Thursday, June 23, 2011

Thank You Fiends: Big Star's "Third/Sister Lovers"

Narrative cohesion has never been a strength or selling point for rock albums. Concept albums like Tommy and Arthur fall apart upon close analysis; Street Hassle works but is not album-length. What’s intriguing about Big Star’s 1974 opus Third/Sister Lovers is that, if the tracks are placed into a certain order, a coherent narrative does emerge. The pivot point of the narrative is a male protagonist unparalleled in the annals of popular music— a sensitive, androgynous if heterosexual young man, involved to the point of extinction in multiple relationships and contexts. Because the lyrical cohesion of the album is matched by startlingly original music— a compound of White Album-era Beatles, baroque pop like the Left Banke, and deconstructive impulses that really have no precedent but Lou Reed’s Berlin and solo Syd Barrett— Sister Lovers stands out as one of the highlights of the rock era, a masterpiece with its own integrity. Yet this integrity is difficult to find unless the songs are placed in a particular order— and the sequences that have held sway so far are not sufficient. The sequence that is being discussed here is presented in mp3 form (The Fieled Sequence) above the piece.

As far as the protagonist of the album is concerned, sensitivity and androgyny are adumbrated by perversity— the first track, “Kizza Me,” has him address “Lesa,” the heroine/anti-heroine of the album, “I want to white out…I want to come on out…I want to feel you, deep inside…” Between word games and graphic sexuality, we know that these characters are romantic, but marginal, artsy, possibly seedy— a subculture underbelly exposed, rather than Bruce Springsteen’s noble savages. The sound of the album is slow, warped, druggy— when the protagonist intones “nothing can hurt me/ nothing can touch me” in “Big Black Car,” we know that this is not only a revelation of obfuscated vulnerability but of intoxication. What’s important for the movement of the narrative is that the protagonist is investigating multiple relationships— we meet Lesa first, then in “O, Dana” we meet Dana and her circle of friends. “O, Dana” is, in fact, a crucial narrative hinge. The lyrics to “O, Dana” amount to a collage of voices; each line seems to represent a new person offering a witticism, lament, interrogation or interjection. Dana appears to be the person in the center who everyone wants, including the protagonist. The most interesting lines accrue to the second bridge— “She’s got a magic wand/ that says, Play with yourself before other ones.” The protagonist reveals numerous things in these lines— that he is, in fact, if not a poet, at least poetic (he thinks in metaphors); that he is aware of Dana’s recalcitrance as he desires her; and that he considers this magic wand a perverse anti-phallic symbol, symbolizing Dana’s reluctance to get involved, even if Lesa has extended her generosity to him on this level. After “O, Dana,” the dichotomy between Lesa and Dana is clear— Lesa, as love-object, is a singular entity, difficult but yielding; Dana is at the center of a frenzied social nexus, where satellites are a part of her persona. One thing Sister Lovers avoids is a direct confrontation between Dana and Lesa; until “Nighttime,” Lesa never vocalizes her discomfort with Dana’s circle. But once all these balls are in the air, it is clear that the Sister Lovers narrative is essentially a love triangle. This applies even if we never see Dana without her friends; not a “she” but a “they.” For the protagonist, the situation amounts to sensory overload.

The centerpiece of the album, where the protagonist is concerned, is “Holocaust.” As a lyric, “Holocaust” is pure portraiture— it shows the protagonist in an emotional, psychological, and physical vacuum. It is also doused, on a level with Faulkner, in a Southern Gothic sensibility— the product of a mercilessly hot climate and the slow lugubriousness it engenders. Beyond the lyrics, the usage of slide guitar as auditory manifestation of psychic torment is particularly effective. It’s a more refined, inventive version of the slide guitar passages in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.” The disturbing quality of what could be called the Oedipal passage in the song (“Your mother’s dead/ she said, don’t be afraid/ Your mother’s dead/ You’re on your own/ She’s in her bed”) is born of its ambiguity— is she dead or isn’t she? And the richest lines in the song function as a repeated refrain— “Everybody goes, leaving those who fall behind/ Everybody goes as far as they can/ They don’t just scare.” The viciousness of Dana’s gang could qualify them to be the “everybody”; that the protagonist “just scare(s),” lacks courage in the face of opposition, is something we’ve seen in “Big Black Car.” Yet the extreme sluggishness of the music (which contrasts interestingly with a gorgeous melody) suggests intense, sickly drunkenness. Self-pity could be a constituent element of the music too. What makes the track so chilling is the incredible intimacy conveyed in Alex Chilton’s vocal. The track was mixed and engineered (by John Fry and Jim Dickinson) so that Chilton’s vocal hovers right at the top of the mix. To the extent that Chilton and the protagonist can be conflated, Chilton paints his own self-portrait. It is a profile in utter darkness, even if social contexts rear their heads. The mirror mentioned in the “Holocaust” lyric is itself a potent symbol for the song. Even if the mirror is being gazed into in an unlit room.

The mirror is a symbol— and symbolic material and imagery is strewn haphazardly through Sister Lovers. “Big Black Car” suggests a hearse; we see Lesa’s scarves and blue jeans in “Kangaroo” and “Nighttime”; Beale Street, in Midtown Memphis, manifests in “Dream Lover”; gymnasts and kleptomaniacs are used to suggest Dana’s friends in “You Can’t Have Me”; and, of course, Dana’s anti-phallic magic wand. It is important to note, however, that the relationship between the protagonist and Lesa remains a predominant theme throughout the record. This is consolidated in a run of songs at the end— “Dream Lover,” “Blue Moon,” “Take Care.” These songs seem to represent the protagonist’s final intervention and withdrawal. The final withdrawal is from Lesa; after “Nighttime,” Dana and her crew fade to the back. This is seemingly at Lesa’s instigation. One of the unique aspects of this narrative is that the protagonist is not forced to choose one, but to reject both. By “Take Care,” he sounds utterly exhausted. The album does represent an exhausting journey. And how many rock albums represent this much nuanced movement? Sister Lovers, pieced together this way, has the richness of high art. That it remains a “cult classic” is understandable; the vision of the album is extreme. Ultimately, it has more to do with Sir Philip Sidney than with the Beatles and their contemporaries. It is, for my money, the greatest rock album of all time. That Alex Chilton is seldom mentioned as one of the greatest songwriters in rock history is owing to a master narrative created by underlings. But works of high art are meant to evolve over long periods of time. So some of us hope it will be with Sister Lovers. What time may take from others, it may give to Big Star. Posterity does have a brisk way with treacle.

Adam Fieled

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