Saturday, February 13, 2010

Chris Bell - I Am The Cosmos

The Chris Bell story is the story of depression, underappreciation and unbeleviable musical talent all mixed up. From the first chords of „I am the cosmos“ it is obvious that this lonesome young man had inner demons kept deep inside of his soul.
He started playing in his early teens, heavily influenced by The Beatles and other british invasion bands like The Kinks, The Who and The Yardbirds, which was very strange at the time in Memphis, where black 60's Stax sound was the biggest thing. The Beatles influence was so heavy on him, that he wanted to learn all about their studio techniques so he was spending most of his time in the Ardent studios in Memphis.
Chris Bell and Andy Hummel formed Big Star together with drummer Jody Stephens and charismatic Alex Chilton, who was already a well known vocalist from his days in Box Tops. Chris and Alex knew each other from their school days, but they never clicked together, at least not until they played their songs to each other, which deeply impressed them both. Majority of this beautiful tunes can be heard on majestic Big Star's „#1 Record“ which every serious musical listener should have in his collection. Although all of the songs on the album are credited to Bell/Chilton fame, same as in Lennon/McCartney case it is more than obvious which songs are Bell's and which are Chilton's. Just listen to Bell's desperate shout from the top of his lungs on album opener „Feel“, which sounds like he is drowning and crying for help, and chorus line „... I feel like I'm dying  ...“ in his case is more than prophetic. After putting so much talent and effort in this record, Chris was so dissapoineted with the fact that distribution of the album was completely miserable. Record company really didn't know how to promote white anglo influenced rock band from the black soul capital Memphis.
Suffering from deep depression Chris left Big Star in 1972. and started consuming large amounts of bourbon and using drugs. He also concentrated on writing more and more material, which was recorded in pieces both in Memphis and in France when spending his time there. One of the songs he wrote in that period is his most memorable one, the amazing „I am the cosmos“. A beautiful soul searching power pop classic, that could easily fit on Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers album. On these songs he worked with many of his long time companions from his early pre-Big Star bands, but also with Chilton who provided his backing vocals on „You and your sister“, one of the greatest unknown love songs ever written. Bell's solo work remained totally obscure until Rykodisc decided to release a full length cd, collecting both his unreleased material and his sole single (I am the Cosmos b/w You and Your Sister), which was released in 1978 on Chris Stamey's Car Records label, and is now collectors item.
Chris Bell died on the early morning of december 27th 1978 when his white Triump struck a telephone pole, killing him instantly. He was returning home from his fathers restaurant, and it will always be a mystery to me how a man that talented ended up managing fathers restaurant. I hope this small article will illustrate how important Chris Bell was as a musician, both in Big Star and as a solo artist. His and Big Star's influence on alternative 80's and 90's rock bands is inevitable. R.E.M., The Replacements and The dB's all cited Big Star as their main influence, This Mortal Coil recorded their versions of both Chris Bell single songs and Seattle band The Posies recorded a single in tribute to Chris Bell, covering two of his songs „Feel“ and „I am the cosmos“.

Vex Voxtone

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