Keep an Eye On the Sky: Big Star Talks to God

Last month brought the long-awaited release of Keep An Eye On The Sky, a boxed […]

David Zahl / 10.21.09

Last month brought the long-awaited release of Keep An Eye On The Sky, a boxed set collecting the music 70s power-pop pioneers Big Star. I recently heard the short-lived Memphis group referred to as “the greatest American cult rock band this side of The Velvet Underground”. Which basically means their influence is inversely proportionate to their popularity/commercial success. I happen to greatly prefer them to The Velvets and would consider the tragic British band Badfinger a more appropriate reference point. Musically, at least. Unlike Badfinger, the closest Big Star ever got to having a hit was when one of their lesser songs was resurrected (and covered by Cheap Trick) to serve as the theme for That 70s Show – you know, “Hanging out! Down the street!…”

What doesn’t seem to get much attention, and what the boxed set makes painfully clear, is how, well, religious their records are. It’s remarkable–arguably the “hippest” American band of the 70s (certainly the one that indie rockers love to name-drop the most) made music that, especially on their first record, bordered on proto-Christian rock. Much of this was due to the influence of the overtly Christian Chris Bell, the co-leader of the band who in recent years has become something of a poster boy for tragic indie artistry. And indeed, if his songs are anything to go by, the guy was tortured.

But first, the Christianity: a few sample lyrics of Bell’s song “My Life Is Right” off Big Star’s debut #1 Record, “Once I walked a lonely road/I had no one to share my load/But then you came and showed the way/And now I hope you’re here to stay/You give me life”. Borderline mega-church stuff, if it weren’t for all the chiming power chords and gorgeous Beatle-esque production. Which isn’t to say his songs aren’t sincere or heartfelt–in fact, if they were any more so, they’d be unlistenable. Bell left after the first record, but not before contributing a couple of (amazing) songs to their live set, the titles alone of which tell the story: “I Got Kinda Lost” and “There Was A Light”.

As is often the case, Bell’s talent came with its fair share of personal demons. Drug addiction and clinical depression being chief among them. Sadly, his songs betray a faith that is inescapably Semi-Pelagian and therefore incapable of offering him the comfort or deliverance or just plain good news that he seemed to be longing for. The song “Try Again”, also from #1 Record, paints a sad albeit honest picture of where that kind of theology leads (it would reach full fruition in the chilling “Better Save Yourself”, recorded long after he had left the band):

Lord I’ve been trying to be what I should Lord
I’ve been trying to do what I could

But each time it gets a little harder

I feel the pain

But I’ll try again

Lord I’ve been trying to be understood
And Lord I’ve been trying to do as you would

But each time it gets a little harder

I feel the pain
But I’ll try again

The other great talent in the band was Alex Chilton, the one-time singer for teen sensations The Box Tops (“The Letter”) and not without troubles of his own. In fact, the third and final Big Star album is commonly recognized as an icon of artistic self-sabotage. Beautiful songs obscured by strangeness and drug-addled disintegration (and maybe a little outsider psychosis). I highly recommend it, both as a musical curiosity/triumph and a tour-de-force of human conflictedness. Oddly enough, the record contains the band’s best and most explicit burst of Christianity, the jangling yuletide anthem known simply as “Jesus Christ”–this time from Chilton, who was by all accounts a pretty non-religious guy. The song comes from out of nowhere, beginning with a nonsensical prelude before launching into lyrics poached from a number of Protestant hymns. Some say it’s half-serious, some say it’s completely earnest–all agree that the song is in keeping with the off-beat tone of Third and even one of its highlights. Regardless, it’s probably my favorite rock song about Jesus, and definitely my favorite Christmas one:

Angels from the realms of glory
Stars shone bright above

Royal David’s city

Was bathed in the light of love

Jesus Christ was born today
Jesus Christ was born

Lo, they did rejoice
Fine and pure of voice

And the wrong shall fail

And the right prevail

Theologically, we’re dealing with a descriptive, God-centered tune if ever there was one, almost the polar opposite of Bell’s anguished first-person prayers. I can’t help but wish the two approaches could have met somehow. Instead, the disconnect is simply another dimension of the tragedy that characterized Big Star, quite possibly the greatest self-destructive and highly neurotic Southern anglo-pop band the world has never known. Keep an eye on the sky!

Thirteen Favorite Big Star Songs

  1. The Ballad Of El Goodo
  2. September Gurls
  3. Jesus Christ
  4. I Am The Cosmos – Chris Bell solo
  5. My Life Is Right
  6. Thank You Friends
  7. O, Dana
  8. Back Of A Car
  9. Blue Moon
  10. O My Soul
  11. Daisy Glaze
  12. Stroke It Noel
  13. Thirteen