Jody Stephens, the drummer for the legendary band Big Star, kindly agreed to let me tag along Sept. 30, 2016, on a private tour he was giving at Ardent Studios — the Memphis recording studio where Big Star made its classic records, along with countless other artists over the years, including the Replacements and R.E.M. Ardent is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
Stephens works as Ardent’s business development director — and he’s still active as a musician, writing and singing some lovely songs in the vein of Big Star’s acoustic ballads, on the self-titled album of his new band, Those Pretty Wrongs.
Stephens showed us through the studios, amiably chatting about the equipment and the people who have played inside those walls. “Playing music together is kind of like recipes,” he remarked at one point. “Everybody has their own ingredients for what they put in.” Discussing the best place to put the drums in a room, he said, “Everybody has a different idea of where the sweet spot is.”
That neon big star in the reception area isn’t the one that was used on the cover of Big Star’s Radio City — it’s a replica. But Jody’s the real thing.
Back when I discovered the music of Big Star as a college student, my first impression was that the band’s first two albums, #1 Record and Radio City, were overlooked classics, while its third album, Third (Sister Lovers), was a weird mess. But then Rykodisc’s 1992 reissue of that troubled Third opened my ears to what a majestic collection of music it truly was. Over the years, it has grown in my estimation considerably, so that it stands together with Big Star’s other album as a masterpiece. Another remastered version, with a different track sequence, was included in the 2009 Rhino box set Keep an Eye on the Sky. I’m most accustomed to the 1992 Rykodisc version, but one of the things that makes Third so fascinating is that there really is no one definitive version.
It’s a shame that Big Star’s Alex Chilton never performed the whole record live with the string accompaniment it needs. But since Chilton died in 2010, a group of his colleagues and admirers has put together a concert version of Big Star’s Third. It made its Chicago debut on Friday (June 28) at Park West. The driving force behind this project was Chris Stamey of The dB’s, working together with Mitch Easter of Let’s Active, Ken Stringellow of the Posies (who played in the latter-day reunited Big Star), and, of course, drummer Jody Stephens, the only surviving member of Big Star.
Like the original record, the concert was messy and imperfect. At a few moments, the guest singers flubbed lyrics. (Rutili seemed unfamiliar with many of the words he was tasked to sing.) But at many other moments, Chilton’s haunting and strange music sounded glorious. Stephens, whose drumming parts were a crucial ingredient in making Big Star’s songs so memorable, stepped out from behind the drums to sing “Blue Moon” and “For You,” a song that he wrote. At the climax of Third, most of the musicians who’d played over the course of the evening crowded onto the stage for a rousing “Thank You Friends.”
The concert didn’t end there. The ad hoc group played several more Big Star songs, as well as three of the songs that Big Star’s Chris Bell recorded as a solo artist, and the one radio hit that Alex Chilton had during his career, the Box Tops’ “The Letter.”
Big Star’s music, which was almost completely overlooked when it came out in the 1970s, now feels like it has the respect it deserved all along.