The Genius of Chris Bell, One of Rock's Greatest Tragedies

When he died aged 27, the local paper described him as "the son of a local restaurateur". But this story, of a talented Memphis kid who formed rock's first cult band, goes worlds beyond.

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Dec 8 2016, 7:53pm

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.

"He was a man on a mission and so ambitious in both statement and in deed," says Jody Stephens, the drummer and last surviving member of Big Star. Even now, he still sounds full of awe. "I'd go to the studio in the morning and Chris had spent the entire night—without sleep—experimenting with guitar sounds and melody lines. Every song he wrote seemed to relate to some feeling or lifestyle he was living, it was really painful stuff but effective in showing us exactly what his subconscious looked like." Stephens's voice begins to crackle as he shares regrets from a friendship that ended suddenly nearly 40 years ago: "We never talked about Chris's sexuality or what he was fighting but I sense he was mostly just fighting himself. I wish I could have just shaken him and told him it was all going to be okay."

Before the internet, forums, and the weird aesthetic of Tumblr pages, Big Star were rock and roll's first cult band. Ignored by the mainstream but revered by critics, the Memphis group created joyous power-pop soaked in existential mystique. Their songwriting, which routinely touched on small town romance and camaraderie, chips away at your heart as though it possesses a delicate little hammer. Bell, who formed the band, wanted them to pick up where side two of The Beatles' Abbey Road left off. But he would never get a chance to witness Big Star's music light the flame behind the likes of Primal Scream, Wilco, and REM. His life ended at the tender age of 27.

Bell is often painted as a tragic figure in the Big Star story and this isn't without merit. Bandmate Alex Chilton, already a household name due to his work as lead singer of The Box Tops, would be fawned over in glowing reviews of their first album, the ironically titled #1 Record. To legendary critics such as Lester Bangs, it didn't matter that Bell had written, mixed, or sung lead on the majority of songs. He may have called the shots—in outtakes—you can even hear him instructing the more experienced Chilton on where to stand in the mic booth, but he rarely received the credit for his masterful work.

The first time I listened to Chris Bell was by accident. Searching the depths of Google for recommendations for my appropriately-titled "Weed Tunes" playlist, I came across an obscure dad-rock forum. One user promised that "I Am The Cosmos," the only solo single released by Bell, was the answer to everything. Almost immediately, the song's druggy swirl and trippy lyrics made the small cloud from my joint look like it had developed consciousness. The colossal sonics of his guitar solo made my stomach feel elevated. Bell pushes his vocals to the very limit, as if to drain every ounce of emotion from his being. "The first time I heard 'Cosmos,' it was if I had floated into space," agree Stephens.

Inspired by Bell, I went on to listen to all three Big Star albums in one sitting. Dissecting the string arrangement of "Stroke It Noel" became a weekly hobby, while listening to "Try Again" would be a pick-me-up whenever life turned to shit. But there was still one song I couldn't stop thinking about. Gradually fading out towards the end of "I Am The Cosmos," Bell eerily repeats: "I'd really like to see you again." He died just a few months after the single's limited release on indie label Car Records in 1978, driving into a pole on the way home from a late night studio session.

Bell had always struggled with feelings of injustice. Van Duren, a fellow Memphis musician, who later played live shows with a "cocky, impatient" Bell in the short-lived Baker Street Regulars band, remembers the dark whispers. "[Chris] just couldn't understand why the first album wasn't selling or why Stax [to which Big Star were signed under rock subsidiary Ardent Records] had given it such bad distribution," he explains. "He was 100 percent convinced it would put the band on the map. Everyone knows he completely lost it and erased the master tapes [of #1 Record] but Ardent Records has this atrium in the centre with glass windows and I heard one night Chris smashed in all the windows with his boot."

Before the release of Big Star's dark masterpiece Third, Bell left the band. He dismissed the work as second-rate Lou Reed, would attempt suicide, abuse strong sedatives and use religion to suppress doubts around his sexuality amid an inherently homophobic Deep South. As an outsider, I sense Bell wanted to write the soundtrack for anyone who had ever struggled with self-identity. Especially of the sexual kind. On grungy solo track "Better Save Yourself," Bell contorts his voice, sometimes shouting, to bellow: "You should've gave your love to Jesus, it couldn't do you no harm. You better save yourself, if you wanna see his face." This was songwriting that had little time for affectation.

