Thursday, April 1, 2010

TVD's Record Store Day 2010 Label Showcase | Ardent Records, Music, and Studios | John Davis on Chris Bell

John Davis on Chris Bell's I am the Cosmos Deluxe Edition from Rhino Handmade

The day after Alex Chilton died, I was asked by an interviewer how I felt about his sudden passing. I told him that, obviously, I felt sad and surprised and a great sense of loss. However, equal to the sadness, I also felt happy that Chilton was able to know, while he was still alive, just how much people loved him and his music. Granted, his persona was one of a cranky, mercurial recluse but, beneath that exterior, he surely must have known how much be meant to people and found some pleasure in that. Chilton’s one-time bandmate in Big Star, Chris Bell, was not as fortunate.

Before his death in a car accident in the waning days of 1978, Bell only had an inkling that interest in Big Star was starting to grow. Shortly before Bell’s death, EMI Records reissued the first two Big Star albums, “#1 Record” and “Radio City,” as a double album in the UK. John Fry, the founder of Ardent Studios and the band’s engineer and mentor, told me that the reissue excited Bell – particularly that the words “EMI Records” could be found emblazoned on its cover, just like they were on the records by his idols, The Beatles. Despite being witness to this first step in the resurrection of Big Star, Bell never knew the belated hosannas his music would eventually receive.

As interest in Big Star grew in the years to come and Chilton’s reputation as an eccentric genius was cemented, so did interest in the work of the band’s /other/ genius. Bell was only an official member of the band for “#1 Record” - though he appears uncredited on “Radio City” - but the pairing of Chilton and Bell was magical. Many wondered what had happened to Bell after he quit the band. Other than a two-song single issued shortly before he died (featuring the transcendent “I Am The Cosmos” and the plaintive “You And Your Sister”), there was little else available from Bell.

Much as a reissue sparked the resurgence in Big Star, it was a reissue of sorts, 1992’s “I Am The Cosmos,” that laid out just what a special songwriter and singer Bell was. Compiled with help from Bell’s brother, David, “I Am The Cosmos” contained the two songs from the 1978 single and also another ten magnificent, searing songs that had never been released to that point. There were rockers like “I Don’t Know," “I Got Kinda Lost,” and “Get Away” and there were more plangent pleas like “Though I Know She Lies” and the absolutely crushing “There Was A Light.” Everybody loves to find a buried treasure and here was a small, but potent, cache of gems from a somehow overlooked voice. Like Gene Clark or John Lennon’s early solo work, Bell’s expressions were one of a deeply wounded man searching for answers and relief. Evidence suggests that Bell never really found either, which makes the music he left behind all the more heartbreaking now.

I had long wondered what other Bell tracks might lay in the vaults and it seems that the recent Deluxe Edition of “I Am The Cosmos” has answered that question definitively. In terms of solo compositions, there is little new on this deluxe reissue (which adds an entire second disc of rare and previously unreleased material to the original’s twelve songs), but the copious alternate versions hold their own. The alternate version of “I Don’t Know” adds a crunching, Badfinger-style opening that manages to make the song even more buoyant. The mellotron added to the alternate “You And Your Sister,” finds this take less tortured than heavenly. A different version of “Get Away” reunites Bell with Chilton and the results sound like prime Big Star. We can only wonder what would have happened had the two kept writing and recording together.

The only downside of this latest Bell reissue is that it seems like there may be nothing more to unearth. The reissue’s inclusion of nice, but unspectacular, songs that Bell recorded with other musicians (namely, Keith Sykes and Nancy Bryan) indicates that the well is dry. If that’s so, it’s hard to complain, even if we’re left wishing that there was more.

It’s easy to think about what we lost when Bell died far too young, but it’s even easier to listen to what we have and smile. He may not have known it but to a modest few, Bell matters just as much as his heroes did to him. Thanks, Chris, you are the cosmos.

Chris Bell's I am the Cosmos Deluxe Edition can only be purchased at

Chris Bell - I am the Cosmos (Mp3)

John Davis is the writer/arranger behind the band Title Tracks which emerged in mid-2008 from the still-smoldering ashes of Georgie James. Title Tracks debut full-length album, "It Was Easy." was released on Ernest Jenning Records in February 2010.

1 comment:

John Fry said...

Thanks, John, for your reflections about Chris and Alex. This as been a great week on Vinyl District. It was a week we expected just to be celebrating the Big Star events at SXSW, and looking forward to the Memphis show at the Levitt Shell on May 15. Sadly, profound grief came to invade this time. We still celebrated the lives of Alex and Chris, and the May 15 show will go ahead, much like the SXSW Big Star show. Here are some international sites where your readers can find / (UK) / (Canada) / (Germany + C. Europe) / (Japan) Amazon.Fr (France) / (Nordic)