Where It Began
This expedition actually started over five years ago. I’d helped Frank Heath put together a core band of some of my fave studio players, including Tyson Rogers, John Heitzenrater, Jeff Crawford, and Roman Candle, for an evening of Elliot Smith music, “Either/Or,” in 2005. Not only was this a huge musical success, but it felt good to all involved to have a community project that showed that we could do something musically excellent–Elliot’s songs are, of course, harmonically, emotionally, and melodically demanding. A few weeks after that, Frank and I spoke about a follow-up adventure: using the same model of a great core band, we’d arrange and play the Big Star Third, “Sister Lovers.” I didn’t know if Alex (a friend and bandmate of mine from our CBGB days) would agree to sing it (I suspected he would not be interested in looking back like that), but it was worth a shot; if not, we’d use different singers a la the Elliot Smith event. I knew the now-renowned Carl Marsh was the guy who, in his youth, had done the beautiful orchestrations that were an integral part of the record; I tracked him down, at Marsh Labs in Nashville, and he, sadly, confirmed that the original scores were lost in the oxide of time, but did volunteer to write them out again for us, if we could get transfer copies of the original individual tracks from Ardent Records, Big Star’s label. This seemed a pretty big hurdle–the records were recorded on 2” analog tape, and of course labels are (rightly) protective of this kind of thing. Here the project rested.
I had also been part of the huge crowd when Big Star (Mach IV (?), reconfigured as Alex, Jody Stephens, and Ken and Jon from the Posies) played at SXSW in 2004, in the big hall. It struck me at the time that this was “concert music of a generation,” that regardless of who performed it, it should be heard out in the air, not confined to earbuds, cars, and living rooms. In the same way that Mozart and Beethoven, in their day, were heard. And that this was still contemporary music, in the best sense.
As they do, the years rolled by.
Then in Jan. of this year, I got a call from Frank Heath, saying he’d never forgotten the Big Star Third idea and was there any way to do it? I called John Fry at Ardent, who was very enthusiastic and said that, if the band gave the go-ahead, he’d do whatever he could to help, including transferring the tracks we’d need for retranscription from the original multitrack tapes. And then I spoke to Jody Stephens, who invited me to speak to everyone in the band about it at SXSW, where they would be rehearsing prior to playing a feature show during the festival. I bought a ticket and packed my bags and prepared to state my case.
Then, the night before the flight to Austin, the awful news about Alex’s death came.