“thirteen” – big star (1972)

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Since the fall of 2015, I’ve been taking classes at the Old Town School of Folk Music.  Previously, I had been involved with Old Town as a volunteer starting earlier that year and had attended various concerts over the last few years.  It has been a wonderful place that has fostered my musical development on various levels.  As a volunteer in their impressive music archive, I’m constantly finding new things to listen to.  As a concert patron, the intimacy of the main hall makes this the best place to see a concert in Chicago.  And taking lessons has given me a deeper understanding on producing music by putting my interest to practical use.

The classes are conducted once a week over a two-month session.  I had taken the last section off because of some travel plans.  However, I have been looking into the class offerings for the next session and thinking about where I want to go to next.

While I am not a particularly great guitar player, I’m not that bad.  I have strengths and weaknesses like everyone else.  I great at varying strumming patterns, but Barre chords on an acoustic give me trouble.  Plus, I’m a busy guy.  I work full-time, volunteer for two different non-profits, and lead an active social life.  I cannot expect to be as amazing as the people who practice for hours every day.  For me, I don’t have any grand ambitions.  It is just a private hobby.

As I think about next steps and the challenges that await, I know I want to do something different.  Until now, I had taken group guitar classes where everyone practices and plays together.  These classes were part of their core guitar program, so the focus was advancing our knowledge of chords and strum patterns.  While I need improvement in some areas, I have exhausted my lessons there.  So, what is next?  Learning a specific style such as blue or finger picking?  Perhaps play in a band as part of a class ensemble?  There’s just so many options.  Until I make that decision, I’m reflecting on my progress since starting my classes nearly two years ago.

I didn’t put a lot of thought into picking my instructor. Old Town’s staff consists of really talented people who specialize in different areas.  For someone who just wanted to start with the basics anywhere, I just focused on what was convenient for my schedule.  Jane Hanna was my instructor for the better part of a year while I was taking the entire progression of core guitar classes (almost) every Thursday for a year.  She also taught the glam rock ensemble as well as some other classes.  Her specialty was more rock and punk-oriented which suited my tastes quite well.

Throughout the various classes I took with her, there were certain artists we would revisit in almost every class.  David Bowie was her all-time favorite so, naturally, he always made an appearance.  However, there were other artists that would pop up more frequently than others.

One of those artists was Big Star.  Like many people, my exposure to Big Star was limited.  I think I vaguely knew that their song “In the Street” was covered as the opening theme for That ‘70s Show and I recall a documentary about the band was released a few years ago, but I never saw it.  And I find that my unfamiliarity is not uncommon.  They only released three studio albums before disbanding within three years of forming and none of those releases sold very well.

However, despite poor sales, the band’s musical output was highly influential.  A lot of musicians were inspired by Big Star and their power pop aesthetic, melodic harmonies, and relatable existential themes.  And over the years, the became darlings of the critics with some of their work appearing on lists commemorating the best albums and songs of all time.  Their cult following consisting of people who just wanted to listen and play good music has earned them the recognition of being a “musician’s band.”

The lead singer, Alex Chilton, started his career as the lead singer of the Box Tops who released the hit “The Letter.”  Chilton wrote and performed much of Big Star’s songs.  Despite the poor commercial success of his most influential band, he remains a beloved musical figure.  I was recently reminded of Big Star, and especially Chilton, when I attended a storytelling series last weekend.  One of the speakers, Freda Love Smith, was sharing a story about the only time she met Chilton and how she embarrassed herself in front of her idol.  She had bummed a cigarette and had trouble starting the lighter because of low fluid.  She saw Chilton having trouble with his lighter and asked if he was out of fluid.  It was the only thing she said to him and she groaned that she never had opportunity to share her undying admiration.  It was a touching story.

This month marks the 45th anniversary of their first studio album.  #1 Record, released June 1972, remains to be the most popular and beloved of their discography.  While 1974’s Radio City would later contain “September Gurls,” another beloved Big Star classic, #1 Record contains one of their best song ever recorded.

“Thirteen,” the fourth song on the album, was never released as a single though it has become their most legendary song.  Covered by many great artists such as Garbage, Wilco, and Elliott Smith, “Thirteen” proves to be their most influential for it’s gorgeous guitar, melancholy vocals, and how relatable the lyrics are.  It is a story of adolescent frustration and love.  There’s rebellion, music, and a lust to live life to the fullest with no apologies.  That yearning comes through so powerfully yet so intimately.  It is a touching and soulful track.

Over the last few years, Big Star’s following has increased.  I’ve become a fan and learning how to break down their songs and appreciate the elements that make up the music certainly helped me appreciate them as a musician’s band.  While taking classes with Jane, we had covered both “Thirteen” and “September Gurls.”  Both are amazing, but “Thirteen” stands out just ahead as their quintessential track.