Waltz Across Memphis

By  |  April 4, 2010

In May of 1978, the first Big Star pilgrimage took place. Driving out from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, via Interstate 40, three guys obsessed with the band rolled into Memphis determined to track down their heroes. The three guys were Mitch Easter, Will Rigby, and Peter Holsapple, and they were about the only people in America who, while attending high school in the early '70s, were under the impression that Big Star—the hard-luck Memphis combo that disintegrated in 1975—was a major big-deal band. For some reason, Winston-Salem radio loved Big Star, and had made "When My Baby's Beside Me," from the band's mostly unheard #1 RECORD, a local hit.

Another musician-friend of theirs, Chris Stamey, recalled the impact of hearing Chris Bell and Alex Chilton's tunes over the airwaves in 1972: "They were my favorite, and as far as I knew they were popular all the way across America. At least for that moment, I forgot about Emerson, Lake, and Palmer."

Easter would go on to form the great '80s underground pop band Let's Active and produce REM and Pavement. Holsapple and Rigby and their pal Stamey—who'd been playing bass with Chilton up in New York—would go on to form another great '80s underground pop band, the dBs.

The first item on their Memphis-mecca itinerary was Danver's, a fast-food establishment owned by Bell's father, Vernon. There the younger Bell had attempted to submerge himself in respectability by taking a job as manager.

"We passed a note back with the girl working out front," Easter remembers, "and in a couple of minutes, this guy came out who was Chris Bell." Not surprisingly, Bell was astonished to find fans waiting for him. The boys from North Carolina, meanwhile, were struck by Bell's button-down work garb, his neat mustache, and, as Easter puts it, his "white-guy Afro...he looked incredibly like that guy in Sparks."

Bell invited them to join him after work at a ferny bar-café called the Bombay Bicycle Club. Here, while Bell played backgammon with a buddy, the three acolytes peppered him with questions: What kind of guitar did he play? How did he get those great sounds? What bands was he into these days? The answer to that last one—"Fleetwood Mac and Steve Miller"—wasn't quite what Bell's punk-rock guests had anticipated. And although Bell was good-natured and entertaining, the boys weren't prepared when Bell let out a sigh and told them, "I don't know, rock 'n' roll just kind of died for me."

"He didn't seem to be particularly into rockin'," Rigby recalls, to which Easter adds, "He seemed like maybe a guy who did a lot of worrying, you know? But I was just so impressed by how nice he was to us hillbillies from nowhere."

Ever the gracious host, Bell wondered if the boys were up for maybe checking out a Horslips concert. But they instead decided to troop over to Sam Phillips Recording Service to visit Chilton, Bell's erstwhile bandmate, then in the throes of making his infamously anarchic Like Flies on Sherbertalbum. Inside the studio, the young interlopers met a motley collection of Memphians listening to tuning-optional covers of "Waltz Across Texas" and "Boogie Shoes." The producer Jim Dickinson, that wild-eyed prophet of orchestrated chaos, was presiding over a session that nobody, including Chilton, could really figure out.

One can only imagine what Bell, the devoted pop craftsman, thought of the swamped-out madness blaring from the monitors. But Bell and Chilton exchanged their pleasantries, however stilted, before Bell took an early leave. "I think they had taken separate forks in the road and were very much aware of that," Easter says of the vibe between the two. "Each thought that the other one was somewhat ridiculous." Even so, a few days later, as Chilton drove Easter and Rigby (Holsapple had already split) around Memphis, showing them the old Sun Studios building (which had a Corvair parked inside it), and taking them up a bluff overlooking the Mississippi, he played a song on a junky little cassette player that took his visitors by surprise.

"Alex played us 'I Am the Cosmos,'" Rigby recalls, "and said something about it being Chris's greatest song. He was raving about how great it was. He said something like, 'This is the ultimate Big Star song.'"

"I Am the Cosmos"—Bell's soaring anthem of earthly desire and spiritual yearning-became a minor obsession for the North Carolinians, and soon enough Stamey, who'd also heard about it from Chilton, was calling from New York to convince Bell to put it out as a 45 on his indie Car label.

Stamey goosed up the tempo by speeding the master and put the delicious "You and Your Sister," on the other side. This aching acoustic ballad about troubled love and disintegrating hope was another Bell tune that Chilton admired, and recording it had turned out to be a reunion of sorts, with Chilton chipping in harmonies.

The work of a strident perfectionist, Bell's song is a flawed masterpiece: Back in 1974, he had opted to record "I Am the Cosmos" on a reel of used eight-track one-inch tape that had been razored and taped back together. You can still hear those splices in the song today, like hairline cracks in an otherwise high-luster finish.

The tiny pressing of a thousand copies landed in rarefied record bins next to records by the likes of Pere Ubu. "For everyone in the dBs," Stamey says, "that was an icon, that record. We would play it all the time and soak up every detail. I'm really proud of having put that out." The single was issued in the months before Bell died in a car accident on December 27, 1978, the day before Chilton's twenty-eighth birthday. In 1992, the two songs resurfaced on Bell's posthumous solo album, I Am the Cosmos, a collection brimming over with yearning, spun out by a deceased artist who'd gone from virtual unknown to omnipresent genial spirit for a generation of American and British indie rockers—thanks, in part, to those pilgrims from Chapel Hill.

Recalling his brief encounter with Chris Bell, Holsapple found "that the person who made all that beautiful music was a right-on kind of guy, too." He compares the I Am the Cosmos album with Nick Drake's Pink Moon: "It's that kind of rife-with-sadness record, but it's realized with the same imploding beauty that Big Star had. I mean, I Am the Cosmos-it's just wry enough to make you turn your head and do a double-take, you know, the first sixteen thousand times you listen to it."

Mark Rozzo serves as Articles Editor at Men's Vogue. He also plays in the bands Champale and Maplewood and has recently recorded with the band America.