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  Top: Entertainment: Music: Musical Styles: Rock : General Rock  

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Column Banner: Empire Of The Senseless

The Sad Life & Death of Chris Bell
by Scott E. Miller
August 8, 2000

Rock and roll eats its own.

Senseless wastes of life and talent are nothing new in rock and roll. Elvis was ground down by the pressures of his own celebrity, ending up in the Army and following that with an endless series of lousy B-movies. He briefly returned to the top of his form; made some excellent recordings and did some good live shows, between 1968 and 1970, and thereafter became the Fat Joke Elvis, the one most people are familiar with, before dying on the toilet--a degrading, humiliating way to die if there ever was one.

And if that wasn't enough, he was posthumously libeled by Albert Goldman, who seemed to feel no compunctions about depicting the once and former King as an ignorant, cretinous hillbilly. Elvis wasn't a saint, to be sure, and he did a number of stupid things in his life, but he wasn't the rock 'n' roll L'il Abner. Unfortunately, this version of Elvis has stuck with a gigantic section of the population. You don't even want to know what I wished on Goldman for that one.

It seems perversely appropriate that the King-sized Daddy of Rock ought to be a king-sized joke, but Elvis is far from rock 'n' roll's only casualty. The people who make Pop-Tarts licensed Jimi Hendrix's rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" to advertise their little toaster pastries, nearly thirty years after he choked on his own vomit from an overdose--a death that probably could have been avoided, had anyone wit enough to turn the man on his side and keep his airway open. Of course, the use of once-revolutionary objects by the Establishment is a whole different subject, but it's enough to give one pause. Once an icon, now an undead shill for Pop-Tarts. I'm told that the Hendrix family has also licensed their Golden Boy's likeness for golf bags. "Hey, man! It's time to tee off with Jimi! Now available in new 'Purple Haze' color!" I don't begrudge the Hendrix family the right to score some real cash after being screwed over for years by Alan Douglas and Warner Bros. and all the other people with some scraps of releasable tape--ain't nothing romantic about poverty, ask someone who's been there--but golf bags? When Jimi was alive, there probably wouldn't have been more than one or two (if that) golf courses in the entire country that would have allowed a black man on their hallowed links.

Then, of course, there's Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones. Janis Joplin. Nick Drake. Phil Lynott. John Bonham. Keith Moon. Poor dumb Sid Vicious, who lived out his fantasies so thoroughly that he seems to have killed his girlfriend Nancy Spungeon and almost certainly killed himself, just by being, well, dumb.

And let's not forget the Modern Youth Culture Martyr-cum-Role Model, Kurt Cobain, who suffered from such extreme depression that he chose to shoot himself in the head rather than continue living. Nobody apparently considered the idea of getting him some help, either, other than to perform an "intervention" and chuck him into a drug clinic. Tough love didn't work for him either. In the end, he decided his own pain was so horrible, that it outweighed the pain he'd cause his family and friends by offing himself. Exuent "the modern John Lennon," as critics liked to call him.

(Mia Zapata of the Gits--raped and murdered in an alley--had it a lot worse, I'd suspect, but the Gits weren't famous, despite the best efforts of Joan Jett, so nobody outside of indie circles and some Spin readers really noticed. The real tragedy of rock 'n' roll deaths--if you ain't famous, nobody cares, no matter how good you are or how much you've left behind.)

I could go through about ten dozen more stories like this one, but I won't, for three reasons: 1) This column is mainly about Chris Bell. 2) I don't have the room to do it. 3) Frankly, it'd be unbearably depressing.

The point is: Unlike any other form of culture, popular or otherwise, excepting the movies, rock 'n' roll has an alarming tendency to claim its own on a regular basis. (Witness the case of poor Mark Sandman--died of a heart attack on stage, in the middle of a set.) It's probably the most fatal modern religion, aside from the ones that sacrifice animals bought in pet stores. If you join this church, you might have to pay the highest price. There are rational explanations--the reckless lifestyle of rockers, the fact that most creative people seem always to be depressed, maybe even statistical blips (and let's not count the stupid "Famous people die in threes" cliché. They don't die in threes, they die like the rest of us. Ten people could go in a month, and a year could pass before anyone else went). But it's still a creepy feeling, no matter what.

