Continued from Part Three…
In the fourth part of my conversation with Jon Auer, we dig deep into history and learn the story of how he discovered the music of Big Star, eventually finding himself in a new lineup of the group. – bk
BILL KOPP: Big Star is a textbook case of a band being “discovered” years after it made the music upon which its reputation was built. And of course your story is wrapped up in Big Star’s story. How did you first encounter the group?
JON AUER: Jody Stephens described [Big Star’s success] as “the 35 year marketing plan.” It’s weird, because people assumed because of the music I made very early on with The Posies that I’d heard of Big Star; I must have known about them.
My first job was at a record store; I’d come down every day after school and hang out. Finally they said, “Give the fucking kid a job!”, That’s where I heard [The Zombies’] Odessey and Oracle. The older guys who worked there were like mentors. “Kid, you gotta hear this. And if you love this Elvis Costello record, you should check out this.”
I’d always loved The Beatles, but I started checking them out again when their albums came out on CDs. And then records would come in and I’d play them in the store, and one of them was Pleased To Meet Me by the Replacements. Those records had already been released by the time I found out about The Replacements. But there’s this song, “Alex Chilton.” You know: “I’d never travel far without a little Big Star.” That’s how I heard about Big Star, but I didn’t actually listen to any Big Star at this point until after Failure was released. That created a need to move to Seattle, because we recorded that record as a duo: I played drums, bass, Ken played bass, and we did all of ourselves at home. And then we literally had a gig booked before there was a band. So we had two weeks to find people. And so I kind of quickly moved down and slept on the couch for a while. And we found our rhythm section. That became the rhythm section for Dear 23 within two weeks. And I ended up moving into that house.
The manager at a record store in Seattle where I worked had the cassette and really liked the Posies record. He was kind of a pop guy, and he said, “Hey, you ever heard of this band? You ever heard Big Star before?” And I’m like, “Well, I know the song ‘Alex Chilton,’ and I’ve heard of them.” And he’s like, “Stop the presses. Come with me.” He literally took me from behind the counter, walked me over to the minimal vinyl section – it’s hilarious to think how little vinyl there was in a record store. He made a big ceremony of actually walking me over to the record rack, and he pulled out what I think was the Big Beat reissue, twofer of #1 Record and Radio City. And he said, “Look, I know it’s only 4 p.m. and you’re working till seven, but I’m going to buy this record for you. And the only reason I’m going to buy it for you is you have to promise me that you’re going to go home immediately and put on this record.” He told me to go home and put on “September Gurls.”
I’ve talked about this before, but the way I would describe it is like meeting somebody and you feel like you’ve known them a long time, even though you’ve never met before. Maybe I’d heard the Bangles version of “September Gurls,” and that’s why it seemed familiar to me, but I doubt it. I was just blown away that this song sounded like a bona fide hit single. I can’t think of a better example of a song that should have been a hit that wasn’t than “September Gurls.” There are other ones, but that may arguably be at the top of the list.
And then, of course, I just totally flipped: Big Star this, Big Star that… oh, my God. And then we found out there were other bands into them, and then it made sense that the Replacements recorded at Ardent. So that whole connection was made. And when were searching for studios for Dear 23, we investigated Ardent. I can’t remember who called, but one of us called, and Jody answered the phone. And it’s been described as like calling Abbey Road and Ringo answering the phone.
We ended up not working there, going another route. But when we toured for Dear 23, went to Ardent and we got the tour and visited, and we also made the single, a cover of “Feel” by Big Star. When were making Dear 23, I remember that there was a Memphis journalist who was into the Posies who said, “Hey, if you love Big Star, you have to hear the unreleased Chris Bell record.” So he sent me a cassette of what became what Ryko put out. And 20 seconds into hearing “I Am the Cosmos,” I turned to everybody and said, “We are fucking covering this immediately!” Something spoke to me so viscerally. To me, it is a spiritual; that’s how I describe it.
There are all sorts of religious sort of overtones to that album. But the listener can ignore them if they want.
They’re in there: “Look Up.” That’s why there’s so much because his faith is in those things.
So that kind of started the love affair and then we just lucked into the Big Star gig through Jody. He got that single that we did. And I think actually, Jody told me he played it for John Fry. He said that John Fry didn’t usually like people covering stuff, but John actually came into his office and was like, “These guys are doing it right.”
I swear to you this is true; I’m talking about the original Big Star reunion. Initially, I got the call for the gig because I was a guitar player, and they were looking for a guitar player and a bass player. There was answering machine message with Jody Stephens calling me up saying, “Hi, Jon,” – this is in Jody’s accent – “Some people at a radio station in Columbia, Missouri have asked about getting Big Star back together. Alex has said yes, and we’re looking for another guitar player. Would you consider playing with us?”And I actually called up my ex-partner and said, “I don’t know how to tell you this, but it just came to me.” I felt bad, to be honest.
In the end, it made sense that we both played with Big Star, but that’s how it all kind of came about. They were trying to get Paul Westerberg, and they might have asked Matthew Sweet… I don’t know if it’s accurate, so sorry if it’s not true, Matthew, or anybody, but it’s just so funny to think about. You can’t really imagine Paul Westerberg fitting into what would become a way to keep propagating the brilliance of Big Star’s music, really.
In light of subsequent events, we were the perfect people for the job. And yes, something else: this is to Jody and Alex’s credit, but within a year they made us equal shares in the whole thing. For 16 years we made as much as they did, and we didn’t ask them[ for it]. We split everything. That was at Alex and Jody’s behest.
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