On March 26th 2011 I went to see a Big Star tribute show for their album Third/Sister Lovers with Jody Stephens (the bands original drummer), Mike Mills, Chris Stamey, Matthew Sweet, Michael Stipe, Tift Merrit, and other performers. It was a great show, little did I know then that it would be part of a movie, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me. I really loved the film but it was very sad. I was left with a stunned kind of numb feeling…not from the story, maybe from the notion that there are probably bands/performers out there now making amazing music that will go unappreciated until long after its time. Don’t get me wrong these songs are timeless and essential listening i.e. not limited to an era. Big Star were from Memphis which was well represented in the film as Elvis Graceland territory without overshadowing their story. The two main creative forces initially were Alex Chilton and Chris Bell both guitar/vocalists. Chris Bell left the band after the first album. Chilton went on after 2 more Big Star albums to pursue punk rock. Chris Bell was clearly ambitious and driven and painfully disappointed when through a series of mishaps and missteps (I’m not going to give anything away, you should see the film) they were never embraced outside of rock critic and musician circles. It makes me wonder about committing to the ephemeral. Bell became born-again Christian, the film hinted, as a means to cope with alcohol and drug abuse and homosexual tendencies. I wonder how much of it had to do with committing to a creation which didn’t pay off as he anticipated. While he was in England he recorded the great album ‘I Am The Cosmos’. Every time I hear the first line of the title-track I think of a Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) type character. Bell was killed in a car crash at the age of 27.
I bought a Death album, For The Whole World to See, after hearing the track, ‘Politicians In My Eyes’, somewhere on the internet, probably Aquarium Drunkard, a couple of years or so ago. I didn’t know anything about them other than that they were black punk rockers from Detroit. I don’t think it’s merely coincidence that great rock comes from poor places. Lo and behold a movie was released this year, A Band Called Death. The band was 3 brothers, David, Dannis and Bobby. They’d practice their classic rock influenced loud rock after school, driving the neighbors nuts. The band was initially called Rock Funk Fire Express. They were influenced by likes of Pete Townsend, Jimi Hendrix and Todd Rundgren. David Hackney was driven and uncompromising in his vision of naming the band Death after his father died. They reached a point where they could’ve gotten a 20K record deal if they changed the name. David did not budge, so the recordings went to the attic. This film was about many things for me. Mostly it was about family loyalty and brotherhood but also about dogged persistence and sticking firm to your vision whether you “succeed” or not. It’s so important for people who make things to defend what they make from those who might want to ‘taint the waters’ for the sake of a buck. They made 2 gospel rock albums in Vermont as The 4th Movement before David moved back to Detroit. Dannis and Bobby went on playing without David in their reggae band Lambsbread. David died of lung cancer. The master tapes were discovered by Bobby Hackney Sr.s kids, Julian, Urian, and Bobby Jr. The kids formed a band called Rough Francis and covered Death songs. Meanwhile Bobby Sr. and Dannis reformed Death to support the release (after 30 years) of For The Whole World to See.
In this regard the Death movie is victorious because the revived music goes on and not only with 2 of the original members but their kids as well. So it felt hopeful whereas the Big Star movie felt a little like an epitaph, a memorial but it is still so beautiful. A Band Called Death was amazingly clear. One central thing these films have in common is a particular person, a figure, the driving force, the uncompromising visionary Chris Bell of Big Star and David Hackney of Death. Both were religious and maybe more specifically, more importantly to their creations, spiritual.
Have good listens folks! Oh hey, pitchfork has a review of the Big Star soundtrack but if you’re curious you really should just get those albums!