Chris Bell's case is an especially frustrating one. Here was a man with an incredible amount of talent, whose band (Big Star) couldn't keep a record deal together; who couldn't get a record label; who ended up being forced to return to working in his parents' restaurant chain; and who, when he finally had a new band together, died in a car accident while returning from a rehearsal, only a half mile from home (bringing to mind the new popular death cliché, "Most car accidents occur within a few miles of the victims' homes," which may or may not be true). To add insult to injury, his sole album, or at least the album's worth of material he'd worked on for a while in 1974, wasn't released until 1992--despite the fact that the record stands as a minor classic, nobody, except Rykodisc (bless 'em--"I Am The Cosmos," Rykodisc RCD 10222, 1992), was interested.

Of course, the entire Big Star saga revolves heavily around missed chances, unlucky breaks, and frustration. Big Star came about as the result of ex-Box-Top Alex Chilton's attempts to get Chris Bell into a Simon-and-Garfunkel-ish duo, attempts which didn't work. Chilton came home to Memphis in part to persuade Bell to work with him, ended up impressed with Bell's songwriting, and Chris, for his part, was impressed that Alex Chilton could do something more than singing (admittedly enjoyable) Top 40 fare like "The Letter," "Cry Like A Baby," etc. Chris already had a band thing going with drummer Jody Stephens and old friend (and bassist) Andy Hummel, so they invited Alex to join their lineup.

Chilton and Bell, both ardent Anglophiles, maintained the same fiction that Lennon/McCartney did--all of their songs on Big Star's first album "#1 Record" are credited to "Bell/Chilton," a partnership that simply didn't exist, despite their mutual admiration thing. Chris would say, "I would suggest a few things, changes, etc., to Alex's numbers and he would similarly add to mine but really it was a separate thing." David Bell, Chris's older brother, suggests in the liner notes of "I Am The Cosmos" (from which the preceding quote was taken) that some of Chris's songs had actually been recorded before Alex joined the band; the band simply let Chilton overdub some parts to make them seem a product of the entire band. (Some observers might decry this as "evil," so let me point out a couple of things. Number one, it was an easy way to fill out a record with more quality material--and three of the four eventual band members had been present, anyway. Number two, it also helped to preserve the band's sense of identity--listening to the album, I'm damned if I can tell which ones were recorded before Chilton joined and which ones were recorded later, although I'm not sure if Chilton has any involvement with "The India Song," which wasn't a Bell number anyway.)

It's a marvel of a record, though--the least of the tracks might be Andy Hummel's "The India Song," which is hummable if nothing else. Bell's contributions--"Feel," "In The Street," "Don't Lie To Me," "My Life Is Right," "Try Again," and probably "ST 100/6" too--range from full-out rockers ("Feel," "Don't Lie To Me") which are nothing less than ferocious, unprovoked acts of aggression, to "In The Street," a mid-tempo song which doesn't make much of an impression on me, to the horribly melancholy (but lovely nonetheless) "My Life Is Right" and "Try Again." The name of the former song tells the story well--it's a protest, a defense, and just try to imagine the man's mental state if he felt it was even necessary to protest and defend his mere existence. Compelling listening, but the depression is all too evident to allow anyone to feel comfortable here. Even on "Feel," the focus isn't on the angry verses, but on the choruses where he moans, "Feel like I'm dying...." Bell's depression is lightened and evened out by Alex Chilton's cynical romanticism--for an example, let's look at the song "Thirteen." Here he is, a veteran of large-scale rock tours of the late sixties, a former member of a Top 40 band, witness (and probably participant in) some scenes which Chilton once succinctly described as "pretty sleazy," taking on the persona of a boy putting the make on a thirteen-year-old girl ("Would you let me meet you after school?"), all set to a beautiful melody and ethereal backing vocals. And setting Chilton's more upbeat songs ("The Ballad Of El Goodo" and "Watch The Sunrise") next to Bell's more depressing efforts lightens the mood effectively and provides the entire dynamic the record hinges on. Essential stuff.

