July 2nd, 2013 | Interviews

dale dreiling

Big Star, as the legend goes, was a band born into the wrong generation, a 70s letter lost in the mail and rediscovered tucked inside some 80s zine. The “ultimate cult band,” the maddening tragedy of brilliance and beauty unrecognized, the disillusion and the dissolution and then cut to That ‘70s Show. The Big Star story is practically a cultural template for the concept of great music neglected—a concept so popular in music docs that we’ll soon be running out of unsung subjects. Basically, even as folklore, Big Star was ahead of its time. So director Drew DeNicola, producer Danielle McCarthy, and producer/co-director Olivia Mori knew that their film had to be something special. Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me eschews formula and refuses to limit its scope, exploring not just the band and the people but also Memphis and bohemia and the worlds of Chris Bell and Alex Chilton post-Big Star. Ardent Studios founder John Fry served as an executive producer and music supervisor on the film, helping keep the story true to those who lived it and putting together a soundtrack of 21 previously unissued versions of Big Star songs. This interview by Rin Kelly.

Was Jim Dickinson, the late producer and great generous weirdo presence in the film, right that Big Star were never really a band at all?
Drew DeNicola [director]: Yeah. That’s the thesis for me. Jody doesn’t like that, and Andy either. But if you want to talk about music and put it into a sense of the story, and basically why it was hard to do the documentary, it was trying to figure out how to do a band bio about a band that had different members with every record and never actually toured very much—or even were very close as friends. What kind of band bio is that? It’s not the Rolling Stones. So I started to decide that this is not a band bio. It’s a story about this music that was preserved on vinyl. And these records were played over thirty years by various people as they came into contact with them. That’s kind of the way I took it, and I was very happy that Jim was very eloquent and was so philosophical in talking about Big Star. The hope was that he was going to be the narrator of the film. But he passed away.
Danielle McCarthy [producer]: I started the film with my brother and another collaborator in June of 2007, so it’s a long journey. We did meet with Jim, and he had obviously told the story a fair amount—and he was also just a great storyteller. We set up and he just went. I don’t even think I remember asking him that many questions. He just took us through the whole story over two or three hours. It was amazing. We really wanted to go back and film him again but he passed away in 2009.
Is it true that the first time he met Chilton, who was still pretty much a kid at the time, Chilton was tripping?
DD: People say to me, ‘That’s just a bald-faced lie.’ Yeah, maybe it is! It’s hyperbole, it’s storytelling. I don’t really know, but Jim Dickinson was a great storyteller. To me, documentary is not journalism—it’s storytelling, so I appreciate that. Maybe he was tripping. It’s making a point that I wanted to be clear, which is Alex Chilton grew up very young. A line that we had to take out before … we had a whole thing about the Box Tops that was pretty long. So we had the guitarist, Gary Talley, talking about how Alex Chilton was younger than he was but he could smoke in his own house, in front of his parents, and he wore black T-shirts before anyone knew that you could get black T-shirts. He was kind of totally developed. He already had a swagger about him and was probably sleeping with chicks at the time. He grew up fast. I found a quote in Bomp! magazine—he didn’t often tell you where he was coming from with the music, but he was trying to reclaim those innocent teenage days that he had missed when he was on tour. That’s where songs like ‘Thirteen’ and ‘In the Street’ come from, because when he was supposed to be in high school he was out touring with the Beach Boys. He had this kind of nostalgia and wistfulness just I think because of the way his life had gone.
I want to know more about the full-body purple aura Chris Bell would have every time people dropped acid with him.
DD: That stuff I just love. John Dando is not the type of person who would make up a story. I just love that that kind of stuff came up all the damn time. As a storyteller, I don’t want to know the truth. I’m not going to go research full-body auras. I’m just going to want to take it as it is. That’s so symbolic … when people are really close—and this is something I just continue to think about this movie—when people are really close in this little town, they’re just really tight, they’re just sharing and vibing, and there’s a connection there. I think when an important person dies in a scene of people, it’s understandable that they would share these weird … if you don’t believe in the supernatural, you could say that they would share these weird dreams. I think that shared experience is powerful. I would never even want to read into it. I just like hearing about that stuff.
DM: I think that says a lot about Chris Bell. I think he had this really huge personality. So many people felt like they had this connection to him even if he was sometimes difficult to know.