Vocally, to some, Bell was an icon trapped in the wrong era. "At times Chris could be so punk rock and he'd just make this painful noise from the back of his throat like a Cobain," beams Adam Hill, an engineer at Ardent, who remastered Bell's recordings for posthumous collection I Am The Cosmos. "Whereas on a song like 'Though I Know She Lies' you could be listening to Dylan on 'Lay Lady Lay.' He always pushed his vocal cords to their very limit." On the delicate "You And Your Sister," Bell pours his heart out about an unrequited love. When he reflects "Plans fail every day," to backing vocals by Chilton, who remained an acquaintance, you sense heartbreak of both a romantic and professional nature. And "Speed of Sound"—with its existential dread of "The plane goes down, it will not land. The pilot's dead, nowhere to be found"—hits you right in the gut, writing the angsty blueprint Elliott Smith would later follow to a tee.

Seen by friends as an intervention, Bell's brother David took him across Europe in the mid-70s, armed with these solo demos. Bell, an anglophile who imported copies of NME, would get the chance to work with hero Geoff Emerick—a pivotal engineer on all the best Beatles albums—at the legendary Air Studios. "It was good for him to go to Europe but I sense he was still in a really dark place. He was an impatient artist after Big Star," says Duren. With a record deal not forthcoming, Bell accepted he needed a regular 9-to-5 upon his return to Memphis. For a while, he worked for his father's hamburger chain Danvers—a heartbreaking scene for friends who understood his talent.

While Bell was back home flipping burgers, Big Star were blowing up in the UK, with NME unable to keep up with reader letters requesting copies of their first two albums. In fact, demand for both albums was so high they were eventually reissued in a gatefold release. "I called Chris and it was one of the only times I remember him being really happy, as all those Beatles Parlophone pressings he loved had the same address on the back," remembers Stephens, noting that the reissue said "Pressed by EMI at Hayes, Middlesex" on the back. However, Bell's adulation would be short lived.

"When I came back to Memphis we made plans to meet at the studio. However, when I arrived he had already left," recalls Stephens. Friends and family still don't know for sure what happened in the early hours of December 27, 1978, the dark mystique of Bell's music holding even in death. "What's weird is I decided to drive back and when I got to the Sears department store, I could see police cars with their lights flashing and there was this car in the middle of the road. A pole had fallen and completely crushed the left side of the roof. I immediately thought 'I shouldn't look.' The next day John [Fry] phoned to say Chris had died in a car accident. I had passed by Chris."

Two decades on, Bell's infectiously playful jam "In the Street" would feature as the theme music for TV sitcom That '70s Show. "Having known them both, I'd say Chris would have loved every second of [the subsequent Big Star exposure], whereas Alex probably hated it," speculates Duren. But Stephens, who still drums with the same thoughtful rage he possessed in the 70s, isn't in the mood for what-ifs. He now has a desk job at Ardent and is reminded of the past wherever he looks. Not that he minds: "I still get chill bumps thinking about it. Any time me, Chris, Andy [Hummels], and Alex were in the same room it was like I had entered a force field of energy, you felt an electrical charge." He modestly adds: "I'm just glad I got a chance to play with Chris. It was an honor."

At just over a minute long, Bell's "ST 100/6," the emotional closure of #1 Record, is hard to forget. Bell plays two acoustic guitars, sings four harmonies, which are doubled up, and hauntingly repeats the phrase "Love me again, be my friend."

"It's so transcendent, it's like it's being beamed in from above," says Ardent' engineer Hill. "The lyrics are just so Chris, as he was always fighting for acceptance. The song cuts off short, a lot like he did." When Chris Bell's death was reported by a local newspaper in 1978, the headline read "Son of local restaurateur, killed at 27." But, Van Duren interjects: "It should have read rock genius."

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Photo credits:
Lead - I Am The Cosmos album artwork by David Bell
Photo 2 - Chris Bell by David Bell
Photo 3 - Big Star by Michael O'Brien taken from Big Star: Isolated In The Light (a limited edition photo biography).