"#1 Record" has since become a beloved relic of the power pop movement (a movement which, one suspects, Big Star didn't even know existed) and has exerted a powerful influence on several generations of musicians, from REM to Teenage Fanclub to Matthew Sweet and onwards. At the time of its first release, however, it was a bomb. Hardly anybody bought it. Hardly anyone could even find it. Their label was Ardent Records, which was owned by Stax Records, the once-great soul label now mostly sustained by Isaac Hayes, which was beginning to experience money problems and didn't have any real idea of how to sell white rock 'n' roll records. So while the critics drooled, Big Star was left with a great album that nobody knew existed and was selling fewer copies than even Frank Yankovic compilations. You can imagine what this did to a group of musicians, whose two most prominent members had strong egos and an even stronger desire to be sole leader of the band. David Bell even says that Chris tried to commit suicide at this point, but, fortunately, for whatever reason, either didn't do it or failed in his attempt.

The elder Bell did a wise thing at this juncture; he removed Chris from Memphis. Chris Bell spent time in Europe with his brother, drank "an alarming amount of bourbon and was generally inconsolable" (David Bell's notes again). Once Chris came back to the States, he tried to get back into "his band," ended up either writing or cowriting three songs ("O My Soul," "Way Out West," and "Back Of A Car"), and for which he got no credit when Big Star's second album, "Radio City," was finally released. (Alex Chilton slapped his name on "O My Soul," Andy Hummel got "Way Out West," and they took a co-credit on "Back Of A Car.") Nobody seems to know whether anything further transpired, but on the basis of the officially released evidence, I doubt Chris's involvement with the album could have gone much farther than writing or helping to write those songs and maybe playing on a few tracks. (Producer John Fry told Rick Clark that "Chris had an awful lot to do with the sonic part of 'Radio City,' and its vision." Other than mentioning that Chris wrote "between two and four songs"--the ones David Bell mentions, almost certainly, and definitely "Back Of A Car" at least--he failed to further elaborate. See the liner notes to "#1 Record/Radio City," CD, Stax/Ardent/Fantasy FCD-60-025, 1992.) Of the three songs, "O My Soul" sounds a bit like a latter-day disorganized Chilton song, "Way Out West" is a pleasing, catchy trifle sung by Jody Stephens, and "Back Of A Car" is one of the best songs on the album--a sly tribute to the tradition of necking in the back seat of a car, although the narrator is continually bothered by loud music on the radio while pledging his eternal love to his girlfriend.

After this debacle, Chris fell apart again--moving around the country, he twice more tried to kill himself and was hospitalized. At some point, he also got hooked on smack. David Bell once again dragged his brother out of the country, but this time took him to the Chateau d'Herouville in France, where Elton John had recorded "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," mostly to get him away from drugs and to get Bell the younger into a proper recording studio. Eight of the tracks on Bell's sole album, "I Am The Cosmos," date from these sessions. It's just as well that Bell wasn't around Memphis--Alex Chilton was also falling apart by this point and recording his own minor masterpiece, "Third/Sister Lovers/Beale St. Green" (etc., etc.), and one can only speculate on the effect of Bell being around when relentlessly downbeat or simply numb songs such as "Holocaust" or even "Big Black Car" were being recorded. It probably wouldn't have been too healthy for either one of them, to say the least.

Chris eventually wound his way back to Memphis, where he recorded a handful of other songs. Jody Stephens rejoined him to play drums on some of these tracks, six of which made it to the CD, but the booklet fails to note which ones. Chris also made peace with Chilton, and Chilton rejoined him to record the backing vocals on one version of "You And Your Sister."

From here on, Chris's career failed to go anywhere. He recorded another song, "Though I Know She Lies," and went into his parents' business. He got to see EMI reissue the two Big Star albums (albeit only in Britain); played in a band led by someone named Keith Sykes for six months; and wangled a single out of the tiny Car Records outfit. "I Am The Cosmos" and the Chilton-backed version of "You And Your Sister" got picked for this endeavor, but once again, despite good reviews, almost nobody could find the record, and as a result--no sales. Thus, no album. And on December 27, 1978 (one day after my second birthday, I might add, though I doubt I noticed the event at the time), Chris Bell died his sadly anonymous death. He hit a telephone pole while driving a Triumph (a very, very tiny car) and died pretty much on impact.

