-nighters at Ardent with people drunk and rowdy and pissing on the walls?
Jody Stephens:#1 Record and prior to that—nothing rowdy ever happened. When I first got together with Andy, I was still 17 and so they were probably 18—we were all pretty responsible kids when we’d go into the studio after hours to record. I don’t remember anything wild about it. It got a little nuts in ’74 but prior to that, we were pretty responsible. It was more about getting in and being creative than partying.
Why did Chris destroy the masters for #1 Record? Did that really happen?
Jody Stephens:As far as I know that really happened. I don’t think it was an accident. Nobody was around when that happened so to some large extent it’s speculation—but I think he really did do it. That was after the release of the record. He destroyed the multi-track, not the quarter-inch or the tape it was mixed to.
So what’s that mean? #1 Record can be re-released but can never be remixed? It’s frozen forever as it was when it was first mixed?
Jody Stephens:You can’t go back and remix things. It wasn’t the tape that held the proper mixes. He didn’t get all the multi-tracks but he got most of them.
What was that side of Big Star like? The sort of tension and drama—
Jody Stephens:There were the dynamic range of emotions like in any guy-girl relationship. It’s that kind of relationship. You’re sharing a lot—certainly creatively. In a relationship when you open up to someone you expose yourself, so it’s the same in the creative process you have to open up and expose yourself and to that extent, those same sort of emotions can follow. It’s a profound to do that. People give their heart and soul and passion. There can be some emotional extremes.
How did you handle it when things soured between Chris and Alex?
Jody Stephens:I don’t really remember that happening with Chris and Alex. I think the reason Chris left the band didn’t have much to do with his interaction with Alex—more with Chris operating in the shadow if Alex. It wasn’t Alex’s doing, but journalists focused in on Alex—understandably so because he had been in Box Tops, so I think Chris left to do his own thing to step out of that shadow.
Do you think he gets the kind of credit he deserves now?
Jody Stephens:From anybody that has done their homework, sure. Wait until you hear disc two for I Am The Cosmos—that’s going to be reissued. It’s brilliant. Chris was a brilliant guitarist—brilliant in the studio, brilliant sonically. It’s just remarkable what he was able to do. I just heard the first ever recording I did with Chris. I’m assuming Andy was on bass but I think Steve Rhea was part of it, too, and it must’ve been Chris was either 18 or 19. He wans’t on his way to being a talent—he was already remarkably creative at that age. I was still developing but Chris was there. It’s kind of mind-blowing listening to those songs.
Where does it take you when you hear these old songs?
Jody Stephens:It takes me back to a really good time of discovery. You start out with your eyes wide open and there’s so much to discover in life as you walk through it. The older you get and the more experiences you have, certain things become routine. There’s less of that kind of discovery that goes on. You find out how the Beatles recorded something or how things are actually done. In some cases, that mystery there is magic. Once the mystery is no longer there, neither is the magic. So it takes me back to those kinds of feelings—the mystery and the magic. That’s not to say I don’t experience that still but there’s something about being 18 and 19 and those creative moments unfolding for the first time.
Chris told Will Rigby of the dBs that he quit the band because rock ‘n’ roll had ‘gone dead’ for him. Is that how you think he felt?
Jody Stephens:I never had that conversation with him. Chris had also gotten on with his life. He went to work for his dad managing a restaurant. It’s interesting—Chris kind of puts himself into these things. He always tried to excel at whatever he was doing. He took that role very seriously—there were high expectations of his job performance. He wasn’t just the boss’ kid hanging out in a management role.
How did the Big Star experience ultimately affect you all as people?
Jody Stephens:Well, for me, in an incredibly positive way. For one, it allowed me to have a career in music here at Ardent Music and Ardent Studios. Big Star had some profile out there and it would make it a little easier to call on people having that profile. It made my walk through this business a little easier. It opened a few doors and through those, other doors were opened with connections. It’s also been a bridge builder all my life to meeting people that I never would have normally have met. Getting to meet people in the same world of music I have a tremendous amount of respect for. Playing gigs all over the world—not frequently, mind you—traveling, playing different spots in Europe and seeing the same faces, having people follow you around.
Are there going to be any shows since these re-issues just came out?
Jody Stephens:We don’t have plans but we might. It’s still speculation.
The liner notes on my #1 Record reissue talk about Alex and say, ‘Rarely has anyone betrayed their talent so completely.’ Do you think that’s fair?
Jody Stephens:Alex kind of followed what he wanted to do—not what anyone else wanted him to do. And he’s always been that way. That’s what makes him unique in what he does. It would be hard for me to make that statement—I couldn’t possibly do that.
What is the once-and-for-all real true name of the third Big Star album?
Jody Stephens:Nobody knows what it’s supposed to be. There wasn’t an album title because we were never shooting for a particular release date. We finished that record and John Fry and Jim Dickinson took it around to several different labels but there was never really any proper album title. Now ‘Sister Lovers’ was considered briefly what Alex and I might call ourselves—not an album title—since we were dating twin sisters. The Aldridge sisters.
Have you ever talked to them about that record?
Jody Stephens:About the sister lovers thing? I don’t think I have!
You and Alex and John Fry are the link between all three albums—do you think they fit together?
Jody Stephens:I think they do. It’s the life cycle of a band wrapped up in three albums. There’s a certain innocence about the first album, an acquired sophistication or cosmopolitan bent—if you will—with the second and sort of an emotional unraveling with the third. It makes for a great overall picture of the band. I actually told someone that my favorite song is ‘The Ballad of El Goodo’ because it incorporates everything that Big Star is. There is a certain defiance in the song, an attitude, great vocal melody lines and some great guitar lines.
What do you think of Big Star’s legacy? In some ways, you’re the patron saints of every band that never got the credit it deserved.
Jody Stephens:With regard to our legacy, it’s better for other people to talk about. That’s your job. It’s just hard for me to think in those terms. It gets to be a little ‘how great thou art’ kind of thing.
Did you ever doubt what you were doing?
Jody Stephens:I never had any doubt about it and still don’t. That’s the cool thing about being in a band is that what you’re doing is usually documented and recorded. And regardless of what anybody says about it, those recordings never change. Maybe people’s perception changes but those recordings don’t. They’re such a constant and for me, it was just incredibly exciting. It fulfilled what I was looking for in a band. Sometimes I think I puzzled people by saying that I didn’t have great expectations of being in a band or being a musician. What I was looking for was fulfilled with those recordings.
What were you looking for?
Jody Stephens:It’s just the emotional experience. That was it. That’s why we all listen to music. We’re all in search of some emotional connection and when it’s made it’s just a pretty incredible feeling. I met someone at SXSW that told me about their 13-year-old son that had a relationship gone bad—you can imagine a 13-year-old relationship! And he played ‘Thirteen’ for him and it had an impact on him. The song had an impact on a real 13-year-old’s kind of emotional scene. It’s something we all can relate to.