DD: These were really exceptional guys. Alex and Chris—and Jody and Andy were wonderful—but like Andy said, they were like two shooting stars and they just really had this energy and this magnetism, and they were together as a songwriting team for a brief time. That brief time together overshadowed the rest of their lives and their musical careers, I think. I think also it’s really important for me, as I learn, to sort of dismantle the myth of Chris Bell being this fragile, quiet, shy guy. He really wasn’t. He was just more maybe in his own thoughts at times. I think he also was little bit above everything, so he wouldn’t participate in a lot of partying or whatever. But I listened to three hours of those guys doing overdubs in the studio and Chris Bell had this really sharp sense of humor and also was in complete control of those sessions. Alex Chilton was deferring to Chris about how to record, or ‘How did I sound on that? Should I do it over?’ I thought it was important to give Chris his agency in all this. We made that decision to say ‘Chris Bell, Founder.’ That’s how we refer to him in the movie.
There are scenes in the film where you’re in Ardent and they’re playing those original tapes for the camera. Did they just open the doors and allow you to work with anything you wanted?
DD: I think maybe it’s not clear that this whole thing was a John Fry- and Ardent Studios-sponsored project. That was like a second home for two years for me. They opened the doors when Danielle went and met with John Fry in 2007. There would be no way to make the film without Ardent, because they had all of the photos, the footage, the music. I also want to make it clear that the band was a product of that studio. The Big Star story is the story of a high-end studio in the South with an open-door policy to weirdoes and kids to record. The ones that were the most productive and made this lasting music were Big Star. There were other records made there, and there were other young bands. A lot of times people ask me, ‘Where’s Terry Manning?’ A lot of people really know this story well. So yeah, we had complete access to Ardent, and that studio hasn’t changed other than them taking the carpets out. The amps that they used and the Mellotron that I shot and the plate reverbs that are these crazy things that they used on those records, they’re all still there.
DM: The tape library.
DD: The remixes for the soundtrack are all remixed through the same board and the same outboard gear that they used in the 70s.
DM: John Fry was intimately involved in all of that. John Fry was at the board working on that for the most part.
Olivia Mori [co-director]: We all played a few notes on the Mellotron—pretty much any musician that walks in there wants to play that thing. I believe that Ardent is still very open to people who want to record there. I think more and more young bands are getting hip to Memphis. I know a few bands that have gone there to record at Sun or Ardent. One thing that Ardent is pretty well known for is their mastering. They have a working lathe machine that masters directly on to vinyl—this is the machine that is featured in our opening credits. Every Ardent album, almost every Stax album, not to mention countless other famous great albums, were mastered on this lathe machine by Larry Nix. And Larry is still there, and I know a lot of artists that do vinyl releases go to Ardent directly to have their album mastered by Larry on that machine.
Everything on the soundtrack is new and straight from the label?
DD: Yeah—sourced from the master tapes.
OM: There’s also some great bits of audio from when Big Star was recording #1 Record. A lot of the in-the-studio banter between the boys was captured on tape. Going through that audio was pretty exciting, hearing their voices—sounding so young!—up close, talking and cracking jokes. You can definitely hear in these recordings that Chris was at the helm, engineering the album, but also creatively seemingly in charge. And hearing Chris’ voice talking is kind of chilling, because in his music, his vocals always sound so distant, heavily drowned in reverb, to just hear him talking in this sweet demure southern voice, thats the closest I felt I would ever get to him.
And John Fry was also pretty much your music supervisor too?
DD: I would say so, more than anybody else. It was just up to us saying ‘John, what do you have in the vault? What can we use? What hasn’t been heard before?’
DM: He really masterminded it for us.
DD: Adam Hill, who is really his right-hand man down there, was involved as well. Adam started working at Ardent because he was a Big Star fan. He’s just been devouring Big Star outtakes for all these years and waiting for something to do with it, with all this knowledge, with all these clips he’s saved. He was ready for something like this.
It sounds like Ardent still exemplifies that particularly Memphian character that’s as central a subject for you as Chris Bell or Alex Chilton. Did you set out to pen a love letter to that era of Memphis Weird?
