Big Star’s Third - Thank You Friends (Live in Barcelona, 1st June 2012)
Let’s start at the end, shall we?
After an earlier, heartbreaking report of his drowning during the post-Katrina flooding proved false, Alex Chilton died of a heart attack in New Orleans on the 17th March, 2010. In the wake of yet another career resurgence – a box set was receiving a great deal of critical acclaim, and a hotly-tipped SXSW show was scheduled for the 20th. That night, however, a quick rally round the city of Austin led to a last-minute tribute show, with anyone who was in town – Evan Dando, X’s John Doe, M. Ward and others – stepping up to the mic for a number in memory of Alex, ducking out of the spotlight for the last time.
Since then, even more acts have been rushing to pay homage to that most reclusive of cult icons, and the focal point of these tributes has been the officially-sanctioned Big Star’s Third nights. It’s a simple idea – take a core band of Big Star’s sole surviving, key Big Star session men, Mike “busman’s holiday” Mills and put out an open call for whoever is in town on a given night. Then get them to play one of the most fractured, enigmatic rock albums in history, round off with “the hits” and you’re done for the night.
It shouldn’t work. The recent glut of tribute records and shows are fawning and unnecessary at worst – will anyone really have their lives enhanced by Best Coast covering Fleetwood Mac? – and a passable curio at best. But Big Star always brought out the best in people: encouraging the pop sensibility in Paul Westerberg’s Midwestern punk rambles, brightening the jangle of Peter Buck’s guitars, encouraging Teenage Fanclub to have a wash and a shave in the bleary morning after grunge.
In a darkened auditorium, on a balmy Friday evening in Barcelona earlier this year, I was lucky enough to see members of some of my favourite bands try their hand at the strangest corners of Big Star’s music during one of these sets; from the third row, I watched Jeff Tweedy tear into ‘Kizza Me’, Alexis Taylor (in the role he was born to play) delicately purr ‘Femme Fatale’, and Mike Mills dutifully bounce a basketball for percussion during ‘Downs’. The show was, by turns, funny, heartbreaking and gloriously disjointed, just like the album itself.
The main set was capped off by a rendition of ‘Thank You Friends’; on Third, it’s the sound of a man at the end of his tether with the music industry. The most immediate thing on the album, you can all but hear Chilton throwing every single hook and cliché at the wall in the smug knowledge that his genius will make it stick – but no one will bother listening. There are gospel “doo-doo”s, a searing solo, and a series of twisted platitudes, culminating in a barbed expression of gratitude “to all the ladies and gentlemen who made this all so probable…” It’s not sung so much as sneered – the venom is enough to blow your speakers.
And yet, during the Third set, this great big fuck you gets turned into ‘We Are the Fucking World’ – everyone gets one last turn at the mic to round off one of the warmest, most intense nights of live music I’ve ever witnessed. And, completely unlike the album version, you can tell even from this video that they all mean it, man; they’re thanking you, friends in the audience, for picking them over any of the other bands playing at that time at the festival. They’re thanking each other, friends, for sharing the experience with them. And most importantly of all, they’re thanking Alex Chilton, writer of a whole bunch of wonderful music – some of which I will attempt to justice to with my poxy prose over the next five days*.
And you know the funniest thing of all about this rendition of ‘Thank You Friends’? Chilton would have fucking hated it.
*So thank you, Hendrik.