In the summer of 1978, EMI saw the light. Driven by interest in Big Star in the U.K., they released a gatefold double album package containing the first two Big Star albums, #1 Record, and Radio City. Available only as an import in the U.S., I scraped together the money and bought it. After all, the buzz, at least among people whose opinions I respected, was nearly deafening when it came to Big Star. I didn’t know much about the band, other than the fact that Alex Chilton had once been in a Memphis band called the Box Tops, and I was familiar with their hits “The Letter,” “Soul Deep,” and “Cry Like A Baby.”
I was pleased with my purchase. It was easy to hear what caused the buzz about this band. Their music represented the power pop paradigm. The albums were on permanent rotation in my house for quite awhile. Slowly, in those pre-Internet days, I learned more about Big Star. I learned that singer/songwriter/guitarist Chris Bell left the Big Star after just one album, driven out by his frustration at the lack of recognition for the band. Listening to Radio City, the second Big Star album, it was clear that his influence had survived his departure. Big Star soldiered on as a three piece for awhile, recording a third album, Third/Sister Lovers, that wasn’t released for years. Alex Chilton became a legend. The Replacements wrote a song about him. But what became of Chris Bell?
The answer to that question has only now become a little bit clearer with Rhino’s deluxe reissue of Chris Bell’s I Am the Cosmos. Assembled from a collection of unreleased Bell material, I Am the Cosmos was first released by Rykodisc in 1992, at about the same time Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens put together a new Big Star lineup. This reissue was created by a lot of the same people who worked on last year’s brilliant career-spanning retrospective Big Star: Keep An Eye On The Sky, including Ardent Studios (where both Big Star, and Bell on his own, recorded) owner John Fry, compilation producer Alec Palao, project supervisor Andrew Sandoval, and Bob Mehr, the music critic for the Memphis Commercial Appeal, who contributed a wonderful essay for the Big Star set, and does the same here. For these people, this was clearly more than just a job.
Chris Bell was an enigma. He was seen by some as supremely confident, and by others as deeply sensitive. He was, in fact, a combination of the two. He struggled with drugs, and found salvation in religion. He could rock hard, as he does on songs like “I Don’t Know,” and “I Got Kinda Lost,” and then turn to beautiful ballads like “You and Your Sister” (yes, that’s Alex Chilton singing with him), and “Though I Know She Lies.” Bell traveled all over the world looking for answers that he never seemed to find.
The two-disc reissue presents the entire original Rykodisc release in a remastered version. There is also a second disc of mostly unreleased alternate versions of the I Am the Cosmos songs, including a take on “Speed of Sound” (alternate version), that is vastly different than the album version. There are also several songs that did not appear on the original album, including a track that Bell recorded with his band Icewater, a precursor to Big Star.
By 1978, Bell was back in Memphis, and things were looking up. EMI had released that Big Star package, and Bell had signed a deal with Chris Stamey’s Car Records label to release a single of “I Am the Cosmos.” The single version of the majestic song, Bell’s greatest achievement, is included here, as is the version found on the Rykodisc release. On the night of December 27, 1978, while driving home from Ardent Studios, Chris Bell lost control of his car, crashed into a tree, and was killed instantly. He was 27 years-old. Now, more than 30 years after his death, his legend continues to grow, and thanks to this superb reissue his music will continue to inspire generations of musicians.
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