DD: Going through Jim’s footage, it was just non-stop. You could almost just listen to it as an oral history. Maybe that’s the kernel of how the film became this sort of meditation on Memphis culture and the uniqueness of that culture and how that culture influenced American popular culture—not just through Elvis or Stax but even in the story of Big Star, which is this Memphis music story that’s just as weird and interesting in the way it changed music … We owe Robert Gordon a debt as well for It Came From Memphis. They’re articulating the idea of outsider culture of being where great innovation is born. With any luck it catches on in the mainstream—and maybe when it doesn’t catch on in the mainstream, that preservation of that outsider culture is even more unique and interesting, and continues to be more individual because of that. That was kind of the story that Jim told. That’s why Panther Burns are just as important as ‘Thirteen’ in a way. We’ve gotten some flak about all this, but I’ve only become more resolute about those decisions, really because it made it a much more interesting story for me. It made it much more interesting to follow the crazy musical journey and the way Alex changed over time, what he did with music. Even the fact that he just started covering songs in his later years—I really value that, because it’s like he was saying popular music is losing its craft and its losing its soul, and he was kind of resurrecting old music and enjoying the interpretation of music. A lot of my favorite artists are not songwriters, like Nina Simone and Frank Sinatra. These people are song interpreters. I think Alex was relishing that.
DM: I always found it really interesting when people say, ‘Why didn’t you just do a documentary about Big Star?’ And it’s like, you do understand that if we made that it would probably be half an hour, forty-five minutes?! But then you wouldn’t be able to explain how we got from Third to Big Star reforming in the 90s. There’s a whole journey there and it’s all important to the story.
You’ve really received criticism from people who thought it all should end with Big Star?
DD: Yeah, and because of that debate I started having to make all these arguments to other people and to myself: if the Big Star story ends with the end of the band, and if we just we decided the third record is their last record … well, even that’s debatable. A lot of people, including John Fry, didn’t consider that a Big Star record. They considered it Alex’s weird, wacky experimental record where he was all hopped up on ludes every night. That wasn’t considered a Big Star record. Jody didn’t play on all those songs. It was packaged as a Big Star record retroactively in the late 70s. So, okay, where do you end the story? And then, oh, Chris Bell was the heart and soul and he was only in the first record. And oh, are we going to acknowledge that he died in 1978? Are we going to talk about ‘I Am the Cosmos’? All of that stuff, all of the mechanics of storytelling, were bogging us down for a while. And maybe I’m wrong, but I feel like I exhausted every possible avenue, and this is what we came up with.
It’s definitely about more than Big Star, literally and philosophically.
DM: That’s what we wanted it to be. We didn’t want it to just be a band bio.
DD: That’s why the story’s just got this universality. We literally are debating right now about whether or not to put all four band members’ names on the poster. It’s like, okay we can, but that says to me ‘band bio.’ And you know, Andy Hummel became an aeronautics engineer for most of his life. He’s not a bass player—he played bass. He happened to be there in this amazing scene, in this amazing time, at this incredible studio. And that’s the story that I want to tell: the lightning in a bottle story. That’s what I identified with. I think that’s what the music industry is really missing now. Everyone is so caught up making it, in fame, but that lightning in a bottle, that meeting of people that maybe only lasts for one song or one record or one year … there’s a magic there that you can never engineer.
DM: I think when I came up with this idea not only was I a huge fan of Big Star and wanted to tell their story, I was also really interested in … why does something make it and why does something not? Why does this amazing band not get fame? Worldwide famous? You see it time and time again, and now there’s been a lot of kind of similar documentaries about this phenomenon. But it was kind of one of the first instances of that in pop culture. I was just as interested in that as I was in the band’s story.
DD: So many groups that I listened to in college, and artists, were all outsider groups that never really went anywhere. Skip Spence, Tim Buckley, all these people that barely made it. I think it varies from artist to artist, but what I like about Big Star is—I allege that they never would have made it. They couldn’t make it—it was almost in the DNA of the band. It was in the DNA of what was happening in Memphis in the 70s. It was in Alex’s DNA to sabotage his own future; it was in Chris’ DNA to never compromise and to never stop re-recording ‘I Am The Cosmos’ until he was absolutely, perfectly satisfied with it.
The Big Star legend—the incredible band that nobody appreciated and now has a great influence—is in itself a kind of template for all these recent documentaries about music. Even in that way they almost forged a path, being ahead of their time as a story too.
