The first time I heard Alex Chilton sing, I was unimpressed. I was 23 at the time, that treacherous, liminal age when the line between good ideas and unbelievably bad ideas is more or less impossible to make out, and I thought I might be falling in love. The few serious relationships I’d had up to that point had been with men of a certain ilk: bright, sensitive, maybe a little bit gay.
This guy, though, was different. Intellectually engaging and emotionally indirect, he was a cipher from the start. Did he like me? Did he tolerate me? Did he hate me? Did he adore me? Who knows? I had no idea then, and frankly, I still couldn’t tell you with any certainty now, however many years later it may be. He was an impenetrable morass of earnest implication and studied dispassion, a tour de force of neither here nor there. Naturally, I was enthralled.
Because—in case this hasn’t already become abundantly clear—I was a fucking idiot.
He was particularly good at the game of exasperating me just to the point of breaking and then coming up with some touchingly awkward romantic gesture in order to ensure he would have the opportunity to exasperate me some more.
One such gesture, inevitably, involved a mix CD.
The second-to-last track was the song Thirteen, performed by a band I’d never heard of. It’s a lovely little song, sweet and trembling and plaintive—like a Judy Blume book before all the life lessons come into play. But I missed all that the first time through. Because I was too busy wondering why he had chosen some obscure cover instead of the—in my mind—vastly superior Elliott Smith “original.” God help me, I even said as much to him.
And that is how I learned about Big Star. By suggesting that they kind of sucked.
Anyone who has yet to receive a straightforward declaration from the object of their affection—and, even more, anyone who has ever experienced the growing certainty that a favorable declaration is not about to be forthcoming—is familiar with the divinatory frenzy of romantic limbo, when even the most insignificant words and gestures seem riddled with intimation. Rational, proportionate interpretation has no place in the all-consuming quest to suss out Where, Exactly, You Stand.
Suffice it to say, in the week and months that followed, I listened to Thirteen a lot. Naturally, I was particularly preoccupied by the final verse:
Won’t you tell me what you’re thinking of
Would you be an outlaw for my love
If it’s so, well let me know
If it’s no, well I can go
I won’t make you
At first I heard intention. Then, equivocation. And finally, in the end, advice I should have had the sense to take.
It wasn’t until much later that I understood that the genius of a great love song like Thirteen relies in part on its emotional versatility: the music and lyrics are equally affecting whether you’re falling in love or falling out of love. The song’s sunny nostalgia makes it a perfect accompaniment not only for your big dopey grin, but also for your four-hour crying jag, because nothing cuts quite so deep as a reminder that things aren’t complete shit for everybody, they’re just complete shit for you. Basically, it’s the musical equivalent of a Frosted Mini-Wheat.
Eventually, I grew to love the Big Star version of Thirteen—and even to prefer it to Elliott Smith’s. I also grew to love Big Star, full stop. I bought #1 Record and Radio City in 2004, and they’ve been in heavy rotation ever since. For a long time the two albums actually made up a full 40% of my in-car music library, which means that over the past six years, I’ve probably spent more time with Big Star than I have with most anyone I actually know. And after hours upon hours of playback, there still isn’t a single song I like to skip over. Not even Thirteen.
Not anymore, anyway.
When I got married I was subjected to all sorts of rhapsodic waxing regarding the joys of committed relationships, mostly platitudes of the “everyone needs a co-pilot” variety. No one mentioned the deep satisfaction of being able to write off whole lifetimes of crap in the service of something you love. I don’t mean the glib thrill that comes from coupling up when people who’ve dumped you horribly are lonely and miserable—although I wouldn’t discount that pleasure. I’m talking about the simple fact that each day with my husband makes my past fuck-ups a little less fucked-up. If you love something well enough, immediate pleasure can be compounded by retrospective solace.
I didn’t figure this out when I met Dylan, though. I actually figured it out when I was refusing to listen to Thirteen.
Obviously, things between me and the mix-master didn’t exactly work out, and for quite a while afterwards, I found myself reeling. Not from heartbreak, though—no, nothing so noble as that. From humiliation. The only thing worse than being rejected is knowing you’re going to be rejected—and then going ahead and letting it happen anyway. I didn’t beat myself up about it, but neither was I looking to rub it in. And listening to the song that served as more or less the pathetic soundtrack to my even more pathetic infatuation was very definitely rubbing it in.
So I decided that maybe I kind of hated it after all.
But I didn’t stop listening to Big Star, just that one Big Star song, and after the initial sting wore off, I once again was forced to reconsider. Thirteen may have had some thorny associations, but at the end of the day, it was the song that had led me to Way Out West, September Gurls, Life Is White. Ultimately, Big Star made me happier than that ignominious farce of a relationship made me sad.
I stopped skipping the song. And soon enough, I stopped feeling so stupid about it, too.
Would I have ever thought about this if it weren’t for Big Star? Sure, probably. It’s not like these are particularly novel avenues of self-discovery. Nor are such meditations unique to this song or this band or even music as a whole. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if Chuck Klosterman had a whole book detailing how midwinter evening episodes of Scarecrow and Mrs. King taught him tough lessons about love and loss and regret. The insight isn’t really the point.
The point is that I didn’t know Alex Chilton. But he has, even so, been a part of my life. A good part of my life. And I’m glad, today, that I can remember that.