“We’ve sort of flirted with greatness, but we’ve yet to make a record as good as Revolver or Highway 61 Revisited or Exile on Main Street or Big Star’s Third. I don’t know what it’ll take to push us on to that level, but I think we’ve got it in us.”
– R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck
In music and many other endeavors, pioneers are often poor, and sometimes not even remembered as trailblazers. Some are so far ahead of their era that somebody else profits from that groundbreaking work. In many respects, that’s what happened to Big Star. Though Alex Chilton had early success at 16, singing lead for the Box Tops, best known by their 1967 single, “The Letter”, he would never see the same kind of commercial success in his next band, Big Star, or his solo career.
“Back of a Car” comes from 1974’s Radio City, Big Star’s second album. It’s considered by some critics to be their masterpiece, though plenty of arguments for Third can found as well. Cofounding member Chris Bell was gone by the time this was released, so Chilton’s influence hangs heaviest here. It was hard to pick just one song from those three albums, so I’ll probably do another one again somewhere down the road. If you don’t get the first twofer on Amazon (only 5 bucks right now!), then other single song selections I’d recommend are “September Gurls” from Radio City, and “Watch the Sunrise” from #1 Record. You may also remember “In the Street” as the opening theme from That ’70s Show
“Back of a Car” breaks out of the gate without any intro. Chilton belts out the song’s title amid Andy Hummel’s bass lines and a jangly guitar line before Jody Stephens’ prominent cymbals crash in. The song is efficient, clocking in at only 2:46. As such, the killer-hooked chorus comes in quick, “I’ll go on and on with you…” The first time the chorus comes in, it’s set up by a descent down into a musical trough: “waiting for a brighter day, but I can’t find the way”, before soaring into that lilting chorus. The structure can even feel a bit jarring, with the juxtaposition between the dour-sounding verses and the hopeful chorus. The instrumental break sounds like a call and answer between two guitars before the toms set up the chorus again for a final time. That brevity leaves me wanting more, so it gets set to repeat on my iPod for three or four listens at a time.
Coming from a rock song about the back of a car, one’s mind quickly jumps to some kind of teenage tryst. After a couple of listens though, it becomes clear that the song is more about awkward uncertainty than any kind of conquest. Lines like “maybe I’m too afraid, just don’t know if it’s okay, trying to get away from everything” show a character who’s struggling with how he’s supposed to act and feel, and what he’s supposed to say. Verse two builds on that theme with “I know I’ll feel a whole lot more when I get alone.” The lyrics notably depart from this theme only in the chorus, which is disparately different both musically and lyrically. I think it might represent what the singer really wants to say but can’t. It’s notable too that the song ends with a repeat of the first verse, so “I can’t find the lines” is actually the last line.
As William Ruhlmann states in his Allmusic Guide review of Big Star’s debut album, “The problem with coming in late on an artwork lauded as ‘influential’ is that you’ve probably encountered the work it influenced first, so its truly innovative qualities are lost. Thus you may be reminded of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers or R.E.M. who came after”. Personally, in discovering this band I found a big missing piece of family history to the line of music I most enjoy today; melodic, guitar-driven rock with lyrics that don’t just fill space. Try on some Big Star for yourself and see if you find that finding them now is better late than never.Preview 'Back of a Car'