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I have put into print, more than once, that Big Star’s “3rd/ Sister Lovers” is, for me, the greatest rock album of all time. By putting this collection together, I am both consolidating my own opinion and making it public again. When I write about other wellknown rock artists (the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Doors, the Velvet Underground, Bruce Springsteen, Nirvana, Pink Floyd), there is a strong sense that I’m contributing to something that’s already there. These artists all have an ever-growing corpus of critical work around them (especially with the nascent quality of rock writing on the Net). I’m not necessarily pushing at any boundaries by writing about them; and all the writing takes place in the context of comfortable, long-term commercial success (with the possible exception of the Kinks and the Velvets). When I write extensively about Big Star, I do get the feeling that I’m cutting against several grains at once; if you aggressively proselytize for Big Star (as I’ve learned), the entrenched music business will push back. For those who write about rock music, there is a tremendous pressure exerted from all sides to pick established, commercially successful artists and stick to them. Because of the manifest artistic superiority of “3rd/ Sister Lovers,” I cannot and will not do this. This particular situation has its own oddities— the way I have argued for “3rd/ Sister Lovers” as superior candidate for greatest rock album of all time, the construct only functions if the album is sequenced to my specifications (“The Fieled Sequence”). It is only with the advent of the Net and Net technologies that I have been able to make my own sequence of “3rd/ Sister Lovers” publicly available (on As/Is, Fieled’s Fair Game, and YouTube). Taken in the many other sequences in which the album’s been released since its initial release in 1978, I cannot espouse it in the same way or in the same effusive terms. The situation here represented is quirky; and the corporate-affiliated, mercenary rock business has, up to this point, a very limited tolerance for “quirk.” The mainstream rock press, also corporate-affiliated, tends to push what sells and little else. Is there room, on rarefied levels, for Big Star and “3rd/ Sister Lovers”? In a sense, it doesn’t matter much; corporate hegemony in rock is fading (also a Net-related development), and rock music in the twentyfirst century may move in any number of different directions. One possible vista which could open for rock music is at a tangent to corporations and finance; a growing interest in and appreciation for rock music as a long-term viable cultural form. Most rock records have been released as ephemeral commodities. The idea that rock records could have some long-term durability is a new one. What gives the Fieled sequence of “Sister Lovers” an edge on this level is exactly what the mainstream rock press and corporate rock machinery avoid: intellect and complexity. Alex Chilton’s songs coalesce and talk back to each other so that “3rd/ Sister Lovers” is rich with the positive density of high art. Positive density is this— a richness inhering in a work of art so that repeated viewings, readings, or listenings do not exhaust it. You can come back to it and get something new from it each time. The biggest joke in the history of rock music on this level is Bob Dylan. Dylan’s lyrics often have a superficial sense of higher art density and richness — however, more often than not, his lyrics break down into cacophonous incoherence if you inspect them closely, line by line. “3rd/ Sister Lovers” is quite the opposite; the closer you listen to the songs in the right sequence, the richer they become, line by line and song by song, as a whole and in pieces. And the interrelationships between the various songs are discussed extensively in this collection.
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; whatever Sgt. Pepper is supposed to add up to, it doesn’t add up to a coherent narrative. 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 will be presented at the end of 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
NARRATIVE DEVELOPMENT: THIRD/SISTER LOVERS I have already put into print the notion that, for me, Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers is the greatest rock album of all time. The caveat enjoined has to do with sequencing- that Sister Lovers takes its position at the top of the hierarchy only when put together in a certain way. Tracks like "Downs," "For You," and covers of the Kinks and Jerry Lee Lewis need to be dropped, "Nature Boy" slotted between "Holocaust" and "Kangaroo," the album end with "Take Care," etc. The miracle of I-Tunes is that anyone can accomplish this for themselves in 2012. What I want to offer here are some further notes as to what I have noticed about Sister Lovers as I continue to listen to it closely. What I've previously surmised is that the narrative of Sister Lovers involves a love triangle between the unnamed protagonist (Alex Chilton) and two female characters, Lesa and Dana. It now seems signifcant to me that "O, Dana" follows "Femme Fatale"; Dana's position vis a vis Alex Chilton is that of an unattainable femme fatale. The protagonist/ Chilton character is more richly drawn than at first appears; he sings to Dana in "O, Dana," "you seldom know what things are/ do illusions go very far?" He's spiritually and emotionally wise; thus, the logic behind