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2010, the Year of the Death of Big Star

I realized only the other day that Andy Hummel died earlier this month, on July 19th. Alongside Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, and Jody Stephens, Hummel was one of the founding members of the Memphis rock band Big Star.

Jody Stephens, Chris Bell, Alex Chilton, and Andy Hummel

Big Star was around for only four years (1971–4), but their influence was absolutely huge. No Big Star, no Elliott Smith, no Wilco—and that’s just for starters. (The Replacements, Yo La Tengo, and Cheap Trick, to name just a few others, all owe massive debts. And Peter Buck once said of R.E.M.: “We’ve sort of flirted with greatness, but we’ve yet to make a record as good as Revolver or Highway 61 Revisited or Exile on Main Street or Big Star’s Third.“) Just as Iggy Pop and Yoko Ono were proto-punk, Big Star was proto-alternative, proto-indie.

I first learned about Big Star when I heard Elliott Smith cover one of their songs, “Thirteen,” in Jem Cohen’s short film “Lucky Three”:

Big Star recorded only three albums. The first two were #1 Record (1972), after which Bell quit, and Radio City (1973–4), after which Hummel quit. (Here’s a 2001 interview with Hummel about his time with Big Star).

from #1 Record:

from Radio City:

With Hummel and Bell gone, Chilton and Stephens continued on to record Third/Sister Lovers (1974), which their label refused to release, causing even them to call it quits. (It was later released after the first two albums started finding an audience.)

(You can buy all three records + more in one fell swoop, thanks to this 4-CD box set put out a few years ago by the invaluable Rhino.)

Chris Bell was killed in a car accident in 1978. Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens made another go of it in 1993, reforming Big Star with newcomers Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow (both from The Posies). (You might know Stringfellow from his work with R.E.M. and The Minus 5.) This new lineup recorded one album, In Space (2005).

Alex Chilton died of a heart attack earlier this year, on 17 March. (He ignored warning signs and didn’t go to the hospital because he didn’t have health insurance. Good one, USA.) (Do check out that article—it’s a very moving tribute to Chilton.)

Now Hummel’s gone, too. Here’s the last video I could find of him performing, alongside Stephens and others, at a SXSW tribute to Chilton (Stephens is on drums, Hummel is on bass guitar on the far right):

And some footage from a panel, also at this year’s SXSW:

Long live Andy Hummel, long live Chris Bell, long live Alex Chilton. (And best of luck to Jody Stephens!)

Long live Big Star!

A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

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