Sunday, July 25, 2010

Judith Beeman and Alex Chilton: the "Back Of A Car" interview - plus Alex Chilton tribute stuff!

Being a big fan of Slow and Copyright, I was delighted to hear Tom Anselmi would be joined by Copyright drummer Pete Bourne for the Alex Chilton tribute, July 29th at the WISE Hall; I haven't seen Anselmi sing since I saw Slow open for The Cramps at the Thunderbird Stadium, back in the 1980's. I was very happy to chat with him for the Straight, and even happier to discover that he and Bourne planned to do "Take Care" and "Nighttime," two of Chilton's most delicate and pretty - and yet heartbreakingly sad - songs, from the fragmented classic of heart-on-sleevism, Big Star's 3rd/Sister Lovers, recorded in 1974 and unreleased until 1978. "That’s the one that I really love," Anselmi told me. "When we made the Circle C record in Wales, our A&R person - Anna Statman, for Geffen - assumed that I was very influenced by Alex Chilton, because she had actually worked with him, but I had never heard him. It was just a weird blank spot. That Replacements album had come out, and I’d known the name, but I’d never investigated, really. The stuff that I had heard was more the sort of power pop stuff; I’d never heard Sister Lovers. And when I did hear that, I could realize why she thought I was influenced by that... the sound, the tone of his voice - I could relate to the way he was singing a lot." (People unfamiliar with the Circle C album are urged to hunt it down; long deleted by Geffen, its a strong runner up for the #1 nearly-forgotten Vancouver rock masterpiece, and probably still my favourite Copyright release. Note: Tom also tells me that no Copyright reunion is currently planned, and that there is no news about a Slow reissue. Sorry!).

Guitarist Tim Chan - who, along with co-organizer Eric Lowe, plays in both 64 Funnycars and the China Syndrome - spoke of various other songs that were planned, with different artists picking different tunes. "Eric, who came up with the idea of doing a tribute, started a Facebook group, and people just put their dibs on the songs." Magnetic West selected "The Letter" and "I Must Be The Devil." LXLXLX, featuring Gord Badanic of Go Four Three, will be doing "September Gurls," and then varying the mix with a song that Alex Chilton produced, the Cramps' "Goo Goo Muck," and the Replacements' "Can't Hardly Wait," which Chilton played guitar on. In addition to "Back Of A Car," 64 Funnycars will do Big Star's "When My Baby's Beside Me" and the Box Tops' "Cry Like A Baby," while China Syndrome have dibs on the 'placemats' "Alex Chilton" song and "Free Again," among others. William Alexander and the High Priests - including Doug Smith of Little Guitar Army, probably my favourite newer band on the Vancouver scene - will do "Bangkok" and "Don't Lie To Me." Also on the bill, Tim tells me, is Vancouver Nights (Tim explains, "it's a woman named Sarah Lapsley, who has been around for a few years; she was in The Gay, and she was in Kreviss, a number of years ago. She does a kind of poppy thing..."); we didn't get around to talking about what songs were being planned by them. Alas, no one, at the time of my interview, had dibs on "Alligator Man," a song that Chilton covered to great effect on the delightfully sloppy Like Flies On Sherbert. Here's hoping that someone made room to squeeze it in! More bands will play than I can do justice to or find Myspace links for - Wilderness Years, She Was The Law - and I want to leave some of the songs a surprise, but it should be a very fun night!

As for Fresh Choice Kitchens, Tim explains, "It's just a really great charity, and we thought it would be a great way to benefit them. They have kitchen supplies, they conduct workshops - both online and in person - for anybody who currently runs a community kitchen, or would want to start up a community kitchen. It's all about cooking, it's all about enjoying food. It's also about teaching people to cook who may not have the skills or resources to be able to do it."

China Syndrome, picture provided by Tim Chan

I used a quote from Tim as well as Tom in my Music Note, but the road not taken for the Straight - though I managed to squeeze in mention of her fanzine, which she will be selling at the show, with some portion of her profits going to the cause - was to interview Judith Beeman, the woman behind Back Of A Car (henceforth BOAC), a Vancouver-based Chilton fanzine from the 1990's. Beeman and I amended this via email, so with no further ado - here's Jude!

Allan: How did you discover the music of Alex Chilton?

