I grew up in the sixties, when amateur, or “ham,” radio was popular, along with its subset of CB, or “citizen band, radio, and I got caught up in the fad. Most of the time we’d talk to local fellow radio buffs, but late at night all alone we could spin the dials and listen in on otherworldly conversations, perhaps from Venezuela or Mozambique, the words sputtering out of the heavens, their meaning filled in by our imaginations, coasting along currents of fluctuating oscillations and abrupt spurts of white noise and black silence.
My friends and I abandoned radio at a certain point and took up electric guitars and tape recorders, and learned to communicate with each other in that vocabulary. And sometimes–for example, with the records made by the obscure band obstinately named Big Star coming out of Memphis on the Ardent label–we’d connect with the transmissions of those who sounded like they were speaking our own language, although much more fluently and poetically than we ourselves could manage.
It was later, in the mid-seventies, when I was wandering aimlessly through the music curriculum here at Carolina, that one of my friends gave me a bootleg cassette tape of what was said to be an unreleased third album from this same Memphis group. And all of a sudden I was back in the middle of the night, spinning the frequency dial on the ham radio, floating on the airwaves, somewhere between Venezuela and Mozambique, listening to a new language, with sudden shifts and rollercoaster turns and curves. It was not predictable, often the lyrics seemed scattered across the page. There were moments of great precision, chased down in a single gulp with moments of great abandon; there were piano clusters like sideways-blown rain, microtonal slide guitar flurries. It was fearless and fragile. It was as much its own omnisphere as were my treasured recordings of George Crumb, Anton Webern, and Robert Johnson.
Now, at first I thought maybe the cassette was just defective! Bootleg cassettes of the era might be copied many times, and sometimes the first generation wouldn’t erase properly and you’d get this overlap of sound! Only years later–after I’d been playing the same songs live, in stripped-down arrangements, in a small New York-based group with the singer of the band, Alex Chilton–did the record, now called Big Star Third: Sister Lovers, have a proper release . . . and lo and behold, it still sounded as otherworldy as the cassette had. It really did have that magic sound!
The world of independent pop music has since grown up around the Big Star Third album, and it no longer sounds like it is without a friend in the world. But it is still one of a kind.
Jody Stephens, who, along with Alex Chilton, comprised the band that made the record, and John Fry, who recorded it and made a place for it to happen, are with us today to both illuminate and perhaps deepen its mysteries.