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The Annotated Mix-Tape, #7

Big Star:  : “Big Black Car” (from the CD Third/Sister Lovers, Rykodisc, 1992 [1978])
Black Tambourine: “Black Car” (c/w “By Tomorrow,” “Pack You Up,” “Drown,” seven-inch single, Slumberland Records, 1991)

I

Like many of us with a passion for our own odd corners of pop music, I’d guess, I often daydream sequences of songs to appear on imaginary mix-tapes I never end up recording. It’s an idle but enjoyable pursuit, not unlike that of bands that record film scores to movies that do not exist. One of my hypothetical cassettes would include a segue between Big Star’s “Big Black Car” and Black Tambourine’s “Black Car”—a tremendous stylistic collision, from reverbed strings and hushed singing to overloaded feedback buzz, from the echoes of some wide and desolate space to the crowded basement hiss of saturated tape. (Recent circumstances have also brought these two bands together: Big Star’s Alex Chilton died on March 17, 2010, two weeks before the twentieth-anniversary reissue of Black Tambourine’s recordings; in the press accounts of these occurrences, writers noted that both bands were initially overlooked, but hugely influential in their afterlives.) But maybe such transitions—and the opportunities they offer for displaying one’s music-nerd cleverness, for reading a narrative in the stacks of one’s records—are the reason I contemplate this sort of mix.

According to Jim Dickinson, who produced the album known variously as Third, Sister Lovers, or Beale Street Green (Big Star’s third and final LP—recorded late in 1974, abandoned, released posthumously as an import in 1978, then finally reissued in its most definitive form by Rykodisc almost twenty years after the songs were recorded), Big Star’s singer and guitarist Alex Chilton “used a basketball for a snare drum” at one point during the recordings, and, for the album’s high point, “Kangaroo,” “recorded the vocal and the twelve-string guitar on the same track” (thus rendering them inseparable during mixing) to annoy Dickinson. Still, no matter how much Chilton sabotaged these recordings, no matter how rough and unfinished many listeners find these songs (“will seem completely beyond the pale to those who already find his regular stuff weird,” wrote Robert Christgau in his review; “A shambling wreck of an album,” claims Allmusic.com; “I can’t listen to it,” says a friend who loves Big Star’s much-cleaner first album), the songs maintain, to my ears, the multi-tracked sheen of studio production. (Have there ever been more pristine recordings of the strummed acoustic guitar than those that fill Big Star’s three records, including this one? See “Give Me Another Chance,” “What’s Going Ahn,” or, indeed, “Big Black Car” should you require proof. As Bruce Eaton’s book Radio City explains, much of the superb production on Big Star’s records is due to “executive producer” John Fry’s work for them at his recording studio, Ardent.)

By comparison, the deliberately distorted, budget recordings of Black Tambourine, descended from punk’s d.i.y. ethos (and, according to band member Archie Moore, captured in “a home basement studio” on “a very modest set-up: 8-track reel-to-reel analog tape…, which we thought was a whole lot of tracks at the time”), shun such aural niceties in favor of conveying mood. In “Black Car,” they reduce Phil Spector’s wall of sound from tidal wave to tinny squalls, and I mean that in a good way.

Rick Clark, in his liner notes to the Rykodisc version of Third/Sister Lovers, writes that Chilton—disgusted with his band’s lack of commercial success despite its superb reputation among critics—“performs…as if he had nothing to lose.” Freedom from failure was a foregone conclusion for Black Tambourine, four college-age kids who had little to gain, at least by the usual terms of musical success, from their performances—performances which, despite the meager circumstances of their recordings and the band’s minimal output, have become revered in certain circles of independent music fans. (The two seven-inch singles and handful of compilation tracks they released during, and just after, their brief 1989–1991 lifetime have now twice been reissued: first, in 1999 on a ten-track album titled Complete Recordings, and again—this time the world was ready—in 2010 on a sixteen-track album titled Black Tambourine, which adds four newly-recorded songs and two early demos.) “If there’s any justice, Black Tambourine will see their name inserted into revisionist histories of American independent rock,” Chris Ott wrote for Pitchfork in his review of Complete Recordings, but the members of Black Tambourine didn’t realize the influence their music would someday have: “I didn’t have any [expectations] for Black Tambourine except to put out records and play as much as we could because being in a band with your friends and putting out records on your own label sounded like nada but fun,” singer Pam Berry recently told me. “I’ve always loved recording better than playing live because you can do things a few times till you get it right. But with Black Tambourine it wasn’t so much about getting it right as being pleasantly surprised to get it at all.”

II

Early in my last year of college, only a few months after I’d sold my Subaru to a junk dealer for $125, I met a woman at a party in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who told me that her husband bought and fixed vintage VW Beetles, and then offered me one of his current projects—a black ’70-something Beetle that he’d just restored—for some absurd sum: one or two hundred dollars. I was sure that her husband would value the car more highly than she did, and that I’d be lucky to ever see her again, since she lived on Cape Cod and I in Vermont.

