Friday, January 12, 2007

Chris Bell, I Am the Cosmos, 1992 (Recorded in 1974)

Chris Bell
I Am The Cosmos
1992 (Recorded in 1974)

Chris Bell, the founder of the legendary Memphis power pop band Big Star, was, along with Alex Chilton, the principal songwriter of the group’s debut album, the cheeky and optimistically titled #1 Record (1972). Bell, described as almost suicidally depressed, left the group he started later that same year. In the lore of Big Star’s fractious demise, Chris Bell—a young man torn by his intense religious feelings and the subsequent guilt caused by his homosexuality and drug abuse—often plays the complicated and saintly Abel to Chilton’s destructive Cain.

Bell was the son of a successful local restauranter, and grew up in the advantaged, predominantly white neighborhood of Germantown in Memphis, Tennessee. School friend and later band mate of both Bell and Chilton, Richard Rosebrough described his and Bell’s upbringing thusly to Mojo’s Barney Hoskyns: “Our scene was Memphis prep: snotty-nosed, spoiled-brat Germantown kids.” During the late-sixties, while Chilton, the son of a local jazz musician, was cutting his teeth as the lead singer for local blue-eyed soul hit-makers, The Boxtops, Bell was performing live in local Anglophilic acts such as The Jynx, Rock City and Ice Water and recording intermittently at John Fry’s Ardent Studios.

In 1970, Chilton, fed up with his role in The Box Tops quit the band and recorded a clutch of demos at Ardent studios that he intended as a solo album. Though the record never came to proper fruition, (Ardent Records eventually released these recordings in 1996 under the title 1970) Chilton became acquainted with his future band mates. Over the late winter of 1971, and early 1972, Big Star recorded the phenomenally influential #1 Record at Ardent; a classic that effortlessly combined Beatlesque pop, Memphis soul, youthful restlessness and country melancholia but was a spectacular commercial failure. By the end of the year, terribly depressed and upset over both the failure of his record to sell, and the insalubrious business practices of Stax Records (Ardent’s parent company), not to mention creeping frustration over the extra attention the extroverted Alex Chilton received, Bell left the band.

Bell’s depression and drug use only worsened, and in the summer of 1974, after multiple suicide attempts, his brother David took him to Europe where the two wandered, wealthy-minstrel style throughout the old world; with Bell playing in both English pubs and French castles. The dreamlike self-financed vanity project became even more fantastical, as Geoff Emerick, an engineer on the later Beatles albums mixed the sessions at George Martin’s Air Studios in London. Unfortunately upon his return stateside, Bell’s dreams turned hopelessly bitter as record companies roundly rejected the material (which would make up the lions share of I Am the Cosmos, released subsequently by Rykodisc in 1992). Bell was forced to work for his father’s successful chain of fast food restaurants, his music career all but dead.

I Am the Cosmos is not a proper album, and should not be judged as such. Cosmos is more a de facto album; a collection of Bell’s post-Big Star work recorded at both Chateau d’Heurville in France (during his and David’s sojourn) and at Ardent in Memphis. The Memphis material was recorded with Jody Stephens and they were even joined by the wayward Chilton on the stunningly gorgeous and country-tinged You and Your Sister, perhaps the best thing Bell ever wrote. But because of the fractured nature of these sessions there is an uneven quality to the “record,” and apparently, when mixing the tapes, the preternaturally unsure Bell wore out the tapes by habitually remixing tracks, leaving them with a “blurred” quality. That being said, I Am the Cosmos is a triumph of introspective, faith-based, and effecting songwriting, Anglophilic guitar work, requisite Memphis soul, and even gospel. It is a record that is hampered only slightly by certain timely, stylistic defects like the funky frog-like bass playing on Fight at the Table. All in all, I Am the Cosmos comes closer to capturing the sensibility of #1 Record more than anything Chilton would ever do.

Throughout Bell’s life as a writer, he seemed to be obsessed with the twin themes of religious salvation and the bitterness of romantic desperation. The opener on #1 Record is the sulky Feel, a sparkling, bluesy and desperate two-stanza rant that starts with the line; “woman, what are you doin’, you’re drivin’ me to ruin,” and ends with the bitter and melancholy, “you just ain't been trying, 
it's getting very near the end, I feel like I'm dying, 
I feel like I'm dying.” The album also contains the religious fable The Ballad of El Goodo (“It gets so hard in times like now to hold on, 
but guns they wait to be stuck by, at my side is God”), and Try Again, which has the quality of a fraught bed-time prayer:

Lord, I've been trying to be what I should. Lord, I've been trying to do what I could, but each time it gets a little harder, I feel the pain. But I'll Try again. Lord, I've been trying to be understood, and Lord, I've been trying to do as you would.

Bell’s work on I Am the Cosmos is no different—he evenly splits his themes between Jesus and loneliness. The title track is an obvious paean to his fragile mental state: “don't know what's going on inside, so every night I tell myself ‘I am the cosmos, I am the wind’ But that don't get you back again.” The loneliness and anxiety of Bell’s psychological desperation is as palpable as any thing ever written in a rock and roll song. The two best songs on Cosmos though, aside from the exquisitely spare You and Your Sister, are lovely examples of Bell’s affinity for, and obsession with, Jesus and what he has to offer—Look Up, a delicate and uplifting, almost hopeful song played primarily on acoustic guitar and mellotron, and the ballsy-rocker, I Got Kinda Lost which is perhaps better than anything he did as a member of Big Star.

Bell being a tragic and sadly sympathetic character was an incongruous and obscure rock figure. Lacking the confidence of the most bellicose and average of songwriters, he never was given the opportunity to do what it seemed he was intended to do. Another aspect of his obvious incongruity was his deeply felt religious feelings, which I think had somewhat slightly less to do with salvation, for the nature of salvation has more to do with the afterlife. Bell seemed to be grasping for a kind of framework or theory or meaning of life on earth; a simple key to getting through his own life’s worst torments.

In 1978, The dB’s Chris Stamey, a Big Star acolyte, released the single I Am the Cosmos b/w You and Your Sister on his micro-indie label, Car Records. At the time, Chris Bell was excited and feeling his life moving in the right direction and with what must have been a feeling of vindication, he put a band together, hoping to make another go at it. Early in the morning though, two days after Christmas day, 1978, Chris Bell’s tiny Triumph smashed into a tree and killing him instantly.

R.I.P. Chris Bell: January 12, 1951-December 27, 1978



Blogger Larry O. said...

Another well-thought-out and smart review. I think the album holds together pretty well, and "I Am the Cosmos" is spine-tingling.

11:33 AM  

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