DD: It’s becoming a bit of a trope, and people kind of call me out on it at Q&As sometimes. One person was like, ‘Well, I found the Rodriguez movie much more emotionally uplifting than the Big Star movie.’ Well, why are we drawing comparisons? Rodriguez’s story is completely different. There’s bad luck in the record industry all the time. I don’t really want to get bogged down in the details of why. When we were editing this thing it was like, ‘Do we really want to explain exactly how the product didn’t make it to the warehouse?’ I want to be more poetic about the telling of the story, and I think I was lucky that the telling of Big Star is sort of above the details. It’s almost like literature. There’s this fatalistic stuff in there, and there’s that mythic stuff. We talk about Chris Bell’s death—everyone was really moved by that, and that’s only a small portion. Everyone saw Chris Bell’s ghost. We didn’t make that up. That was there.
They literally saw Chris Bell’s ghost?
DM: Chris Bell’s sister.
DD: It’ll be in the DVD extras. Chris Bell’s sister was visited in her sleep. A bird appeared at the family vacation home in the Caribbean and lived with them. People say that they were just changed by that death.
All these characters in your film talk about the tragedy of Big Star, of that pain turned into beauty, and your film itself has a great undercurrent of tragedy. So many people died while you were making it. Dickinson, Chilton, Hummel, and then some of your on-camera interviewees have died since.
DD: I started to feel a very sick sense in my stomach about it, because after Alex passed, that was really surprising. And then Carole Manning and Steve Rhea, and I just had a very sick feeling. Every couple of months we would hear about someone else. There was a lot of cancer going around.
None of these people were very old.
DM: They were in their late 50s, early 60s, just way too young. All these people all at once—we were lucky that we got their stories but it was devastating to be losing all these people. It was just a horrible feeling. We have them; that’s a good thing. But it doesn’t make you feel any better about them passing.
You went to South by Southwest hoping that you could talk to Alex Chilton again about being in the film, and then he passed right before?
DM: I don’t think we even knew if we could continue after Alex passed, even though he hadn’t even said yes. Drew and I had conversations: ‘What do we do now? Is this over?’ We somehow figured out a way to go forward.
DD: But in a way it wasn’t even going to start, because he wasn’t even going to do an interview. It was kind of a ridiculous trip that we were taking in the first place, cuz he had said we couldn’t shoot him or shoot the band on stage. I just came down with my camera—I didn’t bring anything; I didn’t bring the crew. I just thought we would interview fans. I thought we would shoot around the show and maybe it would be a story about a cult band. About what a cult audience is like.
Jim Dickinson, who’d died by the time you visit Zebra Ranch in the film, still comes across as more alive than most people when you see the place.
OM: The Zebra Ranch is a magical place. Jim Dickinson was a true visionary, and much like what Graceland was for Elvis, the Zebra Ranch is this perfect manifestation of his aesthetic and ideals; he fashioned his very own ideal setting for recording music, and it is chock full of ramshackle chaos, and things in a state of decay and falling apart. But this was all a purposeful aesthetic. And if you are familiar with the brilliant work that he did producing Third/Sister Lovers, seeing the Zebra Ranch is imperative to understanding this aesthetic and sound that is associated with him. Oh, and there are zebras and zebra print everywhere! Everyone who would go there to record would ask Jim: ‘Whats with all the zebra print?’ And his reply was always ‘While you’re recording, just don’t think about zebras.’
You had to work around a lack of the kind of footage that usually makes up a given portion of a music doc. How much of the content in the film is stuff people haven’t seen or heard before?
DM: The footage of Chris Bell I don’t think has ever been seen before outside of family.
DD: The home movies, yeah. Which when we first saw it, it was just hours and hours of them as kids on a vacation in Sweden or something. Chris Branca, the other editor, just found that perfect shot and was lucky enough that our other DP had shot the sundial in the backyard. It was one of those wonderful things that happen. We needed that kind of stuff, because we really were just lacking in external material. But as little footage as we had—which just like twenty minutes of sixteen millimeter and that home movie stuff—we have just loads of photos because all these people in the scene were just amateur photographers in their teens. Then a lot of them became professionals. [William] Eggleston we know about, but there was Michael O’Brien, who grew up with them, who took all of those #1 Record photos. Carole Manning, she later did other album covers. Then there was Eggleston’s cousin Maudie, who shoots for the Oxford American. We had really high-quality photography to work from through all the years.
