By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Big Star, one of the most influential, yet unheard, bands in rock history, will play a rare reunion show in Brooklyn on Wednesday, November 18. But the band will do so without one of its three surviving founders.
Rather, original bassist Andy Hummel, now living in Weatherford and working as a senior manager of engineering at Lockheed-Martin in Fort Worth, will leave the sold-out show to the others, claiming he's happy with his 9-to-5 and playing music on the side with work and neighborhood buddies in a casual bar band.
Content as he may be, though, he still leads the group through the occasional Big Star cover.
And why not? Even more than 35 years after the original incarnation of the band called it quits, familiarity with the music of Big Star remains something of a secret handshake among the indie-rock cognoscenti. During the '70s, the band's two official releases, #1 Record and Radio City, were difficult enough to find, while bootlegs of the unreleased third effort, usually called Third or Sister Lovers, were little more than a rumor to all but the hippest of record collectors.
But, for all its influence, poor promotion from Stax Records, distribution difficulties and some plain old bad luck kept the Memphis band from attaining more than its cult status. Within months of sophomore record Radio City's 1974 release, both guitarist Chris Bell and bassist Andy Hummel had left the band for good, leaving only singer Alex Chilton (who shared the bulk of songwriting duties with Bell) and drummer Jody Stephens to continue with replacement players until they too would finally call it quits in late '74. Until the band's 1993 reunion (which eventually resulted in the 2005 album In Space) with members of The Posies, Stephens worked at Ardent Studios, where Big Star had recorded, and Chilton (whose music career began in his teens with the blue-eyed soul group Box Tops) would continue his music career with various punk-influenced improvisational combos. Bell, meanwhile, pursued a solo career but died in a car accident in 1978, just after Third/Sister Lovers saw the light of day with an official release.
Despite—and perhaps in some ways because of—its obscurity, the band's British Invasion-influenced power pop had an enormous impact on subsequent generations of alternative, indie and underground musicians. Acts like R.E.M., Hüsker Dü and Elliott Smith have each cited the band as a major influence, name-checking Big Star in interviews and covering songs, as well. Yet for almost everyone outside the insular music-snob community, their only likely exposure to Big Star is through Cheap Trick's cover of "In the Street," which—renamed "That '70s Song"—served as the theme song for That '70s Show.
During the '80s, Chilton clawed away at a living as a solo performer and guitarist with Tav Falco's Panther Burns, occasionally working as a dishwasher and tree trimmer in New Orleans. In one famous incident, members of The Bangles sought him out only to find that he wasn't receiving royalties for their cover of "September Gurls." They wrote him a check on the spot.
But if Hummel didn't have such fortuitous encounters, neither was he washing dishes—nor regretting his decision to leave. When the opportunity to join the band's impending reunion presented itself, Hummel was unable to take off the time from work that would be required.
"I'm here to tell you, being in the music business is no way to earn a living," Hummel says from his Weatherford home. "Unless you're the one-half of 1 percent that actually makes it, it's a hard row to hoe... The music industry is a bunch of cunts and whores. They're looking to screw you on a regular basis."
He quickly points out that the people like those at Ardent Studios, particularly producer John Fry, are the friendly exception. But when he and his wife visited Memphis a few years ago to accept an award for Big Star, the memories came flooding back about "what a bunch of assholes" music industry types can be. By contrast, he says, Lockheed—which, mind you, creates weaponry and aircraft for the government—is ethical, transparent and straightforward.
Still, there are things Hummel says he misses about being with the band. Composing and working in the studio with Fry was a joy, he says. So too was playing live with Big Star, which only had a handful of shows, even if it was more nerve-racking than fun for Hummel.
"We never were stars or [would] sell a lot of records or anything," he says. "But being onstage and knowing that you've got a record out that at least a few people are listening to, you sort of get a little bit of what it must be like to be a rock star. And that's fun."
He doesn't spend much time dwelling on how things might have been different if the first couple of records had sold better.
"I feel like I've had a really good career at Lockheed, really enjoyed it and am not in any way dissatisfied," he says. "The way things panned out with all these other bands who cite Big Star as a big influence on them getting started and how they grew artistically, that gets you thinking, 'Gosh, we really had something going that could have grown into something much, much bigger, and who knows?' But shoot, you never know."
While he still talks to Chilton occasionally, Hummel says he has no desire to get involved with Big Star again, even if that were to mean just making a cameo on a song or two. He points out that his and Bell's replacements, Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer, have now been playing with Chilton and Stephens for 15 years—much longer than he had.
"For me to insert myself into all that would be almost guaranteed to be unsuccessful," he says.
With his new band—at one point dubbed Rocket 211, though Hummel says he hated that name—the diverse group of musicians, which used to include Hummel's college-age son Drew, works up covers of everything from Queen to The Scissor Sisters to country-and-western hits to The Stones. Like The Bangles, they recently worked up a version of "September Gurls," which Hummel maintains is one of the all-time greatest pop songs. But, apart from that, the band doesn't play much other Big Star material—not even Hummel's own "The India Song," which he says was just the product of late-night studio foolery that he never really intended to be a Big Star song in the first place.
"Big Star songs are hard!" Hummel says, laughing. "We usually go for simpler material."
Even with a continually growing and renewing interest in the band, Hummel says, the tiny ASCAP performance royalties and his scarce writing credits with the band don't add up to a significant income from the group. Perhaps that could change with the recent release of a spate of reissues, among them Bell's solo album I Am the Cosmos, the CD box set Keep an Eye on the Sky (which is filled with revealing demos, alternate takes and a recently unearthed live recording at Lafayette's Music Room), and 180-gram vinyl reissues of all three of Big Star's album releases.
For now, though, Hummel remains without regrets, content with his role in the reunited cult heroes' story.
"Universal sends me a check every six months or so," he says. "And it's enough to take my wife out to dinner."