Sunday, September 27, 2015

How Long Can This Go On

For years, I have been haunted by Big Star’s Radio City,” and different approaches to addressing it. There are few rock masterpieces as strange, or as resistant to interpretation— from the songs’ skewered structures, to the odd production tricks employed to create unique guitar tones, everything about the album (first released in 1974) spells “quirk.” Yet, “Radio City” also balances contradictions— quirky as it is, it is also one of the most viscerally powerful rock productions of all time. The first time I heard “Radio City,” in the summer of 1995, I was disappointed— I wanted it to be as baroque and Beatles-consonant as “3rd/Sister Lovers.” It took several months to splinter itself beneath my skin— once it was there, I couldn’t get it out. “3rd/Sister Lovers” is much easier to write about— it presents a coherent narrative, and a distinct musical ambience to accompany it. As “Radio City” ricochets and careens wildly all over the place, it constantly destabilizes attempts to pin it down. One of the more obvious hinges to interpretation is, in songs like “What’s Goin’ Ahn,” the seeds of “3rd” being planted— how dead sonic spaces, pauses, push/pull tempo lurches, and general entropic sluggishness make Big Star sound dangerously close not just to disorder but to complete disintegration. Jagged edges animate and “load” the album— songs, like “Life is White,” have an abrupt and blunt lack of politeness and politesse. Big Star have mistakenly been labeled “power pop,” owing to Radio City’s most famous track, “September Gurls”— but, in the context of “Radio City,” the song’s pristine and polished formalist perfection (though even “September Gurls” is sharp and jagged in execution) is sui generis. What Alex Chilton’s modus operandi seems to be is to turn conventional pop song structures on their heads, thus unsettling expectations engendered by “#1 Record,” Big Star’s straightforwardly pop-classicist debut outing, which peaked with “Thirteen” and the now TV-famous “In the Street.” That’s the keynote of Chilton’s “Radio City” aesthetic ethos— destabilization, in its most rock-artful form. 

As has been said, “Radio City” makes for a jarring (even irritating) first listen. Chilton’s musical vocabulary, by this time, was extensive— not only is his usage of arpeggios and arpeggiated guitar runs sophisticated and complex, Chilton shows himself the equal of Jimmy Page in demonstrating mastery of electric guitar tonal ranges, owing to pick-up choices (Chilton has his own post-Claptonian “woman tone”) and microphone placement. “Radio City” is, despite its surface recalcitrance and among other things, a wonderful showcase for rock guitar playing. The tones Chilton tends to favor are trebly ones— musical shades which lean towards the “light” and sharp (set against Page’s dark-toned heaviness). It is also the case that, however ragged and jagged the album is, the songs have enough hooks to qualify as a form of (albeit deconstructive and borderline absurdist) pop— not just “September Gurls,” but the catchy verse-chorus-verse structure of “Mod Lang,” “You Get What You Deserve,” and Andy Hummel’s “Way Out West.” Chilton throws in everything but the kitchen sink, and makes as definitive and rebellious a musical statement as he possibly can. The big problem in writing effectively about “Radio City” is not the music, where Chilton’s aims are comprehensible, but the lyrics— lyrically, “Radio City” is not just scattershot, but gonzo enough that Chilton was clearly also enjoying poking fun at the deep and bathetic self-pity of early Seventies singer-songwriters like James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen. There are memorable lines hidden in this grab-bag approach— “She tells the men “go to hell”/ And where that’s at/ Is where I’m comin from,” from “She’s a Mover,” or “You’re gonna die/ Yes, you’re gonna die/ Right now” from “Daisy Glaze” (another track which hints at the imminent psychosis of “3rd”)— but a central thematic gist in “Radio City” is elusive. It’s intriguing that Chilton anticipates certain strains of allusive post-modern art by stealing song titles, which could then be seen to turn the Big Star songs into palimpsests— “What’s Goin’ Ahn” from Marvin Gaye, “She’s a Mover” from the Sir Douglas Quintet. Chilton also misspells things, ostensibly to be bratty and punkish— “September Gurls,” rather than “Girls,” “Morpha Too,” etc. The album as a gestalt reveals a cohesive Chilton persona— the rock auteur as enfant terrible, determined not only to destabilize but to destroy his audience’s preconceived notions as to what rock music could be— Piero Manzoni with a Gibson Firebird.

Radio City” is demanding, repays attentive listening, but also goes out of its way to repel casual listeners— by opening the album with an ornate but convoluted and slow-building track (“O My Soul”), Chilton ensures that his audience will either focus on what they are hearing or turn the album off. Commercially, “Radio City” was never given much of a chance anyway— released with a shoddy, haphazard distribution deal, even the presence of the radio-worthy “September Gurls” couldn’t salvage a respectable chart position for RC. It seems, to get to the heart of the matter, that there are two “Radio City” realities to deal with— how the album sounds on first listen, and how “Radio City” sounds once it is safely and ineluctably under your skin. If “Radio City” has enough of a hook in you to lure you in several times, Chilton’s jagged edges not only begin to make sense, what on first listen sounds merely blunt and disruptive reveals levels and layers of genuine emotional engagement. No other rock masterpiece album is so extreme— snide and cold from a distance, warm and passionately engaged up close. Hearing “Radio City” the right way all depends on your willingness to play Chilton’s game, as he dares you to get cranky, get bored or run away. The surface/depth tensions in “Radio City” are stark; a hunk of ice decoying as much warmth as a work of popular art can hold. By playing odd musical and lyrical angles, Chilton also decoys a firm and unshakable commitment to levels of raw passion and emotional authenticity which, more than anything else over a long period of time, are what “Radio City” evokes. Generations of Amer-Indie veneration vouch for this. 

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