DM: We also got to use Stranded in Canton, which is not new but is maybe not super well known.
DD: It’s more of an art project, but it reflected what we were trying to get across.
What were you trying to get across that Stranded in Canton represents?
DD: It’s really emblematic of what we were really calling Memphis bohemia in the 70s. It’s emblematic of a weird mixture of people that happened when you could finally get loaded on liquor by the drink. It basically brought every type of person. I’m down in New Orleans right now, and it’s not unlike here—it’s not unlike Biloxi, Mississippi, a place that’s crazy because people from the country come down and just get hammered. It also opened up more gay culture, everyone kind of comes together because if you’re looking to party, there’s only one place to go. So it was kind of a fertile place. You had weird people mixing. You had Wiliam Eggleston; you had Randall Lyon, who was an experimental videographer and drag queen; and you had Alex Chilton, who was just hanging out and having a drink and then he was going to go back and record ‘Mod Lang’ at Ardent Studios that night.
The mainstream culture doesn’t really think of bohemia when they think of Memphis. I think they think of the commercial end results of grassroots culture, of big names like Elvis.
DD: Elvis came from bohemia. He came from like white-kid-who-listens-to-black-music-and-dresses-like-a-black-pimp culture. It’s always been there, I guess maybe ‘bohemia’ summons up Williams Burroughs or something, but I’m just talking about out-there culture, hipster culture. I think people think about New York, they don’t think about Memphis or anywhere in the South. On a personal level—and I found out that this is how all these guys felt—I felt like a lived in a backwater, being from Jacksonville, Florida, which coincidentally is where Danielle’s from too. That’s the home of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the home of Molly Hatchet and 38 Special. If you had half a brain you didn’t really have a place to hang out. Being into weird British music would make you kind of a pariah. You had to keep that to yourself in your bedroom. And I feel like that’s kind of what Chris Bell’s story was. He went to this prep school and he really had to toe the line for a while—he couldn’t really let his freak flag fly. I know that in the late 70s, the R.E.M. guys had that same feeling. They wanted to hear other music besides hard rock, and they felt very proud that Big Star were this really high-class, sophisticated, well-honed band from the South that kind of transcended the culture. Because the culture is powerful down there. I think transcending the culture is going to make life difficult for you. Maybe that’s part of this story too. Being different.
Bohemian Memphis ultimately comes across as more interesting than the New York bohemia people always talk about.
DM: It’s a little bit more dangerous too in some ways. It has an edge to it, but it was fun. It was a very wild time. People may not know that much about that part of Memphis, and we wanted to put that forefront in the film.
DD: There’s no benefit to being in the counterculture in the South. You’re basically going to just be banishing yourself from any kind of potential. In places like New York, you could get famous—someone could discover you. There’s just no pretense in the counterculture in the South.
What did you discover about Big Star that defies the legend and conventional wisdom of the genius band overlooked in their musical lifetime?
DD: When I was in college and people were talking about Big Star it was always like, ‘Oh, they were this super-poppy band and then Alex Chilton started doing too many drugs and he made this record, Third. And the whole thing fell apart.’ But the seeds of that destruction were always there. Chris Bell was more emotionally disturbed than Alex was. He was bipolar and trashed the tapes of the first record. And then the next incarnation, truthfully, was the same as Third: it was Alex and friends, an assortment of people getting loaded, dropping a bunch of ludes, and going into the studio and experimenting. Then they just kind of put that together into a record. A lot of those songs on Radio City, the lyrics are just so dark and angry and weird and controversial, just as much as the lyrics on Third. I wanted to make that connection as well. We had this part where we were listening to one of the songs and I just had to go into the reviews and pull out what they were saying. They were saying that the music was sardonic, was treading the fine line between naivety and world-weariness. I was like, ‘Jesus, I didn’t know that.’ I never heard that.
You devote a lot of attention to 70s music journalism. Was the Rock Writers Convention a serious labor effort? Did John King really believe he could unionize guys like Richard Meltzer and Lester Bangs, who greeted Memphis by pissing through the gates of Graceland?