the inclusion of "Nature Boy." One of the mysteries of Sister Lovers thus becomes, why does a protagonist this sensitive, this wise, and who is already involved with the Lesa character, fall for someone as hard and clannish as Dana? The simple answer is that this character has an Achilles' heel: he's a masochist. He likes to be abused. One pursuant thing which emerges from "Holocaust" is that this protagonist has a tendency to wallow in negative emotions, which Dana and her friends reinforce. He sees through Dana (whose eyes "couldn't hide anything" in "Kangaroo" and who "seldom knows what things are"), but likes to be hurt by her anyway, and ignore Lesa into the bargain, thus incurring Lesa's wrath. The album is resolutely first-person and personal; we never really hear Lesa and Dana's thoughts. Only one song features a significant reversal and recognition at once: "Nighttime." What the lyrics hint at obliquely is that Alex attempts to introduce Lesa to Dana and her clan, and Lesa rejects them out of hand: "get me out of here/ get me out of here/ I hate it here/ get me out of here." The song concludes on a note of devotion to Lesa, and the way the album ends ("Blue Moon" into "Take Care") reinforces this. The album begins and ends with Lesa, and is occupied with Dana and her posse in the middle; that's the structure. If Dana and Lesa are both rejected by the end, it's because the protagonist is too sensitive to extend himself anymore. The aimless drift of "Big Black Car" returns at the end, with more focus and pathos. If the album has one central lyrical message, it's this: to be touched is to be hurt. The resolution isn't particularly comforting, and is manifestly uncompromising. The staunch avant-gardism of the music makes Sister Lovers a package girded against crass commercial success. The irony is that Sister Lovers, musically, is not only melodically rich but melodically stunning. "Holocaust," in particular, would not be so haunting if the melody and chord changes weren't as instantly memorable as anything Paul McCartney or Brian Wilson ever wrote. Owing to John Fry's engineering, Alex Chilton's voice is high in the mix, and the production values around Sister Lovers are quirky but immaculate nonetheless. There are even a few virtuosic touches like the "walking" bass on "Femme Fatale." Between the density of the lyrics and the richness of the music, there would seem to be few rock albums which Sister Lovers does not dethrone. Recent attempts to do something similar, like the Decemberists' The Hazards of Love, falter around unattractive, melodically unmemorable music, and
overblown lyrical conceits. The albums I have recently spoken of as cohesive (Strange Days, Satanic Majesties, Sgt. Pepper, Velvet Underground and Nico) are only semi-cohesive in comparison with Sister Lovers, even if they reflect upon broader, more political themes. Other rock "relationship albums," like Blue, Rumours, and Layla, don't sustain any narrative intensity, or any narrative at all, for that matter; each song is its own entity, even if all the songs are thematically similar. What's interesting about Sister Lovers, other than the fact that the songs "talk back" to each other, is that though it's a cult favorite, not many people have noticed that much to distinguish it. Works of art which grow slowly and quietly often start that way. Sister Lovers does in fact have the rare potential, for a rock album, to keep generating surprises after a hundred listens. It offers a protagonist as Southern, and Gothic, as any created by Faulkner or Carson McCullers. "Holocaust" sounds so claustrophobic partly because it's meant to represent Southern heat- a swampy, sultry, sick, drunken Southern night. Of such nights is Sister Lovers hewn.
Big Star’s 3rd: “On the Hook”
One of the key questions which plagues, for interested parties, the narrative structure of 3rd/ Sister Lovers, is what attracts the protagonist to Dana? He’s already ensconced in a relationship with Lesa, and the album opens with a sexualized paean to her. By the time we hit “Femme Fatale,” there’s a sense of menace around the “second woman,” whoever she is, and also a sense of foreboding. The key track which puts everything in place is, of course, “O, Dana,” in which a series of voices all appeal to Dana as a figure of immense and compelling magnetism, both sexually and socially magnetic. The way Chilton repeats the chorus after the first bridge is indicative. The chorus simplifies all the complex issues raised by the imploring voices in the verses: “O Dana, / O Dana / come on.” As bare-bones as this exhortation is, it does fill in some blanks. Dana seems to be not only magnetic but a figure whose mere presence intoxicates her follows; in other words, she is like a drug or intoxicant herself. The “come on” in the chorus means her devoted followers are always hungry for more, and that she has a tendency to leave them starving (and starvation here denotes both sexual and social levels). How the protagonist gets roped into this carrot-and-the-stick routine is intriguing, and ambiguous; some of the tension, it seems, would have to be sexual (it is difficult to forget “Kizza Me”), and some is spiritual (“Jesus Christ” has a parallel here), and the complex in Dana’s direction is a conglomeration of the two. The bridge and the chorus together, closely read (“you seldom know what things are/ do illusions go very far?