So I had this idea for a review of this latest reissue of the third Big Star album. I thought that maybe I could point out the inequity of calling any set of recordings "complete," even one that comes with such copious sleeve notes and demos and outtakes and rough mixes. I thought that maybe I could include all my drafts and edits and mistaken observations by way of infusing the reader with a sense of what it is like to experience Complete Third.
Feature some notes to myself, like:
1. When you say you like Big Star, are you buying into the myth of Big Star—obscure, drug-riddled Memphis outsiders—or their music?
2. Who decides when something is complete? Why leave out the burps and cups of coffee and run-throughs that never made it onto one-inch magnetic tape? Have a listen to the appalling outtakes "Pre-Downs" and "Baby Strange," included here toward the end of the first disc, Demos to Sessions to Roughs, and ask yourself: Why this desire for completeness, for an ideal that can never be attained? Is it not better to leave music incomplete?
3. "Don't Worry Baby," the uncovered Beach Boys cover featured here is... wow. Almost as good as the Beach Boys original.
4. Does it matter what state of mind singer Alex Chilton was in when he recorded these songs in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1974? Does knowledge of context increase enjoyment of music? Was Paul McCartney dead when he crossed that crosswalk on Abbey Road? Do you go for connotation or denotation?
5. Intention or interpretation?
6. Always loved Teenage Fanclub, and their love for Big Star. Never had a problem with standing on the shoulders of giants... you often get a better view that way.
Discussing Big Star's third album is problematic. It never had an official title or a final running order. Finished in 1975, it never made it past the test-pressing stage, due to lack of finance and lack of interest from the two remaining Big Star members, Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens. It has variously been known and reissued as Sister Lovers, Third, "the third Big Star album," and a "lost masterpiece"—the last coming from music critics the world over, although how "lost" the third Big Star album can be held to be in 2016 is debatable, bearing in mind its hallowed status among the criterati. You may as well call The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl a cult classic.
Hollywood Bowl is not a mental breakdown record, however (although listening to John Lennon's voice at the start of the third verse to "Help!" you may care to argue otherwise). Third/Sister Lovers (I am giving it the title I am most familiar with, from the 1992 Rykodisc edition) is. Or is it?
As with much of art, what we hear inside music is what we put there ourselves. It is a reflection (distended, distorted) of our own feelings. If you hear Sister Lovers as a breakdown record—and sure, the signals are there: labored, slowed-down, breathy vocals on songs like "Holocaust" and the decaying fairground opening to "Jesus Christ"; head-banging-against-brick-wall bad boogie covers "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and the Kinks' "Till the End of the Day"—then surely that is more a reflection on you as the listener than Big Star as the artist?
7. Isn't it?
8. Am I talking myself out of a job?
When I listen to Sister Lovers, often I feel the weight of a classic rock canon threatening to destabilize my love for a record I am nowhere near as familiar with as many of my peers. This is not what I want to associate the record with: I want to feel special, separate to my peers. I want to associate sunny afternoons in Bearsden, Glasgow, with the wind whipping up a fury of tasted hair, cassettes cascaded down stairwells, drunk belligerent friends loudly declaiming how THIS music, NO OTHER music, is the greatest in the world. Not breakdowns, but sure. Within the three CDs' worth of material collected here, you can hear the sound of Chilton making the transition from teen idol to obscurity and back again, and that is thrilling. Someone else's pain is always thrilling when they manage to capture it so poignantly.
9. "Big Black Car" is 75 percent of all songs released by Creation Records in the late 1980s. They wish.
This is the problem and the joy of mental breakdown records: When they're good—great, even—they can help justify your own belief in the cleansing power of (trad) rock 'n' roll. See also: Lennon's first solo album and most of Daniel Johnston's early cassette releases. The downside is that you can start feeling like a spectator at an American presidential debate, worryingly voyeuristic—should we allow our children to witness this moral slide? As the Guardian's Michael Hann writes: "Third is an album of soft moonlight and deep black holes. It's the sound of confusion and dislocation. It's an album that sounds as if it was being demolished even as it was being recorded, where a heart stoppingly beautiful melody might at any moment be washed away by a scree of white noise. It's an album where Chilton, the record's creator, might one minute be singing about a 'wasted face... a sad-eyed lie... a holocaust' and the next be thanking his friends—'wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you.'" Yeah, that as well.
10. This is a record to wallow in (which is both good and bad, obv).
The opening broadside of demos—just guitar and voice—are astonishing. In the main, they are far more direct and affecting and hence commercial than the finished (chosen years after the event) "album." This judgment comes with the hindsight of 40 years, however, and the knowledge that so many bands that have come since—Posies, Wilco, Teenage Fanclub, Mazzy Star, and others, many of whom are represented within the sleeve notes—have borrowed heavily from this album, and hence made the sound much more familiar and hence commercial. Big Star were a band not born for their times? Uh, your call not mine.
There is a slew of information contained within this three-disc set (interviews with band members, fans, critics, fan-critics, Alex Chilton's bodyguard, and so forth). I have avoided it, as I feel it compromises the experience of the music and I do not buy into the myth of Big Star. Love the music, couldn't give a crap about the backstory.
One can argue that reading such material enhances the experience of listening to music itself. I have rarely found this to be the case. The less I know about Chilton and the third Big Star album, the more I like Chilton and the third Big Star album. I would like to preserve this state of affairs. Several of the songs here ("Jesus Christ," "Holocaust," the tear-streaked Nat King Cole cover "Nature Boy," the upbeat and wailing "Thank You Friends," and "Kizza Me") are pure magic. Musical balm.
11. I, like any right-thinking soul, love the Replacements and Bed Wettin' Bad Boys.
12. Beauty is never beauty unless it has been broken in some way, made imperfect. Exhibit one: the third Big Star album.
Editorial qualifier: You do not need Complete Third, although I am damned if I know where else you will hear those coruscating demos. The second disc (Roughs to Demos) is superfluous and you presumably own the third already. No one said fandom is cheap.
13. P.S. The difference between the first Big Star album and the third Big Star album is the difference between the Beatles and the Velvet Underground. To each their own.