OM: That was no bluff at all. In the early 70s, rock journalism was starting to distinguish itself as a new form of writing and becoming really popular. Magazines like Creem were inspiring a whole new younger generation of writers that were starting their own zine-like publications. John King, being the fun-loving guy that he is, was really into this stuff. He loved the whole comical, rebellious attitude of these guys. I remember him saying something to the effect of ‘They were kinda like anarchists, and I loved it!’ He earnestly wanted to help them unionize cuz he knew that they weren’t making much money doing this.
You skipped those legendary wall-pissing, bass-smashing punch-ups. Why is that sort of thing not in the film?
DD: It’s not important. If it was Mick Jagger and Keith Richards bloodying each other on the Oriental carpet, that would be one thing, but these are just two guys. To me they almost represent everyman musicians—to me Big Star is like the greatest garage band in a way that was never chronicled. We’re starting from zero. We’re not starting from this familiarity that people have. There’s tons of details that will be in the DVD extras for people who know the story and want to hear that stuff, but every time we threw things like that in, it would kind of derail the narrative arc. And so we would just keep pulling stuff out—that was in the early cut as well. There were other, worse fights. Chris Bell smashed the glass of that atrium at Ardent and cut himself up. They were kind of bad boys. They were really spoiled! That’s something people don’t know about Big Star. John Fry doesn’t like anyone saying that about his boys, but they had it made. Chris Bell drove a Triumph—drove the Triumph down to the studio just like he was John Lennon or something, breezed on in and laid down a track. ‘Boy, go get me some cigarettes’ or something.
DM: We have that in the movie—the first time meeting John Fry he was sitting at his desk with his feet up on Fry’s desk. He’d never even met the guy. That’s one thing people might not know about Big Star. They were a lot of rich boys who had everything they could possibly need to make this happen. And it just didn’t happen.
DD: Alex Chilton was living off the money he made from the Box Tops until he was about 28 or something. He didn’t work at all. And that’s again what’s fun about this story—this living in a bizarre reality where in a way they lived like they were rock stars. I love the irony of that. John Fry flew planes! They would fly planes all over! They would wake up in the morning and fly to Boston for the day. It was just amazing. They lived in this alternate, bizarro reality in which they were rock stars. I love that after the band failed, Alex said, ‘I can’t get a license/To drive in my car/But I won’t really need one/If I’m a big star.’ I think it wasn’t lost on Alex. I think might have been lost on Chris. I think he was a little bit deluded. He continued to get to live that way, cuz he went to Europe and recorded with Geoff Emerick at Air Studios and met Paul McCartney—that will be in the extras. He continued to be able to feel like he was living that life.
Did Bell really destroy all that tape? Was there a screwdriver involved? How much did he ultimately destroy?
DD: The screwdriver incident was separate from the tape erasing. That was after Chris was being an ‘overbearing asshole’ according to Andy and was criticizing him for his playing. Andy socked him in the nose, and he bled all over the Chiltons’ Oriental carpet. In return Chris jabbed a hole in Andy’s acoustic guitar with a screwdriver. With the tapes, Chris erased the masters so #1 Record can never be remixed or remastered. All that exists today are the ¾-inch mixdowns that were used to make the records at the time. There were a few outtakes and alt mixes that Ardent found for us to use for the soundtrack. Chris’ brother thinks he was bipolar. He was seeing a therapist at the time but was probably taking the wrong drugs—actually being overprescribed.
Why hasn’t there been a Big Star movie yet?
DM: The only thing I’d heard about a Big Star movie was something very vague about a biopic idea. I looked into it a little bit, and of course the people at Ardent, who hold the key to the kingdom on Big Star, they told me that they had met these people and it was frankly a very shady group. They didn’t trust them. So they were already going into this with kind of a nervousness because of that vibe. I was sort of like, ‘Why don’t we just make a documentary about the band?!’
Did they tell you why it was shady? Did Memphis not trust Hollywood?
DM: I think it is a very insular world in Memphis. I’ve noticed that sometimes people can be like, ‘Oh, these fast-talkin’ New Yorkers, these fast-talkin’ L.A. people,’ so there is an insular nature to Memphis. But also, these people were really shady! I don’t know the specifics but I did some Googling and they were definitely out of business and there was definitely a weird federal case or something … I think people had definitely made some half-hearted [documentary] efforts, a little dip of the toe into the pool, but I don’t know—I guess we just lucked out. We asked and they said yes.