/ O Dana/ O Dana come on”), demonstrate that one of the protagonist’s fascinations with Dana is that he wants not only to bed her but to teach her something, to show her how her illusory “magic wand” (through which she hen-pecks her way through the crowd around her) has kept her from seeing the truth of her position. The irony is that the Chilton protagonist gets didactic with a figure already didactic to begin (“she has a magic wand/ which says “play with yourself/ before other ones””) without it changing the essential fact that he is now very much “on the hook” too. He’s caught in the web of Dana’s magnetism, even as he sees how thin and hollow the web is. It’s a painful position to be in. The track, musically, has some of the herky-jerky quality of “Big Black Car” and “Holocaust,” even as it remains (until the final few seconds) resolutely major key. This time, no strings, no slide guitar, and it’s less ornately and densely produced than many of the tracks around it. Once we figure out, as an audience, that Chilton is on the hook, and that the crash landing of “O, Dana” into “Holocaust” is the result of contact between Chilton and Dana and her retinue, it is easier to set in place the congeries of circumstances which make it impossible for Chilton to resist who Dana is. Chilton has a self-hating, selfabasing streak, which Dana and her crowd reinforce; he is not that far removed from infantile impulses (which we learn in “Kizza Me” and the Oedipal sequence in “Holocaust”), which the Dana crowd can use for leverage against him (especially the “airs” we learn in “Holocaust” he puts on); and Lesa is a figure who is less socially engaged and engenders less desire than Dana does. Dana, it seems, has more star quality. Moving into “Holocaust,” on close inspection, further aspects of the Chilton protagonist are revealed. The sad refrain which appears twice in the song (“Everybody goes, leaving those who fall behind/ Everybody goes, as far as they can, they don’t just care”) holds a specific kernel which relates directly to the stop-start, push-pull, herky-jerky quality of the musical foundations of “3rd/ Sister Lovers”: “everybody goes as far as they can, they don’t just care.” In other words, everyone in Dana’s crowd seems to be capable of forward momentum, sustained forward pushing, and sustained motion in general. Chilton, as a protagonist, can’t
move forward without moving back again; can’t start anything without abandoning it (including his relationship with Lesa); can’t build up momentum in any coherent direction; and relies on intoxicants as a means of escape, against the idea of facing these difficulties stone cold sober. One of the ironic levels of “Holocaust” and “Kangaroo” is that the intoxicants which were ingested to bring relief and escape do not; they ground the protagonist in an even deeper way into his own desolated emptiness and alienation. “Holocaust” is particularly cringe-worthy; the unbelievable creepiness of being drunk, alone in a dark room, and sitting in front of a dark mirror, too drunk even to put on your clothes, is an image of such pitiful self-loathing and abasement that there is nothing else in rock music quite like it. It’s more like a scene from a Russian novel. The funny thing about the segue from “Holocaust” into the classic “Nature Boy” is that “Nature Boy,” which can be taken as a positive statement about the spiritual wisdom of the protagonist (the sacred, as ever, balancing the profane) is also performed stop-start, herkyjerky, though the track is only Chilton singing over an acoustic piano. Even Chilton’s positive revelations about himself happen in a fragmented way; they do not necessarily accrue any momentum against his levels of self-abasement and self-loathing. “Nature Boy” itself is not a first-person narrative (it’s someone talking about the character to a third party), and we are led to imagine that the protagonist may or may not be talking about specific parties who see and value the spiritualized facets of who he is. If the protagonist of “3rd” were merely grounded in self-loathing and self-abasement, without this compensatory aspect, he wouldn’t be an interesting case study. The fact that, even in the midst of an infernalfeeling stasis (and Dana and her crowd can be taken as infernal), he both holds and maintains within himself some spiritual knowledge and discipline (even just the honesty and integrity of self-knowledge), makes him as compelling and magnetic as Dana herself. One thing we only get a brief hint of is the collage of voices around the protagonist (“they stood on the stairs/ laughing at your airs” in “Holocaust” and later, in “Nightime,” “and dressing so sweet/ all the people to see/ they’re looking at me/ all the people to see”), it is difficult to think that it could not be as rich (and potentially absurd) as the voices which gird Dana up. Adam Fieled 2012
Big Star’s 3rd/Sister Lovers Continued: Unsettled and Unsettling
