More often than not, my most cherished musical memories are of encounters with flawed gems. This is especially the case with regards to my introduction to Big Star with this, their third album. Shelved until 1978, this album has since then been reissued in many forms, being referred to as either '3RD', 'Third' or 'Sister Lovers'. My vinyl copy, reissued by PVC Records in 1985, goes under the title 'Big Star's 3RD: Sister Lovers'. It is to this edition, and its track sequence and mixes, that I will address my reflections.
I had made it my business from the mid-80's to learn more about Alex Chilton. I knew The Box Tops' 'The Letter' before I knew that the singer on that great recording was Alex Chilton. My first conscious awareness of Chilton was of his being the producer of The Cramps. After that, my interest was secured by cover versions of his songs by bands such as Sacred Cowboys and These Immortal Souls. It was part and parcel of my personal agenda of tracking the history of music. When I came across interesting cover versions by bands and artists I was into, I would work backwards to investigate the singers and bands they had covered. (It is how, for instance, I came to make acquaintances with Captain Beefheart and Leonard Cohen.) I still follow that agenda to this day.
I was successful in obtaining some vinyl recordings of Alex Chilton's solo work. One of my favourites is a compilation entitled 'Alex Chilton's Lost Decade', curating Chilton's work as an artist and producer in the 70's. Released on the Fan Club label in 1986, this record is, granted, a curio, but it satisfied my yearning at the time. In addition, there are two cracker tunes - Chilton's self-penned 'Free Again' and a cover of The Seeds' 'Can't Seem To Make You Mine' - that are worth the price of admission.
It was then that I became aware of Chilton's association with Big Star. By this time, though, I was bound for Melbourne.
My introduction to Big Star came about by chance. Melbourne Uni had on campus a satellite store of Gaslight Records. I would frequent it many times a week, particularly if I couldn't be arsed to walk to the city in my lunch hour to inspect Gaslight Sr., Au Go Go, Missing Link and/or Collector's Corner. Gaslight Jr. was a shoebox of a store but, hey, it was a record shop and it satisfied my needs. It was here that I happened upon 'Big Star's 3RD: Sister Lovers'. This excited me greatly. I made the necessary transaction and gave the newly acquired vinyl a good home.
I was impressed on first listen, as I was hearing something new and unfamiliar to me. After a few more listens, 'Big Star's 3RD: Sister Lovers' came to be a revelation. I had never heard music as beautiful, haunting, aching and yet still uplifting as this before in my life. A lot of that had to be attributed to my previous predilection for the loud, grunty and weird. With this album, however, I was woken from my proverbial dogmatic slumber. It was also tapping into an emotionally complex and volatile stage of my life.
From the moment you accept the invitation to dance on the beautiful opening track 'Strike It Noel', the mood on 'Big Star's 3RD: Sister Lovers' is fragile, wavering between the genuinely uplifting and heartfelt hurt and disappointment. This ambivalence is reflected in the way the guitar is largely suppressed in the mix, in favour of reeds, woodwinds and strings. (An interesting choice, considering that Steve Cropper was one of the guitarists during the recording sessions.) When the guitar does make its presence felt, it lends itself to genuine rocking numbers, such as 'Kizza Me' (a great tune that always finds a way onto compilations I make), 'You Can't Have Me', 'Jesus Christ' and 'Thank You Friends'.
But the decided absence of the guitar as a focal listening point, along with the minimal presence of the trademark vocal harmonies evidenced on Big Star's '#1 Record' and 'Radio City' albums, must have come as a complete shock at the time. The sparse arrangements on 'Big Star's 3RD: Sister Lovers' emphasise the loneliness in Alex Chilton's voice and lyrics. This loneliness comes across as a disintegration of confidence on the cover of The Velvet Underground's 'Femme Fatale'. (While not a successful move, it is a courageous choice of song, perhaps more so at the time at the time of recording. It represents a major deviation from the Beatles and Byrds orientation of the previous Big Star albums.)
The emotional epicentre of 'Big Star's 3RD: Sister Lovers' lies in songs such as 'Nightime' and 'Holocaust'.
The previous affection felt for hanging out on the streets (like on '#1 Record') is here displaced by the need for flight, to be hidden away from the world. My heart breaks every time I hear the lines 'Get me out of here, get me out of here/I hate it here, get me out of here'. I felt empathy with Alex Chilton. I used to identify strongly with that sentiment. However, I learnt the hard way that it wasn't healthy to hold onto that thought. Otherwise you become the burnt offering of humanity captured in the desolate wasteland of 'Holocaust'. Never before have I encountered a song so bleak, so devastating, yet at the same time decidedly beautiful in its austerity and frailty. I am always moved by the emotional honesty and earnestness of this track.
I hope this doesn't paint a picture of 'Big Star's 3RD: Sister Lovers' as gruelling or depressing, as I do not remember or think of it that way. That being so, it is still not a perfect album. For example, I find 'Femme Fatale' and 'Kanga Roo' dispensable. 'Kanga Roo', in particular, is just too loose and meandering to my ears. (In a lot ways it is an intimation of future Chilton albums such as 'Like Flies On Sherbet', in which great ideas for songs struggle to rise above the heavy weight of sloppy playing and indifferent recording.) There is an undeniably loose feel to the whole of 'Big Star's 3RD: Sister Lovers', but that should not be held against it, given this album's troubled history. It is a miracle that we are able to make acquaintances with it at all. Thankfully we live in a world that is responsive and receptive to such haunting and beautiful music. Perhaps one of the hidden virtues of flawed gems is that they teach us patience, and ask of us a greater sensitivity and awareness than we would normally provide as music fans. It is a testimony to the enduring and emotionally potent force of music. 'Big Star's 3RD: Sister Lovers' certainly asks this much of us as lovers of music. It has always been worth the experience.