Judith: I was 22 and still caught up in listening to FM radio bullshit. I thank the guys at Track Records (Dale & Phil) for introducing me to Big Star. I’d go to the store on Seymour and ask for the occasional recommendation. You know, when you’re trying to appear somewhat worldly musically but really don’t have a clue. They sold me Radio City which I promptly listened to, tucked away for six months, gave it another shot and was blown away. Soon I was scooping up everything related to the band that I could get my mitts on. At that time this consisted of #1 Record and some solo Alex stuff. All on vinyl only of course. Loved #1 Record but it sure is mellow. Some of Alex’s solo stuff was a huge disappointment (Bach’s Bottom) and some mindblowing (Document, the Aura label collection which introduced me to “My Rival” and “Bangkok.”)

Allan: What's your favourite period and why?

Judith: Radio City is the classic Big Star record bar none. It is an absolutely perfect rock album. You’ve got a quasi faux-British singing voice, and melancholic yet upbeat lyrics and lines like, “a lot of us ain’t got many friends” - which I, for one, can greatly relate to. But honestly? I think “September Gurls” is the most over-rated song ever; turn down the treble! Gah!

For anyone wanting to get their angst on, look no further than Sister Lovers aka Third. Menacingly quiet and narcotic this is one disturbingly great release. I'm still not over the utterly awful Rykodisc cover art for the CD version.

My fave Alex solo recording is the under-rated and somewhat sleazy High Priest from 1987. Here's LX at his sexist/sexiest r&b best, with only four originals (including the silly "Dalai Lama"); the album also has his version of "Volare," which signaled the downhill spiral for those of us who were bored to tears by Alex's output of the past 25 years. I didn't care for a single album released after High Priest.

Allan: When did you start BOAC? How long did it last? Had you done any zines before then?

Judith: I had been writing the book/comix column, "subtext," for Discorder for a long time and was itching to do my own zine. I wanted to have a clear focus and the moment I read on a bbs forum (pre WWW days) that Big Star were going to be in San Francisco, my decision was made. Not only did I start planning the zine then and there, about four months before the show (June 5 1994), but I discussed it online and made some friends who were just as enthusiastic and helped with articles. A bunch of us hung out at the show together.The first issue came out in August 1994. I racked my brain for the name and BOAC was the clear winner. I got up the nerve to call Jody at Ardent and tell him (not ask!) the zine was going to happen and get his blessings. The absolute angel that he is (polar opposite of our man Alex) Jody was bemused by the attention yet positive and gave me some great contact info. In 1995 when I did the Big Star Pilgrimage to Memphis, in May, I got to tour Ardent and meet Jody.

The second issue came out one year late. The big deal with this one was David Bell, Chris’ brother, had given me permission to release “Country Morn” on a flexi disc. What a friggin’ coup! This had never been released. David himself handed me the dat tape in Memphis, and, this is so surreal, he, I and my pal Pam McGaha, went bombing along in David’s big US car listening to the song at full blast late one warm Memphis evening. The song is “Watch The Sunrise” with completely different lyrics.

The third BOAC came out in 1997. The bonus was a vinyl single with songs by Van Duren and Tommy Hoehn both Memphis contemporaries of the band. I always like zines that offer something special and this issue also included pin-ups of Jody! I had three Queens of the comix scene, Roberta Gregory, Shary Flenniken and Mary Fleener each draw their interpretation of Jody as he appears on the cover of Radio City. I was embarrassed I hadn’t screened the photo of Jody on the back cover where ‘miniatures’ of the drawings were and his pic looks like he’s on fire. I apologize for any perceived sexism re: Jody’s good looks, it’s a tad tongue-in-cheek but still I point you to the physical evidence.

The fourth and final BOAC was a change. Although all the issues also included comics, short stories, and other Memphis material I didn’t want to be solely known as “the Big Star lady.” In 1999 the “memories of being a teenager in the late 1970’s” issue came out. This has a ton of auto-biographical material -- I got a few things off my chest -- and lots of great writing from contributors. The bonus with this issue was a CD featuring a bunch of pop bands called Love it to Death.
Aside from the Love it to Death disc that comes free with the 4th BOAC I put together two other CD's, the first Lonely Planet Boy was a six-degrees-of-separation concerning all things Big Star. The kickoff song is “Country Morn” by Chris Bell, who is revered in “Christopher Bell” by Norway's The Chairs (who also provided the cover art. Memphis is represented by Van Duren, Tommy Hoehn (who recently passed away; his “Losing you to Sleep” is a true gem), the Scruffs, and Sid Selvidge (whose Peabody label released Like Flies on Sherbert.) Outrageous Cherry, Yuji Oniki, and Vancouver's Sister Lovers are a few of the others on the 13 track disc.
Spavid, who runs the Willfully Obscure site (best blog name ever?) put the Lonely Planet Boy CD up in 2009. You can check out the cover art and download via rapidshare. I only discovered it by googling myself (tee hee) and was I tickled.