It is taken for granted by fans of Big Star’s 3rd/Sister Lovers that the album is an unsettling piece of work. It hints at emotions and states of consciousness so far beneath what the average human being experiences that many people find the album a painful listening experience. What redeems Sister Lovers, always, for those who are devoted to it, is an unwavering dedication to melodic inventiveness and excellence and an unflinching expression of a vivid poetic imagination. When looked at formally, there are many techniques songwriter Alex Chilton employs to make the songs as unsettled and unsettling as they are. The average pop song sets out a verse/ chorus structure in which two or three verses echo each other as parallels in both melodic content and syllable count. In other words, the melody and syllable count repeat from verse to verse. Chilton is a sophisticated composer of pop music; what he does here is to unsettle conventions by making the melody and syllable count of his second verses counter, rather than repeat, the structures of the first. “Kizza Me,” “Thank You Friends,” “Big Black Car,” Jesus Christ,” and “O, Dana,” all in the first run of songs (using the Fieled sequence), use this trick to unsettle the listener. The trick also guarantees that perceptive listener will notice how this trick creates a parallelism between the tracks. The songs all repeat quirks. What these structures represent is a kind of organized chaos, which other elements of the production also highlight. “Big Black Car” constitutes a kind of abyss for the listeners of Sister Lovers to fall into; thus, I have given it a good amount of individual attention. What’s noticeable (among other things) on repeated listens, is that the motion of the song mimics the motion of a car; the track lurches to a stop and then starts again, and repeats this process more than once. I have mentioned a pestilential hot climate as contributing to the crushed, broken quality of the song’s forward momentum, and equally pestilential intoxication; but the herky-jerky quality has something to do specifically with a car stopping at lights, then rolling forward, and repeating the process. This question of halting beginnings, of stopping and starting and herky-jerky motions between, recurs many times during the course of Sister Lovers. The two bridges of “Holocaust” (“you look in your eyes / say you realize” and “they stood on the stairs / laughing at your airs”) are preceded by an abrupt transition from slow forward motion into an abyss of nothingness. The tempo of the “Holocaust” bridges is also different from the tempo of the verses, and movement in the bass on the piano Chilton is playing (from the usual first to the major third) enhances the autonomy of the two bridges from the verses. It creates a lurching, stomach-turning effect, like a car abruptly put into reverse and then back into first gear again. All of which unsettles any notion of continuity and harmonious momentum in the music. The lyrics in “Holocaust,” of course, speak for themselves. Form and content mirror each other admirably. The cover of Lou Reed’s “Femme Fatale” is another instance of a halting, lurching beginning. For the first twenty seconds of the track, it seems difficult to tell whether the track is even going to happen at all. Chilton hits D major seventh on his guitar, and then hits G against the rhythm he’s established. Steve Cropper’s lead guitar tries to find and then impose a center, or a sense of balance. Once Jody Stephens’ drums kick in, a mood
of hushed and extreme foreboding has already been established. The other, further unsettling element in “Femme Fatale” is the backing vocals on the chorus, provided by LesaAldredge herself. It’s not just that a heavy echo/reverb effect has been placed on the vocals; it is difficult to make out what Aldredge is actually chanting. It is discernible that the last words are, in fact, “femme fatale”; but the rest seems to be gibberish. If it is gibberish, it becomes a sort of musical non sequiter that Chilton, Dickinson, Fry, and the rest left her on the track. Whatever the thought was behind Aldredge’s backing vocal, it takes something foreboding and adds a level of horror to it. “Femme Fatale” becomes a talisman of the “haunting” in rock music, and of course Sister Lovers is its own haunted house. To get formal again, and studio-savvy (and this is probably the influence of John Fry); the way saxophones are miked on the album makes them sound like anything but saxophones. “O, Dana,” yet another halting, lurching beginning, also features saxophones made to sound like Eastern instruments, tambouras or sitars, anything which emits a hypnotic drone. It’s hard to believe that anyone in Midtown Memphis had ever miked saxophones in such a bizarre manner, and takes Sister Lovers into the realm not only of the imaginative and the haunted but of the psychedelic. Yet the sound Fry gets out of the saxophones is hollow, tinny, and Other, and more than adequately represents the desolated nature of Chilton’s songs. The way drums are miked and used in “Kangaroo” is even more blatant, and highlights the drunkenness which is an undercurrent throughout Sister Lovers. Drums are usually set in place specifically to add momentum, to create an impression of forward movement; in “Kangaroo,” it’s more like they represent someone being beaten, or someone lurching around drunk and falling all over things. It so unsettles “Kangaroo” that musical forward motion is replaced by a balance between stasis, motion, and a sense of stumbling through a maze of funhouse mirrors, lyrically and musically. Adam Fieled, 2012
Big Star’s “Third/Sister Lovers”: Notes toward Exegesis
