Sunday, March 30, 2008

Paper Hat

by Will Rigby

I am repeatedly intrigued by the short time frame within which things happened that seem so legendary and epic and life-changing. Like how quickly the Beatles went from yeah yeah yeah to "Revolution," Or how all of the following reminiscences happened in 1978.

[In order to keep this to anything approaching a concise length I have to presume some knowledge on the reader's part about the music and people (myself included) involved.]

The 45 shown here may well have been the first Big Star record in all of North Carolina. A bunch of us in Winston-Salem were into Big Star when it actually existed—I paid list price for #1 Record in 1972, which puts me in a select group of people. I had to go to Raleigh to find it, which sounds so romantic from this age of downloading. Our high school band Little Diesel played "In the Street" and "September Gurls" in 1973-74. The former became the theme of That 70's Show in the late 1990s; the latter was recorded by the Bangles in the mid-1980s.

The first record I ever played on was an eponymous 1976 six-song EP by Sneakers. I feel confident in asserting it was the first record ever to have reviews cite Big Star as an influence.

In the spring of 1978, inspired more by Big Star's records than by those of Elvis or Otis or Al, I took a trip to Memphis with two singer-songwriter-guitarists, Peter Holsapple and Mitch Easter. They had just been in a band (without me) named the H-Bombs in Chapel Hill, and had recently done some recording that Alex Chilton was desultorily involved in. We were thinking of starting a new band and relocating. This was almost certainly the first of many musicians' pilgrimages in search of the Big Star essence.

The first thing we did was look up Alex. He was then living at his parents' house and recording what became Like Flies on Sherbert. He graciously let us hang out with him quite a bit—I remember spending one afternoon listening to records at Tommy Hoehn's house. He also took us to a bar where Keith Sykes was playing, and with whom Alex got up and sang a twisted version of "Money."

Alex told us where we could find Chris Bell: managing a Danver's Restaurant in the suburbs. My understanding at the time was that Danver's is/was a local chain of fast-food restaurants owned by Chris's family, but I'm not sure about that. When we arrived there weren't many customers, and we walked up to the counter and asked for him. He came out in the typical paper hat and short-sleeve shirt and tie. He seemed nonplussed that some fans had gone to the trouble to find him, but agreed to meet us after he got off work (he couldn't talk then).

We met at a fern bar for drinks. He didn't know what to say to our probably ridiculous questions along the lines of "where's it really at in Memphis, man?" He asked if we wanted to go to the Horslips show (no!), and his reply to our query of what he was listening to was "Fleetwood Mac". The one quote I recall best: "I dunno, rock 'n' roll just kinda went dead for me." He seemed sad and frustrated.

We all knew that Alex was in the studio (Sam Phillips) that night, and we kept badgering him to take us there, despite his in-retrospect-obvious reluctance. He finally relented. It wasn't until much later that I realized how uncomfortable he must have been, and that the fact of our arriving with Chris Bell made us suspect in the eyes of Jim Dickinson and Richard Rosebrough (producer and engineer, respectively) and whoever else was there. Alex was gracious, showed us around the building (a fifties classic), and just kinda nodded at Chris. Chris sat silent and sullen for a while, and I think we had to leave with him cuz we were sharing a car. Alex played us "Girl After Girl", "I've Had It", and a few more songs, which had not been mixed (and if you're familiar with that album, you know that the performances were very chaotic by design, which was pretty out there for the time). The album didn't come out for another two years. This was the extent of my encounter with Chris Bell (or Jim Dickinson, for that matter).

Alex spent another afternoon with Mitch and me (Peter had to leave early) driving down into Mississippi and onto a levee and being effusive about the Delta blues, with some barbecue in there somewhere. He took us to 706 Union Avenue, what had been Sun Studio but at the time was an unoccupied storefront. He found a way in through a broken back door. It had most recently been an auto repair shop; in what had been the recording room was the abandoned shell of a car—no wheels, no windows, no doors, no engine. There wasn't anything left of what had been a fulcrum of musical change EXCEPT, as Alex pointed out, the acoustical tiles still on the ceiling. He climbed up on the car and liberated one for himself and one for Mitch. To my eternal regret, I declined. (A few years later the site was renovated and now is a tourist-magnet re-creation of the original studio, but I knew it when.)