A year following LPB came Teenster. I asked a bunch of groups to contribute an original with the simple missive “it sounds like 1970's AM radio” the results were impressive. Locals July 4th Toilet, The Roswells, and Tranvestimentals (ex cub, no fun & coal) up against Mitch Easter, Outrageous Cherry and Duglas Stewart (BMX Bandits along w/members of Teenage Fanclub!) There's a real bubble-glam vibe on the CD which I personally adore. And where else are ya going to hear Robbie Rist (“Cousin Oliver”) belting out "Roxy Roller?" Teenster also fulfilled my #1 teenage dream as I perform, not too wretchedly, The Ramones “I Wanna be your Boyfriend” with my “band” The Wrong Numbers (actually the guys from July 4th Toilet; the bandname was a tip to my then profession of telephone operator). The top-secret bonus track is "September Gurls" sung En Spanol by the U.K.'s Starstruck.

Allan: Any amusing anecdotes from your history as a zine publisher? (Judith entitled the following in her email, "The Time Someone Got Mad at BOAC"):

Judith: Each issue of BOAC had a comic on the back page titled "Back of a Cartoon" (I’m afraid this is the highpoint of humour for me!) The second issue featured Julian Lawrence (site here) drawing verbatim part of an interview Robert Gordon had with Box Tops player John Evans. This was featured in Robert’s terrific music history, It Came From Memphis (Faber). It recounts how the band, then known as the Devilles, first met Alex, who became their singer. It’s pretty hysterical as the main focus is what Alex wore. He was quite ahead of his time.

Julian did a fantastic job drawing the segment, and I gave him free reign. I was a bit hesitant upon seeing the final product because the John of today, recounting the story, really looks like a "Cracker." Julian offered to redo that portion but I kept it as is. We had no photo reference either, he could very well look exactly like that who knew? I suspected there might be a bit of umbrage so in my review of It Came From Memphis, when I mentioned the back of a cartoon page, I put in brackets "Please forgive us, John Evans, wherever you are."

Anyhow, of course John Evans got hold of a copy of BOAC and he was not amused. He shot off a stiff email to me, which I replied to, which begat a longer missive, which I replied to and the world is still standing. Basically I semi-apologized if the picture made him uncomfortable, but I also bristled at comments about my editing skills. I must say tho', that it never fails to amaze me that someone can pretty much say whatever comes to mind in a letter, than top it off with "God Bless You" as a salutation. Christians!

Allan: ...Tell us about the BOAC art?

Judith: #1 issue (geddit?) of BOAC featured Lester Smolenski's reproduction of a fairly well known group photo. Alex and Chris are in the forefront. Lester's distinct style adds a titch of menace to the scene.

The 2nd issue features Julian Lawrence's work on both the cover and back of a cartoon page. This time working from a photo that had never before published. Julian can do anything!

3rd features the artwork of Delaine Derry (Green), whose My Small Diary & Not My Small Diary zines are the bomb. Sweet in a really cool, not sucky way. Fans of auto biographical comix need this stuff.

The 4th issue - OMFG or ZOMG or whatever the kids are saying these days. I can die a happy woman because I got Bob Wilson (of "Barney & Mike" infamy in Creem) to not only resurrect the lads for a BOAC cover exclusive, but willfully subject himself to an interview & slavish idolation from myself. I had tried to track down Bob – on and off – for over a decade. P.S. If you think anyone from the Big Star camp was surprised at my attention it didn't come close to Bob's reaction. I think he was pretty tickled actually. What a trooper.

Allan: Any other thoughts on Big Star?

Judith: It's no secret that Alex snubbed me (hard) and frankly both the man himself and his solo work didn't do a ton for me. However, BOAC reportage was never biased as a result. I loved Chilton's work in Big Star, and some of his early solo stuff, but I quickly tired of his “schtick” of the past 20 years.

