CHICAGO – Jody Stephens is the last man standing in Big Star, one of the 1970s’ most influential bands. His fellow bandmates in the Memphis quartet are gone – Chris Bell died in 1978, Alex Chilton and Andy Hummel in 2010. But Stephens, 60, is still in great shape. When he picked up the phone last week at the band’s longtime home base, Ardent Studios in Memphis, he had just finished practicing drums for 90 minutes.
“I played through along with all our CDs, as well as the Golden Smog record – just in case I get a call,” he said with a laugh. He was keeping his chops honed because he and a gaggle of Big Star admirers would be performing the band’s final 1970s studio album, “Third,” front to back last Friday at Chicago’s Park West.
For decades, “Third” was considered a lost masterpiece, an album that was never really finished or promoted. That it was even released – in 1978, three years after it was recorded – was a surprise to the band. Big Star had released two melodically rich but poor-selling albums, “#1 Record” (1972) and “Radio City” (1974). By 1975, only Chilton and Stephens were left, and stories filtered out in subsequent years of dark and chaotic recording sessions, with Chilton and producer Jim Dickinson indulging each other’s eccentricities.
“On ‘Third,’ the band definitely took a turn,” Stephens said. “I was so in the frame of mind of the songs from ‘#1 Record’ and ‘Radio City,’ that it took me a while to warm up to some of the new songs. ‘Downs’ was a little out there for me, an exercise in percussion imagination. There was a deflated basketball being hit with stick as a bass-drum effect. The off timing of it all – and yet it somehow hangs together. With some of those songs, Alex submitted demos with just him singing and playing acoustic guitar, and there were moments when he’d slow down, speed up – Alex being human in expressing that through his guitar. Jim built things around Alex’s playing. There was a moment when Alex came into the studio with the demo for ‘Kanga Roo’ and said to Jim, ‘OK, produce this, Mr. Producer.’ Jim built the chaotic stuff around it, instead of having Alex adjust … so that it was more steady. It’s the only way those songs hung together.”
Chilton and Stephens were both dating sisters at the time, and many of Chilton’s songs mirror the turmoil in his relationship.
“There are definitely dark aspects,” Stephens said. “ ‘Downs,’ ‘Holocaust,’ ‘Kanga Roo’ – everything has a melancholy air to it. It took me a minute to come around to that record for some of it, but it was a brilliant statement of where Alex was emotionally at the time.”
String arrangements underlined the more personal and introspective tone.
“I brought in a friend, Carl Marsh, to arrange a string section for a song I wrote, ‘For You,’ ” Stephens said. “Carl and Alex hit it off, and Alex started having ideas for strings on other songs. It was the combination of Alex’s imagination for strings and Carl’s arranging talents that created this atmosphere. In ‘Nightime,’ the icy strings set up what Alex’s lyrics were saying.”
That blend of beauty and despair made “Third” difficult to position in the ’70s marketplace. The album’s future was further compromised when the distributor of Big Star’s Ardent record label, Stax Records, went bankrupt.
“(Ardent engineer) John Fry and Jim Dickinson took a trip to New York to play it for label people like Jerry Wexler and Lenny Waronker in hopes of finding a deal,” Stephens said. “One of them said, ‘I hope I don’t have to listen to that again.’ It wasn’t warmly received.”
When “Third” finally came out, it surfaced on various labels with different songs, sequencing and album covers. Some referred to the album as “Sister Lovers,” which Chilton had suggested as a possible group name to Stephens during the recording sessions. Was he joking around? “We’ll never know,” Stephens said. “That’s a good question. He brought it up like, ‘We might do this.’ But it didn’t come up again. I always thought of it as a Big Star album as we were working on it.”
Despite its slipshod entry into the world, “Third” has only seen its reputation grow in subsequent decades. A number of artists have covered its songs, including Beck, Bat for Lashes, Jeff Buckley and This Mortal Coil. It’s now considered one of the best albums of its time, and Stephens was thrilled that a bunch of friends and Big Star fans – including Ken Stringfellow (who played with Stephens and Chilton in Big Star when it reunited in the ’90s), R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris, and the dB’s Chris Stamey – would be performing the songs with him last weekend, backed by a string section.
The concert is sure to top the initial public performances of the songs from “Third” more than three decades ago.
“There was a thought that maybe the album wouldn’t come out, so Alex and I went our separate ways” in 1975, Stephens said. “I wasn’t around Alex at all from 1976 to ’78, then I got a call to play with him in Austin (Texas) with a bass player from California. I hadn’t practiced or played drums in a couple years. I don’t even think we rehearsed. It was two guys who last played three years before, and a guy who never played with us, and it was awful – so much so that the band that opened for us that night wanted us to open for them the next night. But I don’t remember being humiliated; I just thought it was great to have a free trip to Austin.”
The unlikelihood of “Third” getting a second life isn’t lost on Stephens. “I thought it was a great record – I thought we made three really good records, but we were pretty much ignored,” the drummer said. “Then you hear the Replacements do a song like ‘Alex Chilton’ (in 1987), and people made the effort to find out who he was. It was like an 18-year word-of-mouth campaign and we started playing again (in 1993). It’s surprising and incredibly gratifying. It feels good that it happened that way. It feels deeper somehow because of that.”