Those are the bare facts, then, with as little adornment as possible. And what we're left with is the music.

Just to start with, "I Am The Cosmos" should probably be the anthem of any clinically depressed person suffering from the end of a bad love affair. Bell methodically scourges himself--"Never want to see you again/Really want to see you again"--in a manner most of us can, unfortunately, probably recognize, at least a little bit. "Better Save Yourself" starts out with "I'm off the street/I'm all alone" and goes downhill from there. "I know you're mine/He treats you nice/It's suicide/I know, I tried it twice." Musically, it's reminiscent of some of the "heavier" things the Beatles did around the time of the White Album, and he does sound a bit like Paul McCartney here, but this is nothing the Beatles would have done (John Lennon probably would have on "Plastic Ono Band," but his self-pity isn't this stark--I doubt whether he was ever truly suicidal). Like Kurt Cobain's howls of rage, hurt, and, yes, self-pity on "In Utero," this is the real thing, and it's not comfortable listening. Bell's voice, one of the unique instruments in rock, rasps and tears and sometimes even gets it together into a mellow baritone, sort of like Cobain's did, but Chris could actually sing in a conventional sense.

"Speed Of Sound," meanwhile, is very much like a Big Star song, dealing with the same subject as "I Am The Cosmos"--unrequited love. The music, however, is truly beautiful, seemingly always descending, returning to the top again every so often to repeat itself, largely acoustic instrumentation, tasteful synthesizers, and even some vibes (no, this is not cheesy lounge music!) underlining his jealousy, until the other instruments drop out for a moment at around two-and-a-half minutes, the synthesizers coast in and quote part of the melody from the chorus of "I Am The Cosmos" before coasting along, sad and lonely and dignified and transcendent--and then back to the chorus. Scads of better-known musicians have gone entire careers without nailing something as exquisite as this song down--Brian Wilson has, Ray Davies has, maybe Gram Parsons, but few others.

"Get Away" is in the same vein as "Don't Lie To Me"--another burst of anger directed at a former lover, with a nifty though slight riff holding the song together. "Make A Scene" follows up in a similar way, though with a funkier underpinning--the second cousin of "O My Soul."

"Look Up," though, departs a little from the jilted lover genre--it's put in the terms of a lover trying to console someone, and I can't help but hear it as self-counsel, Chris telling himself to "look up/You'll see the sky," a counsel against his depression. The melody, though not ridding itself of its underlying melancholy, reaches upward rather downward, underlined by mellotron, gentle acoustic guitar, and the occasional electric guitar. Eventually, though, his depression catches up to him--"If you look up you'll see him/You'll know we're all alone"--before leading into the chorus again, an admission of hopelessness, perhaps, and knowing even just the bare facts of his life as I do, this song can become unbearable at times.

"I Got Kinda Lost" loosens things up again--this is a good-old-fashioned garage rocker, more hopeful, somewhat like "Back Of A Car" "There Was A Light" is another anthem of depression, which, although it has a stately melody, more nearly resembles the self-pity anthems of any number of '90s bands--maybe Morrissey heard this one when he joined the Smiths back in the '80s. Bell's sheer talent saves it from being precious, but it's not as affecting as some of the other songs, at least to me.

"Fight At The Table" covers more familiar territory. "I Don't Know" is much better, sounding like both "Feel" and Alex Chilton's "Mod Lang" (from Big Star's "Radio City")--I'd say it's one of the best rockers on the album, up there with "Better Save Yourself." It's still lyrically much the same as "Fight At The Table" and "Get Away," but rocks out with few signs of restraint.

And another acoustic gem. "Though I Know She Lies" may be arranged similarly to scads of singer-songwriter records made in the '70s, but it's far ahead of those limp efforts. In fact, it's probably the most depressing cut on the album, if only because it exemplifies the improvement he'd made since recording the other songs in his songwriting--who knows what he could have done, had he gotten a chance to live? It's a bitter admission--he's willing to do anything to hold on to his lover, no matter what he has to do, no matter how it hurts him--and executed with few signs of self-pity, highlighted by a slide-guitar solo that follows up on the twisted atmosphere, half-in-love, half hating her, finally admitting "I can't stay away" as the song simply closes.

