“I’m in love with that song.”

Finally caught the awesome Big Star documentary the other night, even though I was and remain a Replacements fan and have loved their song “Alex Chilton” for many moons; know some of the people involved with the Big Star reunions; and have been being yelled at by friends to watch the documentary for years. Sometimes I’m slow. It’s okay.
But it’s so good – most everything about Chilton and Memphis, but also the stuff about guitarist Chris Bell is just so weird.

By the mid-1960s, Memphis was teeming with teenage musicians captivated by their hometown’s role in birthing rock and roll, then the most dominant cultural expression of the era. Chilton had acquired no small amount of musical sophistication and talent just by virtue of parental osmosis. Well, that and he had a somewhat gimmicky ability to sing like soul-singers much darker and older than an upper-middle class white kid had any right to do. After a high school talent competition, Chilton was asked to join a local group of older musicians that eventually came to be called The Box Tops. Like Big Star, that name doesn’t mean much beyond music obsessives, but the band’s first single sold a few million copies and remains one of the most recognizable hits of the sixties. When “The Letter” hit number one, Chilton was just 16 years old.

The Box Tops churned out a number of minor hits after that, and Chilton, who had dropped out of school, went on tour with the band and partook in the usual rock and roll carousing. He partied with The Doors, and with The Box Tops’ brief career winding down, he even moved out to California to live with Brian and Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys. (It was there that he once crashed on the same couch with Charles Manson.) With The Box Tops breaking up, he largely abandoned the pursuit of fame. He taught himself to play guitar, worked on writing his own songs, and moved to New York where he became a fixture on the Greenwich Village folk scene. Along the way he got married, had a child, and divorced not long after. After briefly connecting with Chris Bell, a visionary musician from his teenage days in Memphis, Chilton moved back home to join his band. Big Star recorded and released their first album, the ironically titled #1 Record.

All this happened by the time he was 21. At an age when most of us were still trying to decide what we were going to do with our lives, Chilton had lit the fuse on a bomb that’s still sending shockwaves through pop music. But by the time we get to Chilton’s involvement with Big Star, well, here’s where George-Warren’s book, with its exhaustive details and an impressive authorial command, departs from the traditional rock and roll narrative. (And I do mean exhaustive—the book’s opening chapter traces the Chilton family history back to 11th century Normandy. If you want to know which houseguest Chilton’s mother showed how to make homemade mayonnaise, well, it’s all in here.)

Here’s a heavily abbreviated version of what happened: After a too brief and brilliant career, Big Star simply collapsed. Despite some positive critical notices, they remained largely unknown for a decade afterwards. Big Star’s music was so undeniably good that, over time, critical consensus simply reached critical mass. The resurrection of Big Star in the 1980s was a heartening and surprising event that’s almost unique in rock history.

Anyway… Here’s to tangents, slowness, weird great music, friends.

The Consumed Vertigo of Catastrophe

French theorist Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) was a sharp critic of contemporary society who twisted philosophy, social theory and cultural metaphysics into a chaotic ball of illuminating knots. The snippet below is from his 1970, The Consumer Society: Myths & Structures. This section is titled The Miraculous Status of Consumption.

The usage of signs is always ambivalent. Its function is always a conjuring – both a conjuring up and a conjuring away; causing something to emerge in order to capture it in signs (forces, reality, happiness, etc.) and evoking something in order to deny and repress it. We know that, in its myths, magical thought seeks to conjure away change and history. In a way, the generalized consumption of images, of facts, of information aims also to conjure away the real with signs of the real, to conjure away history with the signs of change, etc.

Reality we consume in either anticipatory or retrospective mode. At any rate, we do so at a distance, a distance which is that of the sign. For example, when Paris-Match showed us the secret forces assigned to protect the general [De Gaulle] training with machine guns in the basement of Prefecture, that image was not read as ‘information’ i.e. as referring to the political context and its elucidation. For every one of us, it bore within it the temptation of a superb assassination attempt, a prodigious violent event; the attempt will take place, it is going to take place; the image is the forerunner to it, and embodies the anticipated pleasure; all perversions have their acting out. What we see here is the same inverse effect as in the expectation of miraculous abundance within the cargo cult. Cargo or catastrophe – in both cases, we have an effect of consumed vertigo.

We may, admittedly, say that it is, then, our fantasies which come to be signified in the image and consumed in it. But this psychological aspect interests us less than what comes into the image to be both consumed in it and repressed: the real world, the event, history.

What characterizes consumer society is the universality of the news item [le fait divers] in mass communication. All political, history and cultural information is received in the same – at once anodyne and miraculous – form of the news item. It is entirely actualized – i.e. dramatized by the spectacular mode – and entirely deactualized – i.e. distanced by the communications medium and reduced to signs. The news item is thus not one category among others, but the cardinal category of our magical thinking, of our mythology.

That mythology is buttressed by the all the more voracious demand for reality, for ‘truth’, for ‘objectivity’. Everywhere we find cinema verite’, live reporting, the newsflash, the high-impact photo, the eye-witness report, etc. Everywhere what is sought is the ‘heart of the event’, the ‘heart of the battle’, the ‘live’, the ‘face to face’ – the dizzy sense of a total presence at the event, the Great Thrill of Lived Reality – i.e. the miracle once again, since the truth of the media report, televised and taped, is that I was not there. But it is the truer than true which counts or, in other words, the fact of being there without being there. Or, to put it another way, the fantasy.

What mass communications give us is not reality, but the dizzying whirl of reality [le vertige de la realite’]. Or again, without playing on words, a reality without the dizzying whirl, for the heart of Amazonia, the heart of reality, the heart of passion, the heart of war, this ‘Heart’ which is the locus of mass communications and which gives them their vertiginous sentimentality, is precisely the place where nothing happens. It is the allegorical sign of passion and of the event. And signs are sources of security.

So we live, sheltered by signs, in the denial of the real. A miraculous security: when we look at the images of the world, who can distinguish this brief irruption of reality from the profound pleasure of not being there? The image, the sign, the message – all these things we ‘consume’ – represent our tranquility consecrated by distance from the world, a distance more comforted by the allusion to the real (even where the allusion is violent) than compromised by it.