The Chilton protagonist of “Third/Sister Lovers” has a strangely dual or “doubled” nature. The split in this character’s psyche seems to be between elements and levels of the “sacred” conflicting with elements and levels of the “profane.” Part of what’s profane in Chilton is perversity, expressed in sarcasm, temperamental negativity, and almost Tourette’s level weirdness with the English language. Thus, in “Kizza Me,” the idea of “whiting out” conflates (in the manner, oddly enough, of metaphysical poetry, Donne and Marvell) the idea of the male sexual orgasm with death and being erased. “Kizza Me,” which alternates between major and minor key orientation, is an odd blend of sacred and profane impulses; it is a twisted, sarcastic (“that’s enough, baby,” Chilton ejaculates at the end) love song to Lesa, but it waffles in its own perversity and twisted structures enough to seem more crepuscular than celebratory. The inclusion of “Jesus Christ” on the album is a demonstration that the protagonist can heed the call of the “sacred.” The song is resolutely major key, and not delivered in a manner which implies sarcasm. It is a genuine hymn. If it undercuts the manifest oddness of the first three songs, it also delivers us a protagonist not only individual but complex. To backtrack; “Jesus Christ” is given added weight because the bridge between the sarcasm of the first two tracks and “JC” is “Big Black Car,” which steps out of the merely perverse and into the macabre. One interesting facet of “Big Black Car,” musically (other than the suggestion of dissolution in major seventh chords) is how the melody not only follows a descending pattern but suggests literal descent, in this context (arguably) into walking (or driving) death. The melody starts on the major third of the key-root, descends to the second and then back to the root in languid, perverse slow motion. It puts the protagonist in a claustrophobically hot climate in the grips of intoxicated lethargy. “Jesus Christ” balances this and adds complexity to him, so that he’s more than a mere wastrel. Dana, more than Lesa, serves as a mirror to the protagonist. It is a kind of implied metaphysical conceit. The protagonist is split between the sacred and the profane; the two bridges in “O, Dana” (“you seldom know what things are/ do illusions go very far” and “she has a magic wand/ that says play with yourself before other ones”) force him to manifest the dichotomous split in his own psyche. Lesa does not exhume the valorousness of his Christian streak until “Blue Moon,” and then only in passing. “Third/Sister Lovers” is full of context clues based on key changes; “O, Dana” ends by collapsing from a major into a minor key; the two tracks which follow, “Holocaust” and “Nature Boy” (specifically in the Fieled sequence) remain resolutely minor key and then “go major” as they conclude. The end of “Holocaust” is the strangest moment on the album; why would such a sad song resolve into a major key as Chilton utters the word “holocaust”? It, as a musical gesture, can be taken two ways; as a manifestation of the most severe kind of perversity, bordering on outright cruelty (based on what the word “holocaust” signifies), or it could be (as I interpret it) that Chilton turns a corner in his mood away from a Southern Gothic sense of loss and faded glory into an appreciation of his own sensitivity and self-knowledge, which leads straight into the narrative of “Nature Boy.” What exactly is the Southern Gothic here? It has to do, as I said, with faded glory and loss; also with a sense of being haunted by ghosts, and with “blood” in the general sense. After all, the South has been waiting to rise again since 1865. By 1974, these dreams were supposed to have been forgotten; but the first word sung on “Third/Sister Lovers” is
“dreams,” and both facets of the Chilton protagonist (sacred/profane) are wont to get lost in dreams, manifested within a context of drunkenness and drugged torpor. As is known about Alex Chilton himself, who sang on a smash single (“The Letter”) at age sixteen, hit the charts a few more times with the Box Tops and then spent the rest of his creative life (commercially speaking) falling, this was a man for whom faded glory was not unfamiliar. The plot to positing the Chilton songs as a manifestation of a Southern Gothic sensibility twists as usual, because Chilton sings the songs on “Third/Sister Lovers” as though he might be British, and even adds a lisp a la Marc Bolan in “Big Black Car” and “Holocaust,” suggesting not only Englishness but the effeminacy of the fop or dandy. To be sure, the Southern Gothic is a constituent element which adds several levels of richness to “Sister Lovers,” but it does not define the entire construct. Too much of the music, also, references the melodic terrain of the Beatles to ignore them, especially their “White Album” era, as an important influence. So, the odd “Third/Sister Lovers” line points from Memphis to London, and now in the twenty-first century to Philadelphia. Is the protagonist’s conflict Oedipal? The “mother sequence” in “Holocaust” (“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 followed by the big bottoming out moment on the album; we tunnel down, musically, into the chaos of absolute dissonance, an aural objective correlative to the deepest, darkest, blackest kind of despair. Is Chilton’s mother who pushes him down the farthest? Chilton’s biography is interesting this way too: Chilton’s mother ran an art gallery out of the middle-class Chilton house in Memphis, and Alex Chilton, when writing “Holocaust,” was twenty-three, and still living with his mother in that house. It would be a stretch to say he was attached on an Oedipal level (if so, there would be no Lesa or Dana), but that as the drunken protagonist in “Holocaust” sits before a mirror in a dark room he might get stung by the notion of his own attachments is not too far fetched. “Holocaust,” for a number of reasons, seems to be the