On a little portable cassette machine Alex played us "I Am the Cosmos" for the first time. And told us some things about Chris Bell, Big Star, Ardent, and the whole scene that we probably didn't need to know: that John Fry, the owner of the studio and label, was gay, and so was Chris, and that Chris got jealous that John got interested in Alex (and that this was the reason that Chris erased the master tapes of #1 Record); or that Alex was better at tennis than Chris, who could never beat him no matter how hard he tried. I know Alex to be an enthusiastic embellisher of the truth, but when "You Can't Have Me" appeared on the belated release of the third Big Star album later that year I recognized what/who it must be about, and I still can't hear it without thinking about all this.

It seems quaint now to have gone 600 miles in search of the secret of a band that had barely existed, got almost no radio play, and had no impact on the marketplace. We didn't want to go to Graceland, or Al Green's church, or the Stax studio; we did try to re-create the photo on the back of Radio City, at its original location, TGI Friday's (I don't know whether that photo still exists, and of course it didn't come out as anything more than a dumb snapshot). There was no essence to be found.

I moved to New York City a couple of months later. Peter did move to Memphis for a few months; he made some late-night recordings with Alex (also at Sam Phillips), some of which have appeared on bootlegs. He survived the summer of '78, when the Memphis police and firefighters struck simultaneously and the National Guard was called in to keep order, and in the fall moved up to New York City to join Chris Stamey and myself in The dB's. Mitch Easter also briefly lived in NYC before beginning his career in recording studios (and Let's Active) in North Carolina.

Chris Bell died in a car crash late that year, a few months after "I Am the Cosmos" came out on 45.

In 1995 I wrote a song about Chris Bell and these memories. Your host Ted Barron figured out who it was about, somehow (we lived in the same building at the time). I've never told anyone (except my ex-wife Amy Rigby, who appears on the recording) before now. It appeared only on a very obscure release.


"Paper Hat" mp3
by Will Rigby, 1995.
from Hello Recording Club #4
out of print

"I Am The Cosmos" mp3
by Chris Bell, 1978.
avilable on I Am the Cosmos

"You And You Sister" mp3
by Chris Bell, 1978.
available on I Am the Cosmos

"You Can't Have Me" mp3
by Big Star, 1975.
available on Third/Sister Lovers

"Kissy Boys" mp3
by Little Diesel, 1974.
available on No Lie

"In The Street" (single version) mp3
by Big Star, 1972.
available on Beale Street Green

"My Rival" mp3
by Alex Chilton, 1978.
available on Like Flies on Sherbert

"Tennis Bum" mp3
by Alex Chilton (with Peter Holsapple) 1978.
available on Beale Street Green

"Martial Law" mp3
by Alex Chilton, (with Peter Holsapple) 1978.
available on Beale Street Green


the dB's online HERE Mitch Easter HERE Little Diesel HERE


yorkio said...

What a great story! Thanks for sharing that. I think I'm going to be digging out all my old Big Star vinyl tomorrow...

Secular said...

Thank-you Will - wonderful story. And thank-you Ted for posting this.

mrdantefontana said...

Lovely. Thanks!

Joey said...

It always seemed to implausible to me that a band like Big Star could have come from Memphis of all places, and not England. But hearing you tell it, it all makes a lot of sense. Thanks for a great story (and the songs too).

Duncanmusic said...

Thanks for sharing your past with us, Will. Even up here in the frozen North (Rochester, NY Finger Lakes Area) there were some of us who looked for the Big Star record and found it and paid full price for it, too. It was very hard to find...had to be ordered! Your memories though a little sad are what keeps me prowling around the internet, filling holes in my insatiable quest for musical knowledge and a fascination with the people that make it. We know each other from being regular winners on the BigO site. It always seems you answer correctly the week I can't. Wish I had been in a position to have saved all those 70s and 80s 45s I had to let go. I paid dearly for my North Carolina originals and would have to pay tons to replace them now. I still have those sad memories, though. Nice post and thanks to Ted for bringing you in.

steve scariano said...

