I love ambitious, unfinished semi-failures. It’s a criticism you could level at my favorite book (see the quote at the top of the page) – James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. I’d argue that the Wake is the greatest work of literature in the English language. But it’s hardly complete – for most of the nearly twenty years it took to write, its title was Work In Progress. The Wake doesn’t have a traditional plot, as characters and themes weave in and out, bubbling under the thicket of puns and near unreadable prose. Of course if you dig in and start to make some sense of what’s going on, you might discover one of the most profound statements on humanity this side of Darwin. If you just want a nice plot – go read an airport paperback.
Is it an artist’s job to produce a complete work to be consumed and criticized in the marketplace? How about Coppola’s Apocalypse Now? A deeply transcendent film, it was later reworked into the even better Redux version. And there’s a longer workprint available that’s over five hours long. The troubled production was shut down multiple times for all sorts of disasters, with Coppola himself essentially suffering a nervous breakdown. I’m reminded of Faulkner’s famous criticism of Joyce’s masterpiece, that he was “electrocuted by the divine fire.” Perhaps Coppola was too. Perhaps that’s okay.
Two points here: one is that an artist can sometimes get swallowed up by the work, the other being the question of whether a work is ever really “finished.” For me: I don’t need my art, my music, my literature wrapped up in a bow and slapped with a UPC code. I like the jagged edges and stray threads, the possible failure of wild self-indulgence over the mild success of clean professionalism. Give me my White Album with “Revolution #9,” every time.
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So we get to Big Star’s third album, which was never truly finished in terms of a traditional product. And Alex Chilton never managed anything close to it again. Electrocuted by divine fire? Third is a weird, idiosyncratic album full of in-jokes and self-referential bits, songs collapsing and magically coming back together, druggy dirges, a Velvet Underground cover, a song that invents Radiohead twenty years early, a sweet ballad about quaaludes, and a Christmas song about Jesus. I love it.
For lots of us, the Replacements were the gateway drug that led to Big Star. Paul Westerberg’s “Alex Chilton” is an ode not only to the band but to inspiration itself; it’s a cousin to Dylan’s “Song To Woody” in that sense. Westerberg turned a new generation on to this little pop band from the early 70s, so much that there was a cool cache associated with Big Star’s music. Their first two albums are good collections of pop rock, fine songwriting with touches of soul and Beatle-y psychedelia. But it’s not the sort of music that really speaks to my weird spirit.
The third album was for a long time one of those mythical unreleased projects in the tradition of Brian Wilson’s Smile. The sessions broke down due to drugs, a final running order was never really decided on, and record label issues held up the release. I was introduced to the album through the Ryko re-release. I “inherited” the green tape from my mom when I borrowed it and never gave it back. I played it constantly in the summer of 04, when I was personally somewhat fractured, lost, into the drugs and drink and late nights that just fade away. I was taking a class that summer at Stockton College in South Jersey and I played Third/Sister Lovers every day on my commute. Something so powerful, haunting, and just goofy about that music. And I’ll forever associate it with the Garden State Parkway, driving from that class and wondering where my own goofy life was going.
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This year Omnivore Recordings released Big Star’s Complete Third, which includes a disc of acoustic demos, a disc of rough mixes, and a disc of final mixes. It’s a great package (and I just gifted it to my mom for Christmas for “borrowing” her tape many years ago).
The disc of Alex’s demos is shockingly good, reminiscent of George Harrison’s ABKCO demos in skeletal acoustic beauty. “Kango Roo” and “Thank You Friends” really stand out; I’m still not sure if the latter is satire, in light of the band troubles and the spiritual isolation of deepening drug use but it’s one of my favorite tunes. Speaking of spiritual isolation – “Holocaust” is a Plastic Ono Band worthy song that can be difficult to listen to if you really dig in deep to its vibe. The clean (to pardon the pun) version of “Downs” is a revelation, a happy little love song in a spare arrangement free from the weird cluttered album version. Overall the acoustic disc is not just a curiosity piece; it’s a great re-listenable album that holds up and rewards on its own. The second disc of rough mixes is probably the least essential, though as a fan I’m grateful to have it. And of course there’s a cover of Velvet Underground’s “After Hours,” though the ragged sound with Alex’s girlfriend on vocals is right in tune (ahem) with the spirit of the original.
My only problem with the third disc of the album proper is that I have to re-program it to match the old Ryko playlist, otherwise known as the Jim Dickinson order. “Kizza Me” has to be the first song – how could it not be? Like how could Exile not open with “Rocks Off”? And I’ve always liked the idea of ending side one with “Stroke It Noel,” that beautifully weird baroque tune that can’t really be followed; then side two opens with classy pop song “For You” into “You Can’t Have Me,” which I’m only just now realizing sounds like mid-60s Who. I also like to end the album with the cover of the Kinks’ “Til The End Of The Day” – it just works as a summation of the whole thing for me. Though I wouldn’t argue “Take Care” as the closer. Part of what makes this album special is that it belongs to the fans in some ways, through running orders and various versions. And of course inspiration. Also: “Big Black Car” is the song that the song invents Radiohead and “Jesus Christ” is the song that re-invents Christmas.
The tune that really defines the album is “O Dana” – if you want a little idea of what Third is all about, that’s the one. It’s an irregular arrangement of a pop/soul song with insular, semi-nonsensical lyrics that picks up for the hook and falls apart and picks itself back up again. You don’t know if it’s a great lost hit single or some unfinished outtake jam. It’s both.