musical and thematic centerpiece of “Third/Sister Lovers.” It distills the essence of the protagonist, his perversity and candor, the profane and sacred he carries along with him into his affairs. It also opens an imaginative vista for those who have never lived in a hot climate. It’s not just that the “mother sequence,” including the musical bottoming out, is indicative of the best the album has to offer; it’s that the way a slide guitar makes the entire musical construct so sickeningly fluid and so like feeling too much hard liquor churn in your guts is as visceral a moment as any in the history of indigenous American art. Even if the absurd exaggeration of this character believing himself to be a “holocaust” gives us another clue as to why the key has to change at the end; he sees and knows himself all too clearly in that moment to have the imagination of the poet, which takes what is at hand and molds it into metaphorical (and exaggerated) form. Adam Fieled, 2012
SURREALISM AND “3RD/ SISTER LOVERS”
Surrealism, as a movement in art and literature, had something to do with the conflation of dreams, dreaming, and dream-states with waking reality; that to investigate dreams (without, usually, the instrumental overtones of Freudian psychology) was to take consciousness into a novel realm, a space which hadn’t been opened before. This was not completely the case; many of the English Romantics, particularly Coleridge and Keats, investigated their dreams, and the cleft spaces between dreams and reality, in their best poetry. Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” in particular, plays many interesting and complex games with sleeping states and waking states, on physical and metaphysical levels. The French Surrealists (Breton, Soupault, etc) were more intent on a certain kind of “jolting” incoherence, in the tradition of their spiritual predecessor Arthur Rimbaud. This is worth bringing up in reference to Big Star’s “3rd/ Sister Lovers,” not merely because it is absurdly rich and complex for a work of popular art, but because one of the games it plays from song to song is the Surrealist game: where does dreaming end, in the broad sense, and “waking” begin? The first lines in the first song on the album (“Kizza Me”) are “Dreams and wishes/ like shooting stars/ coming up rushes.” Beyond Alex Chilton’s odd syntax/diction, what we get is a sense of passion about the album’s heroine/anti-heroine Lesa. The correspondence to “Dream Lover,” towards the end of the album, could not be more malign, or rich. “Dream Lover” (the title filched, as Alex Chilton was wont to do, from a Bobby Darin song) begins, “You’re a dream lover/ and I’m never gonna let you go/ and there’s no other/ could look as good as you right now/ and you shine like ice.” The game, for attentive audiences, is that Chilton’s pun (meant to refer to Dana, the album’s temptress) goes in several different directions— is this a lover who loves dreams, or a lover Chilton can only see in dreams and not in reality, or a lover so wonderful she might have descended from his dreams, or even (as a stretch) a lover worthy of Bobby Darin? The music of “Dream Lover” is so spectral and so glacial that it, itself shines like ice; the descending chord progression, played on acoustic piano, resembles not only the Beatles “For No One” but the Rolling Stones’ “Shine a Light” from their ’72 opus “Exile on Main Street.” Chilton, in the icy visionary state he is in here, sees Dana “on Beale Street green/ my wishes visualized/ then I wake up and shiver/ body quivers/ I don’t know where to look.” In other words, as in “Holocaust,” Chilton is in bed miserably in the middle of the night. The next track, “Blue Moon” (another filched title) suggests that he may actually be in bed with Lesa. Here, he wakes with a jolt from a dream-state in which he sees Dana on Beale Street in Midtown Memphis. The love triangle which animates “3rd” at this point has become convoluted; “Nighttime” saw Chilton return to Lesa and face Dana’s “magic wand,” forcing him to disappear from her social nexus. But “dreams” and “wishes” coming up in this context towards the close of the album, reiterates the Surrealistic bent of “3rd” on another level, from the perverse sexualized pleasure (achieved with Lesa) of “Kizza Me” to the spectral haunting of Chilton’s dreams by Dana in “Dream Lover.” It isn’t only dreams which haunt the second half of “3rd”; it is a generalized sense of iciness or coldness the protagonist feels. Beale Street, in “Nighttime” is “freezing,” and Chilton and Lesa are forced (unusually for Memphis) to wear scarves; they are frozen out by Dana and her retinue, and frozen out publicly (the song suggests they are being watched closely); and Chilton cannot, out of his self-abasement and self-loathing, let go of Dana, who “shines like ice.” That Surrealism is not usually shot through with this much emotional angst, nor this much human entanglement is worth mentioning. Surrealism, especially French surrealism, can be