Great story, old buddy. That Midtown Memphis scene in '78 was somethin' else. I had a few adventures myself down there back then while visiting and hanging with Branyan and the Scruffs. Alex and Ross Johnson would usually figure prominently when evenings entered the "after hours" stage. :) Crazy times and never a dull moment...

And let me shout it from the mountain one more time: On a snowy night in February of 1984 in St. Louis I saw the dBs play the most fantastic, breathtaking, and greatest cover of "I Am The Cosmos" by anyone, anyhwere-EVER! Thanks again Will...

Nazz Nomad said...

very cools- hanx for the mammaries.

Ramone666 said...

Thanks Will, great stuff. Black & White is still my all-time fave pop single, just so you know... the dB´s are not forgotten. Cheers!

MJB said...

Wow -- very interesting article! I do have that Hello! recording (I have all of them) and I've listened to it frequently as a matter of fact (my wife *loves* the "Red Bra & Panties" song, cracks her up).
I did get to hang out with Alex once back in the 90's after a gig in Northampton, MA that he did. Very interesting guy. Talked a bit about AM radio and such. It was the week after I chatted with the guys from Love Tractor at the same place.
Thanks for the history!!

Pete Bilderback said...

Wow! Amazing recollections. Thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Unbelievably cool post.
As a north carolinian, I spent much of the 80's cheering for the dB's success... only after their demise did I really start to discover the majesty of Big Star.
Thanks for putting this together.

roscoe said...

Great story Will.

best to you.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing, Mr Rigby. I hope to hear you play soon.---Will Kimbrough

Unknown said...

WOW! Great story. I forwarded this link to Terry Manning and this is what he had to say:

"I am compelled to say that whilst that article has lots of interesting reading in it, there are certain things that are just plain misstatements of fact.

For one thing, John Fry is today happily married, and has been for years.

Chris was my BEST FRIEND for ten years, and there was never, ever one single clue of homosexuality as far as I knew, nor any mention of it.

As always, not that there's anything wrong with that, just setting the record straight as I knew it.

That is NOT why Chris burned the masters."

frankenslade said...

What a GREAT surprise. Thanks a lot. I was listening to - and admiring, as always - your work on the first two dB's albums as I drove to work this morning. Thanks for all the energetic beats, Will.

Samadhi said...

To echo everybody else, thanks for posting this story about meeting Chris and Alex. I'm the author of "The 27s—-The Greatest Myth of Rock & Roll," a forthcoming book about the late, greats who shaped music as we know it and died at the young age of 27. Chris Bell is very much part of that saga and his impact is quite extraordinary, especially when you consider that he ended up working at his family's restaurant chain after creating these now-legendary recordings.

Anonymous said...

This Mortal Coil (Featuring Kim Deal & Tanya Donelly) - You And Your Sister

Nickolas B. Solish said...

I'm a huge Big Star fan and this is the first time I've heard an account of anyone who knew about them when they were still making music. That trip sounds amazing and I had no idea about the whole gay love triangle thing going on between them. I managed to get an album of rarities and alternative takes of #1 Record and Radio City called "Ardent Studio Sessions 72-73." Its a classic. I also do a cover of "The Ballad of El Goodo" on youtube. Search for the song and you should find it. Thanks for posting!

Scott said...

Great stuff, Will.

Anonymous said...

Terrific. Thank you.

woodstockpatch said...

THIS is what music blogging is ALL about...fantastic! This is true music journalism at a time when that no longer exists in the printed form...wonderful!

Anonymous said...

Paper Hat is amazing. Is everything of yours this good?

Anonymous said...

Being a teenager in the eighties, I first heard of Alex Chilton via the Replacements.My interest in Big Star soon followed.Bought the Chris Bell cd when it came out, it gave me chills cos' of the liner notes and the obvious love from his brother.

Anonymous said...

Could you re-upload a new rar archieve, please? These one has a lot of broken songs or missing files. Thanks!

Will R. said...

"Paper Hat" and other Will Rigby recordings are now available at BandCamp: