Back when I was still researching information for my oral-history book, “There Was A Light: The Cosmic History of Chris Bell & the Rise of Big Star,” much of my time was centered on Big Star’s home town of Memphis, Tennessee.
However, during my digging, I discovered a strong local connection between the cult band and Lansing. Back in 1974, the Memphians performed six nights in a row at The Brewery — the midsized venue that later became The Silver Dollar. It was demolished in 2009.
While in its initial time as a band (1971-1975), Big Star played very few live concerts. So it’s fairly odd its longest run of gigs happened on the border of Lansing and East Lansing, where a Biggby and PNC Bank now sits.
From April 9-14, the band performed not only cuts from their albums, “#1 Record” and “Radio City,” the group — led by legendary vocalist/guitarist Alex Chilton — also peppered in some covers, like “Candy Says” and “Sweet Jane.” Big Star also performed “The Letter,” the 1967 No. 1 hit Chilton sung with his first band, The Box Tops. In fact, this was Chilton’s second time performing at The Brewery. Back in the summer of ’69, he’d gigged there with The Box Tops.
When Big Star arrived at The Brewery in 1974, they’d just played in Cambridge, MA with Badfinger (another now-legendary outfit). There, Big Star had all of their equipment stolen. Perhaps that’s why many people remember Chilton being in a grouchy, rather sarcastic mood. While the other band members—Jody Stephens (drums) and John Lightman (bass) — delivered solid performances, Chilton delivered a few purposely sloppy sets. After the first night, the low attendance paired with the bad attitude caused the band to be fired.
Michigan musician Mark Boone recalls a not-so fun time warming up the stage for Big Star.
“I played in the opening act. We were called Uprising,” Boone said. “Alex Chilton was a rude, arrogant ass. His performance was lame and his attitude caused them to get fired by the club … I’ve also opened for Johnny Thunders, who had an attitude, but nowhere like Alex’s.”
Lightman, a then new addition to Big Star following the departure of founding members Chris Bell (guitar) and Andy Hummel (bass), said he felt Chilton had become jaded.
“I just thought it was Alex being Alex,” Lightman said. “He’d already seen everything, being on tour with the Box Tops. That’s why he got into punk music. Once you learn all the riffs and rock ’n’ roll clichés, it takes the mystique out of it.”
Big Star’s road manager, John Dando, confirmed the odd behavior.
“The specialty of the house was fried mushrooms,” Dando recalled. “Alex started eating those fried mushrooms on stage while he was trying to play. At times he couldn’t sing because his mouth was full of fried mushrooms. He would turn away from the crowd when he was supposed to be singing, things like that. He didn’t care about playing to an audience, he was playing for himself.”
After that first night, the band had indeed been fired. But a positive review in The State News convinced The Brewery to re-hire the band for the remaining shows. That review was written by future CREEM Magazine editor Dave DiMartino.
“More people started to come out over the next few days,” Lightman said. “We played ‘Baby Strange.’ We did an impromptu ‘Wild Thing’ one night. ‘Till the End of the Day’ by the Kinks, ‘Jeepster.’ Alex did ‘Motel Blues’ acoustically by himself. Outside of that, Alex kept it together on that tour. He was not drinking much. We were not taking drugs. Alex and I were smoking pot, that’s it. In Lansing, we just hung out smoking in our hotel room at the Holiday Inn, which was close to the venue.”
Beyond that, this time in Lansing also marked the start of Chilton’s notorious relationship with Lesa Aldridge, his longtime muse. Upon request from Chilton, she traveled from Memphis to Lansing to bring Alex an acoustic guitar. While she arrived just a friend, it was in Lansing the two officially became a couple. Aldridge soon inspired many of the songs on Big Star’s “Third/Sister Lovers” LP.
Just last week, Rolling Stone’s updated list of “The 500 Best Albums of All Time” included “Third” at No. 285. It went on to influence countless alt-rock icons, like R.E.M., Beck and Elliot Smith. Rolling Stone called it “a record of gorgeous, disjointed heartbreak ballads.” Strange to think the relationship saga that inspired it all started here in Lansing.
“I flew up to Lansing with the guitar to join him on the tour,” Aldridge recalled. “We had a lot of fun in the station wagon with all the equipment. It was an unusual way to quickly get to know somebody. From there, Alex and I stayed together for seven years. The rest of my life was just jumping in — sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. No boundaries and all that.”