Saturday, July 6, 2013
Track of the Week: Chris Bell, "I Am The Cosmos"
This week my wife was kind enough to give me a day off from parenting, which I spent bumming around Manhattan. As part of my day of fun in the city, I took in Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, a documentary about Big Star, a band from the early 70s that made great music but never made it. Their first two records are two of the most perfect ever, as far as I'm concerned, but they didn't get proper distribution, and were out of step with the gargantuan hard riffs and boogie beats that dominated the rock charts at the time.
I've been a big fan of the group since the 90s, but never learned much about their history, which I knew involved a lot of frustration. The film filled me in, in a most heartbreaking way. It is painful to see people make something great and struggle so hard to make it happen, only to be met with rejection and failure. I see so many friends in the academic world doing so many great things without getting recognized that I guess Big Star's story hits me a little more personally than before.
I was most moved by the story of Chris Bell, the band's erstwhile founder, who left after the first album due to frustration with the lack of success and competition with band member Alex Chilton. Evidently the lack of recognition upset him so much that he destroyed master tapes of his recordings. He went on to Europe and tried to get a record deal in England -where Big Star had been better known- but to no avail. He searched a lot in these years, chemically and spiritually, before his untimely death at age 27 in a car accident. Before his death, Bell managed to go back into the studio, and cut a 45 single, "I Am the Cosmos."
It sounds like his work with Big Star, but with so much more pain and longing behind it. The first, immortal lines come out in a kind of mournful croak: "Every night I tell myself I am the cosmos/ I am the wind/ But that don't get you back again." The first line is not bravado, but a futile attempt to forget a lost love. There are so many songs about the longing of heartbreak, but this cuts to the marrow more than almost any other. The abject longing in his voice when Bell croons "I really want to see you again" over and over again tells the story. The bright guitars and off-kilter rhythms that accompany the song echo the singer's fervent desire to mask his pain and burning need. If you've ever loved someone who left you, but you couldn't forget, no matter how hard you tried, this is the song you need to hear.