The Sad Life & Death
of Chris Bell
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" clichÃ©.
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 clichÃ©, "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
"#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
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 Â‘n' 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
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....
to articles by Scott E. Miller
to the column Empire Of The Senseless
to category General Rock
articles by Scott E. Miller
||Hey Scott E Miller! Nice
stuff about Bell! Is there a way I can email you?
What an article! Great
writing and info. :)
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!!!
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.
|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.