That said, I want to talk a bit about my fave Big Star member, who was Chris Bell. I think I Am The Cosmos is a flipping masterpiece. Yearning poignant ballads (complete heart ripper outters) form the first half of the CD. Cosmos is completely concerned with love and relationships.

Then comes “Look Up” the first of two capital C Christian ballads, the other being “There is a Light.” Both of which are fine songs, but alas "Look Up" gets a bit histronic and, at least in me, elicits nervous giggles from the listener. Never fear tho', as the raucous “Make a Scene” and “Fight at the Table” make up for any God fearing behooving.

People who have studied the first two Big Star records know Chris was out of the picture for Radio City, but clearly his influence is all over the album. David Bell confirmed Chris wrote some lyrics and music that was included on the second album but didn't want credit.

Allan: What were your encounters with Alex, exactly?

Judith: I met Alex twice. We all know his reputation and he didn't fail to deliver the second time.
First not so bad: After the San Fran show he hung around the floor signing autographs. Enterprising young me, I had been handing out small flyers advertising the advent of BOAC in the line before the gig and at record shops across The City. I steeled my nerve to walk over and talk to Alex; I knew he already had heard of BOAC, having bumped into Jody before the show. I walked over, big smile handing him a small goldenrod yellow sheet of paper which gave pertinent BOAC info. He immediately flips it over and writes his autograph. I had been so intent on meeting him I hadn't thought of an autograph (and really, unless it's on an album cover it's not my thing.) Oh! Thanks, sez I, taking the paper and grabbing another for him, but I really wanted to introduce myself yadda yadda. He didn't rip it into shreds (thank gawd) and politely put it in his pocket. We made friendly eye to eye contact.

Second time: I like to get my money's worth when I fly somewhere, so in 1995, after embarking on my Big Star Pilgrimage, I stopped in St Louis to visit my pal Jordan Oakes (who published esteemed power pop journal Yellow Pills.) I then caught the Greyhound to Memphis. While planning the trip it turned out a trio led by Alex would be in St Louis. Bonus! Caught the show, Alex spotted me before the show, I could tell he knew who I was. Afterward I saw him. Me: I'd like to write you sometime, I have questions about your music: Him: You can write (big pause) as long as I don't have to answer. End of story. I didn't say anything, just held my head up and left the premises. Grrrrrr. Rest in peace ya cranky bastard.*

Beeman and I express our condolences to the family and loved ones of original Big Star bassist Andy Hummel, who died of cancer on June 19th.

Back issues of Back Of A Car will be available at the June 29th Alex Chilton tribute concert! See you there!
*Note: yes, folks, briefly there appeared online an "alternate ending" (the "what a shit" conclusion), but Jude, on reflection, decided that the fondness and warmth inherent in calling someone a shit - oft used as a term of, um, "challenged affection," say - might not come across, and possibly give offense, when applied to the revered and deceased Mr. Chilton. The piece has been duly modified! (And now I'm thinkin' that "RIP Ya Cranky Bastard" might not be a bad inscription for a tombstone...).


Judith Beeman said...

Great writeup Allan! Heads up to anyone heading to the gig that Al has agreed to be my helper selling BOAC stuff so you can meet him in the flesh.

I'll be donating at least half my sales to Fresh Choice Kitchens with a minimum of $100.00 no matter how much sells. So, uh there!


Daddy L said...

I saw Slow open for the Cramps too! Great show by Slow.

Daddy L said...

I saw Slow open for the Cramps at Thunderbird too! Great show I seem to recall.

Eric Lowe

Anonymous said...

hey Allan!

Thanks for the kind words re: LGA! Wonderful article on the show and nice conversations with Judith, Tom and Tim!

William Alexander and the High Priests have taken on a life of their own and I have Chris Read (John Ford & Captain Dust) signing "I Am the Cosmos" with us, who include in our membership for the evening Craig McKimm and Rich H (LGA) Mike Laviolette (Surf Messiahs and Cadaver Dogs)and Joseph Blood (Bend Sinister and the Blutick Houn Dogs).

This is a great event and it is all to help out a great community partner!


Doug Smith

Jesús Martínez said...

I also had the chance to meet Alex Chilton personally and yes, he was a cranky bastard, but I love his music, even his latter-day solo crooner stuff.