Inside Memphis’ Ardent recording studio, the shaggy-haired guy behind the desk is seeing to a bit of office mundanity that requires his attention. He takes a call, unfailingly polite, and explains how studio bookings work with a yes, mm-hmm, and okay that’s cool, give us a ring back. Scribbles a note. Exchanges a few words with an Ardent employee who breezes past to run some errands. Jody Stephens then hops up from behind the desk to acknowledge a guest with a cool shrug and a confession: We do a little bit of everything around here.
Right beside him, plugged into the wall, sits an illuminated Big Star sign, with the word BIG, in all caps, tucked inside a neon star — the same star which graced the cover of his old band’s first album, #1 Record. The Big Star story always embodied a series of contradictions, starting with the title of that ironically named commercial flop of a debut. It was released more than 45 years ago, and rock critics swooned over the music. Sweet power pop delivered with the heady we’ve-got-tonight-screw-tomorrow conviction of teenagers who figured out the secret to everything. The record, of course, went nowhere. The band eventually fell apart. Nobody turned into a star, big or otherwise.
Decades later, Rolling Stone slotted all three Big Star albums into its lineup of the 500 best rock albums of all time. A fact that’s not necessarily the most obvious thing in the world when you step into Ardent, the droning hum of late afternoon traffic along Madison Avenue at your back. To find Jody, Big Star’s drummer, the only surviving member of the band’s original lineup, manning a desk and answering the phone.
With all things Big Star, the contradictions persist. The band is an order of magnitude more popular today than it ever was during its brief span. Foremost among those contradictions may be Jody’s attitude to it all. He will readily insist to you, in a declaration full of earnestness and free of irony, in between dutifully breaking away from a conversation whenever the phone rings, that he feels like the luckiest guy in the world.
“I am lucky,” Jody tells Billboard. “It would be pretty … petty, I think, to dwell on the other things. Because in retrospect, it’s all worked out.
“I was in this incredibly fun, rewarding relationship with (Big Star members) Alex Chilton, Andy Hummel and Chris Bell. I got to do that. And then took a break from that and … we went on the 14-year marketing program where you just break up and people talk about it. We got to get back together in ‘94 and play. I’ve traveled a bit, so I’ve seen some pretty devastating poverty. I just can’t imagine not being grateful for all the things in my life.”
Decades after the band hit the skids, its cult following has morphed into an audience with significant enough commercial potential that recent months have seen a wave of new products with ties to the band. Plus more to come, such as an Alex Chilton release that an Omnivore Recordings representative hinted to Billboard is in the works for later this year.
She teased, somewhat cryptically, that Chilton’s solo album Like Flies on Sherbert – in which the Big Star frontman lets his manic, sloppy, deconstructionist freak flag fly – “will be addressed in 2019,” with the caveat that nothing is solid as of yet.
As far as the recent releases, fans have also been treated to a wave of recordings that include last July’s Looking Forward: The Roots of Big Star; a compilation album The Best of Big Star, released around the same time; The Complete Chris Bell, released in November; and Big Star – Live at Lafayette’s Music Room, released earlier this year, to name a few.
Okay, better late than never. But what to make of this, when you were there at the beginning? When you and your crew did everything right, when the songcraft, the production, the artistry – everything was in its right place. To be met only with fate’s equivalent of a meathead holding a clipboard and looking in vain for your name, but nope – sorry guy, you’re not on the list. Alex and Jody, of course, soldiered on, after Big Star’s equally unsuccessful sophomore effort Radio City to produce Big Star’s dark, fraught Third, an album that could just as well have been titled “In Which It All Falls Apart.” An interlude. And then here comes another of those weird oddities in the Big Star journey – recognition catches up with the band decades later, the same way a storm announces itself. Nothing, and then the skies open up.
“I think there’s a certain charm about having had no commercial success,” Stephens says. “At the end of the day, though, it’s the music. People slowly getting turned on to the music. It’s a find. It’s not something they heard on the radio or through some marketing campaign.
“We were together from, say, early ‘71 through late ‘74, and people still found out about us over the next 14, 15, 16 years. I have some friends down in Australia, and they knew about Big Star in ‘78. And I’m like… how? Word travels. People that are into music love to share music when it engages them.”
There’s also a bit of poignant symmetry here at Ardent, where Jody has worked for some three decades and which he helped keep going after the death in 2014 of Ardent founder John Fry, the man who produced Big Star’s three recordings.
Jody is, among other things, a producer today at Ardent, on the hunt for bands to record. When he walks into the studio each day, he passes a kind of shrine to Fry that’s set up by the front door. There’s a large picture of the studio founder, arms crossed, leaning on a piece of recording equipment. A half smile. John dressed kind of like an accountant, in a button-down shirt and wearing glasses. He always wore sneakers, and a pair are bronzed. Frozen in time, like the sonic amber that fossilizes the power pop he recorded inside this building – an act Big Star’s drummer now likewise performs.
“I’m looking to produce bands,” Stephens says. “I produced this group called The Reputations out of Austin. Part of it’s keeping up with the budget, keeping the band on track … with The Reputations, they had so many great ideas, it was just pruning them all to the best ones so the best ones stand out and shine. It’s fun, especially with projects like that that are one week, start to finish. You’ve got to get into this sharp focus.”
Jody still sits down at a kit and plays for about 30 minutes a day if he doesn’t have a gig himself. Just so he doesn’t lose the feel of the sticks. Much of the rest of his time is spent reaching out to people, soliciting business for the studio and producing.
Jody’s also in a band, Those Pretty Wrongs, that’s working on a new record to be released later this year. (“The songs are all written.”) He plays, takes care of business, keeps the flame alive.
And that’s pretty much it. For anyone who’s not yet into Big Star, Jody recommends “The Ballad of El Goodo” – the song on #1 Record with that yearning vocal from Alex, the inscrutable, earnest lyrics and a chorus with gorgeous harmonies that evoke the Beatles. It opens with a line that sounds like a foreshadowing of the Big Star story to come: “Years ago, my heart was set to live, but I’ve been trying hard against unbelievable odds.”
Maybe when you’re part of a band, it’s already a foregone conclusion that you see the universe through the wrong end of the telescope. The trick, like with any art, is to navigate the commercial imperatives required that allow you to bring an audience along with you for the ride, for the maximum length of time. To bring them into your strange, weird field of vision and entertain them in the process. When it works, you make bank.
Or you could do like a little band from Memphis called Big Star did and take the long way around. Write songs, record them, break up, and flash a smile at the acclaim that took forever in getting here. A smile like the one on Jody’s face that implies “What took you so long?” — but isn’t really a question so much as it is an expression of relief, in between helping book new acts that keep his band’s old recording studio in Memphis busy. An appreciative sort of grin, “a thank you friends, wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you,” like Alex once sang. It’s not always pretty, and it might break your heart, but these are the chances you take when you play in a band and wait to see if it turns you into a big star.