If you own the disc, you may have noticed that I omitted a song. It was a deliberate omission.

After all, I was saving the best for last.

"You And Your Sister," originally released as the b-side of "I Am The Cosmos," is simply one of the best pop songs ever to grace the field of rock Ân' roll. Ever. This may be the ultimate in unrequited love--"All I want to do/Is to spend some time with you/So I can hold you"--set to a beautiful melody, coasting, bright, and always reaching upwards, though with greater effect than "Look Up."

The ultimate version, the one that graced the flip of "I Am The Cosmos," comes in at track five. The pace is measured, and with Bell's torn voice sounding both as if he's bleeding and as if he's ecstatic--and after the first chorus comes the voice of Alex Chilton, echoing the regret in Bell's voice, a poignant reminder of their short-lived partnership. The mood, sad and ebullient at once, is the best definition of "bittersweet" I could ever offer, while Bell for once is not threatening his lover or moping--he's consoling her, seducing her, madly announcing his love, and wilting in defeat. It's a great performance of a great song, and, in a fair world, would have caused his single to sell ten million copies rather than the pitiful handful of sales that greeted it. But I doubt it would have. These days, honest expressions of feelings don't count so much as coy, clever, deconstructions of emotions, which tend to be soulless (name one New Order song that matches even the least Joy Division song in raw power).

Well, it doesn't matter. This is an essential edition to anyone's album collection, warts and all. It's not a perfect album, sure. But this is the real stuff--there's nothing insincere or calculated about it. Even the extra tracks (an alternate take of "I Am The Cosmos" and two alternate versions of "You And Your Sister") are as good as the other 12 tracks. I can't stress this enough: GO OUT AND BUY THIS CD. NOW. And while you're at it, you may also enjoy the "#1 Record/Radio City" two-fer, available from Fantasy Records for your listening enjoyment--it should still be in print.

Finally, though, I have to come to something that was circling around and around in my head while I did the listening that counts as research for today's column. Chris Bell's death was a senseless waste of talent. There is absolutely no way to know what he would have done had he lived, but he should have the chance, at least. Dying when so many things were starting to look up for him, and in a senseless, non-suicidal car accident, was the cruelest irony imaginable, especially when you consider how hard he'd tried to die earlier. He lived, only to be brutally confined to obscurity on some cosmic whim. I'm not going to say "It's not fair," because as our parents always told us, "Life isn't fair." You have to have sucked on a few lemons to fully comprehend that one. And the obvious response is, "Well, at least we have these few recordings." True enough. But he could've done so much more.

Chris Bell's wasted life is one gigantic lemon.

I know I promised to write something on Smokey Robinson, but I just can't. Having spent several hours beating this column out of myself, listening to "I Am The Cosmos," and brooding, I'm not exactly inclined to write anything else.

Anyway, until we meet again....

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    5
    Hey Scott E Miller! Nice stuff about Bell! Is there a way I can email you? 
    -shaw@marlboro.edu
        - shawshawshaw

     What an article! Great writing and info. :)
        - jaxgbt--Beth Jacks

     Next to the liner notes to 'I am the Cosmos', this is the most thoughtful article I have read about Chris Bell. Amazed at how little is known about one of the founders of the greatest band of all time. I am also an avid fan of Bell's solo album, & I found your writing very inspiring & informative. Thanks!!!
        - giglios

     Great article.
        - Wendy Wamsley

     I wanted to say that this article was excellently writen. Chris Bell as well as David Bell are both my uncles... this article makes me fell extremely proud to be a close part of our family even though I never had the pleasure of knowing my uncle Chris articles like this fill me in on th life that he led along with what my mom aunts Sara, Vickie, and Virginia. Though he had his problems Chris was never looked down upon as many would think he was cherished and everyone was extremely grief stricken after his tragic death or so i have been told. I appreciate the way my uncle has been written about it makes me feel good to call him my family.
        - Jessica Coleman

     

    Copyright Scott E. Miller
    About this Contributor: Scott E. Miller lives somewhere in Colorado, where he thrives on loud music, odd behavior, and books about urban legends. 
     
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