very soft-core about such things. It’s also worth noting that the Surrealism of “3rd” is not played up too much on the surface; it is an undercurrent, albeit an undercurrent worth exploring. One track on “3rd” which brings that undercurrent to the surface is “Kangaroo,” which, if it is Surrealistic (as well as psychologically and emotionally revealing about the protagonist), can be taken as a series of dreamed visions of Dana in her element (a more active, socialized version of “Dream Lover”). The way Chilton moves into the lyric, beginning with “I first saw you/ you had on blue jeans/ your eyes couldn’t hide/ anything/ I saw you breathing “No,”/ and I saw you staring out in space,” suggests that he is in a kind of visionary trance which might well be taken for a kind of dream state. The sound of the track, unhinged towards a slow-burn lurch of giddy drunkenness (which, as a description, belies the gorgeousness of the melody if I fail to mention it), continues with a series of visions of Dana, all of which are much more evocative, and artfully compressed than Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna”; “I next saw you/ you were at the party/ thought you was a queen/ oh so flirty/ I came against…” Not to belabor things towards the graphic, but the word-play and how it relates to “Kizza Me” is clear; Chilton is able to have full, unimpeded sex with Lesa (“come into” her), while he “(comes) against” Dana. All the same, the verbal Jabberwocky, combined with atmospheric, ambient production and a plot already thickening, leads us to debate whether or not these visions of Chilton’s are real or dreamed. Intoxication, of course, is another undercurrent which feeds the Surrealistic dreams/waking dichotomy of “3rd.” States of intoxication, induced by drugs, alcohol, or even sleep itself, make consciousness hazy, non-specific, and able to channel and represent what might be called (in art) the visionary. Because “3rd” has a plot and sub-plots, and because the narrative structure is organized in a way that has a hinge to Englishness (just as the music offers its own version of White Album era Beatles), all the hazy incoherence of Surrealism can only be an undercurrent; but the most painful, iciest, and starkest moments on “3rd” do have a kind of “jolt” in them which never fails to shock, even after the album is heard many times. Partly it’s because the album was produced in an avant-garde mold, even as the songs maintain a certain amount of classicism; partly it’s because Chilton’s elliptical lyrics work on the level of telling a story and also telling a story of consciousness itself sideways. What’s funny is how a rock album surmounts the problem of narrative without doing what popular art usually does, and falling into the trap popular art usually falls into; which to make the narrative so onedimensional and blatant that nuance, complexity, and detail are lost. Adam Fieled, 2012
Third/Sister Lovers: Correspondences
In a work as complex and multi-faceted as Big Star’s “Third/Sister Lovers,” what emerges upon repeated listens is complex too. One thing I’m beginning to spot in the piece are correspondences. Here are a few of the more notable ones: what Alex Chilton does with major seventh chords ties “Big Black Car” and Chilton’s cover of Lou Reed’s “Femme Fatale” together— lyrically, the songs hinge on despair, intoxication, and seen and unseen danger. The major seventh chords Chilton uses express specifically vulnerability in this context. They also express something crepuscular, something shadowy. “Holocaust” and “Kizza Me,” the lead off track, may seem an unlikely correspondence. What connects them is that they are both in a minor key, and all the songs between are in major keys. How I interpret the correspondence is this: “Holocaust” in many ways starts the album over again, by “re-doing” the protagonist, re-painting his portrait. An “up” vision of perversity and lust in “Kizza Me” decomposes and decays into the abject self-loathing (shot through with drunken self-consciousness) of “Holocaust.” The connection between “Femme Fatale” and “Holocaust” is also interesting, and has to do with the “everybody” of Dana and her destructive and carnivorous social network. Dana’s friends know that she’s a femme fatale, but are too dependent on her magnetism and binding force to break away from her. If they judge Chilton as protagonist harshly, and leave him behind, it’s because they find his vulnerability unacceptable. The Chilton protagonist is perverse: his sense of language is off-beat and “lateral,” he has a sarcastic streak that emerges in “Thank You Friends” and “You Can’t Have Me.” The perversity of “Kizza Me” is more about the willfulness of his sexual desire for Lesa, whose intermittent prominence in “Third/Sister Lovers” makes her another shadowy form within the tone poem or painting. The relationship between “Jesus Christ” and the rest of the album is intriguing: it demonstrates another side of the Chilton protagonist, one that favors purity over perversion. Who “they” are, those who rejoice at the birth of Jesus, are the inverse of the harsh, banal, pretentious scenesters who shut Chilton out from Dana and her own perverse boudoir. This crowd are “devils” or “demons” in a sense, and “Jesus Christ” is essential to demonstrate that the Chilton protagonist has something sublime and spiritualized in him. How different, as characters, are Lesa and Dana? The basic argument I have to put forth is that the are flip sides of the same coin. Lesa is retiring and Dana in compulsively social, but
both demonstrate the same intractable selfishness in situations concerning Chilton. That, by “Take Care,” Chilton has rejected both out of spiritual necessity is a hinge to positing this. Adam Fieled
“3rd/Sister Lovers: Modes of Perversity”
The protagonist of “Third/Sister Lovers” is perverse. His perversity manifests innumerous ways, and can happen actively or passively. Thus, it can be said that his perversity has more than one mode, or method of functioning. The first thing we notice, in “Kizza Me,” is that the protagonist’s relationship with language is strange, and twisted: “Dreams and wishes, like shooting stars/ comin’ up rushes/ I want to white out.” He poeticizes language in such a way that he cannot speak (in the songs) normally. The bloated sense, in “Kizza Me,” that his sexualized relationship with Lesa has pushed him into a realm of overwrought sarcasm is a clue (and a macabre one) that he finds taxing the demands of ordinary life, and is compelled to rebel. When the active mode of perversity is operative in him, what he brings to the surface is meant to startle and unsettle anyone listening. It isn’t bent (yet) into a shape which resembles drunkenness and abject self-abasement and self-pity. “Thank You Friends” walks a fine line; the overwrought sarcasm which manifests in “Kizza Me” seems to be operative here too, but Chilton sings at least part of the song with a straight face, and we are left in an ambiguous space wondering if the narrator is reliable. Creating these kinds of ambiguities, wherein the listener is challenged to figure out if the singer is sincere or dabbling perversely in sideways humor, is another expression of active perversity. The way “Thank You Friends” is produced (it’s the only track on “Third/Sister Lovers” with back-up vocalists) encourages us to believe that the thing is “staged,” put together to create a convincing appearance rather than to represent a reality. Most of “Third/Sister Lovers” stays in the depths; it is music made from the bottom of a kind of ocean. “Thank You Friends” plays games with surfaces and depths, which are not merely challenging, but point back the listener to Chilton’s biography, his life in Midtown Memphis in ’74, the faded glory which is his version of the Southern Gothic, and the irony of a British influence which many in Midtown found difficult to accept. Even a Beatles-like melody from Chilton constitutes, in this context, an active and direct rebellion, and conflates “Third/Sister Lovers” as a work of art with his life. The second mode of Alex Chilton’s perversity is the passive mode: the manner in which he twists things for/to himself, specifically to engage in the most brutish kind of self-flagellation for the fix (personal, professional, and aesthetic) he is. “Big Black Car” and “Holocaust” could constitute the
two single most perverse moments in the history of rock music, and also (perversely, and with a British foundation) the prettiest. “Big Black Car” is so warped in the direction of perverse self-loathing that after many listens, the song turns (at least partly) funny: “why should I care/ if driving’s a gas/ it ain’t gonna last.” The protagonist hates himself so much, and is in such a pretzel-like state psychologically, he even taunts himself out of enjoying a drive. This is albeit, of course, a drive in a big black car, i.e. a hearse, with himself (presumably, and imaginatively) the corpse within it. Certainly “nothing can hurt me/ nothing can touch me” alludes to a death-like state in which a sense of equipoise has been achieved within the comatose bounds of complete stupefication. What’s compelling about Chilton’s passive/negative perversity is how it interacts with his unique sense of language, so that everything is expressed in such a way that it creates and sustains “doubles,” double and triple meanings. Like, in “Big Black Car,” the perverse (and very French, it turns out) notion that Chilton is both a cadaver and a living, breathing human being. When Chilton drones, twice, “I can’t feel a thing,” riding the third/second/root melody in a very beleaguered major key (smudged, at the end, into major seventh territory, and further blurred by a slide guitar adding rubbery, breathtaking ambience), we can make the presupposition that when his perversity manifests on inward or outward levels, actively pr passively, it never leaves his character. One point I’d like to make about “O, Dana,” and the passive levels of Chilton’s perversity: the “collage of voices” effect which runs through the verses of the song, through which every line juts out from a different voice of the circle of sycophants and love-struck Lotharios around Dana, represents “channeling” on Chilton’s part. He is something of a psychic sponge, and very sensitive; he absorbs the energy of Dana’s circle. The first of Chilton’s interjections (bridge #1) alludes to Dana’s spiritual immaturity; the second creates a metaphor in Dana’s “magic wand,” which (we can assume) has a knack for making those disappear who come on too strongly to her, and paints her as domineering, taking a tutorial attitude to those around her. Chilton gorges himself on these voices and spits them out again. He doesn’t realize it, but the voices infect him and make him sick. Thus, the segue from “O, Dana” to “Holocaust” indicate that hanging around Dana and her tribe has left Chilton at loose ends. “Holocaust” indicates, among other things, a psyche imaginative, poetic, but also young, naïve, and very tender, without sturdy boundaries. Chilton, all through “Third/Sister Lovers,” expresses perversity in both modes by this boundlessness, through which (to contradict “Big Black Car”) everything touches him and everything hurts him. Part of the perversity of “Big Black Car” is simply the sense that Chilton, when he talks about his own feelings, is taunting himself with a lie, or lies. Adam Fieled, 2012/2013
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