But for a few hours, at least—under the fluster of vodka and party—I allowed myself to dream a dream in which I drove through the autumnal foothills of the Green Mountains in my unheated VW bug, the blackness of which was a large measure of its essential charm. (I once coveted a Karmann Ghia, and an old Beetle seemed the next best thing.) I was humming up Route 9, its hairpin turn halfway up from Brattleboro not yet blasted away and straightened out, wipers clearing the windshield of a light rain, listening to—it was a specific dream—Moonshake’s then-new song “Little Thing,” though I’m tempted now to claim I was listening to Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn”—is there a more perfect song for a 1970s German auto? (The Mini-Moog synthesizer that Kraftwerk played in this track was “known to cost as much as a Volkswagen at that time,” claims the Wikipedia entry on this LP.) Somehow this black car made me infinitely, ineffably cooler than I liked to think I already was. In my mind, I could hear the distinctive lawnmower rattle that those VW engines made as they accelerated; I was, as Alex Chilton suggests in “Big Black Car,” “going and I [didn’t] know how far,” but on my way to meet someone, if only some fantasy version of myself.

I never did see this woman again, never spoke to her husband; not long after, I lost touch even with the mutual friend who’d thrown the party. I have never owned a big black car, nor a small one.

III

Many of the songs from Big Star’s first two albums, #1 Record and Radio City, illustrate suburban teen experiences from a male perspective, particularly as these experiences involve cars. (And in nearly all of the ten songs that comprise Black Tambourine’s entire oeuvre, Berry’s lyrics describe teen experiences from a female perspective; her lyrics offer a counterpoint to the same melodramas Chilton rehearses, and project the same mixture of vulnerability and self-determination: “I was wrong to count on you” and “By tomorrow, if you don’t leave her, I’m a ghost” and “you’ll never change ’cause you don’t know / don’t want to hear your tales of woe” and “You can deny your jealousy / but that’s just a lie that I’m not buying // Please don’t cry / I’d like to die / Just turn around and say goodbye.”)

“In the Street,” from Big Star’s first LP (a song made widely known by Cheap Trick’s cover of it as the theme for That ’70s Show), offers an imagistic narrative as simple and familiar as the song’s repeating guitar line and basic drum patterns, and Chilton sings it in the strained, high-pitched voice of an adolescent: “Hanging out / down the street / the same old thing / we did last week // Not a thing to do / but talk to you // Steal your car / and bring it down / pick me up / we’ll drive around // Wish we had / a joint so bad // Past the streetlight / out past midnight.” The facts that the car needs to be stolen (from parents, presumably), and that this narrator finds it important to note the late hour, contradict the faux-worldliness of his other lines: there may be nowhere to go and nothing to do, but at least the car represents the fantasy of escape, the possibility of some slight rupture of the routine—even though the more likely scenario is, as Kristen Hersh put it in Throwing Muses’ song “Saving Grace,” “So we drive, and we’ve driven ten thousand miles in our hometown.”

The sound of Radio City (recorded after founding member and songwriter Chris Bell quit the band late in 1972, after the commercial failure of #1 Record; Bell died in a 1978 car crash) essays a tough rock edge while outgrowing most of the first record’s acoustic delicacy. Two back-to-back songs on side two chart an evolving relationship between a boy and his car, with a girl playing a cameo role. “Back of a Car” offers a moment of anxious hesitation between a young couple—“Sitting in the back of a car / music so loud / can’t tell a thing / thinking ’bout what to say / I can’t find the lines.” By the time we reach “Daisy Glaze,” the girl has gone, and the boy, bereft, turns to his car for solace: “I’m driving alone / sad about you / not going home / What’s to do?” As both songs make more than obvious, the car is now less escape than meager refuge, the sole private space available.

“Big Black Car,” however, has little to do with the teenage experience. Chilton sheds the strained highs and airy harmonies of the first two records in favor of a weary half-sung, half-spoken delivery in this Novocained narrative of anywhere-but-here, who-cares unease: “Nothing can hurt me / nothing can touch me,” he claims, but his tone and delivery betray his wounds, and perhaps the only reason he doesn’t hurt is that he can no longer feel much of anything. It is nearly impossible to imagine this voice as the same which sang “Won’t you let me walk you home from school? / Won’t you let me meet you at the pool?” a mere three years earlier. The acoustic guitar rings and shimmers, as it does on the first two Big Star albums, but given the sparseness of this arrangement, each reverbed strum hangs in the air a moment before Chilton’s voice breathes it away—before the tremoloed electric guitar slides in, or one of the slow drumbeats. Nothing about this song suggests speed, motion, transport:

Why should I care?
Driving’s a gas
It ain’t gonna last

Sunny day highway
If it rains it’s all the same
I can’t feel nothing
I can’t feel a thing

I’ve got a big black car

It’s tempting to see this song (“I’m going and I don’t know how far / So, so long”: an expression of distance, a careless goodbye) as a metaphor for Chilton’s career trajectory, but I prefer to imagine it as a plaintive hymn to the insular moment. Chilton’s drawn-out and over-enunciated sibilants and plosives seem touching, a failing attempt to recreate some of the energy or passion from the first two Big Star records, to prolong a passing time, to make himself understood.

IV

A year or two after my dream of owning a black car, I recorded (on an actual mix-tape) Black Tambourine’s “Black Car” for a girlfriend with whom I’d been living, and who was now on a summer internship in North Carolina. It was a time in my life of frequent changes-of-address, when I felt wistful over objects and events only six months old—never mind those a few years old, as this seven-inch single was then—so, as I transferred the song to cassette, it seemed a bit of ancient history I’d recovered. The foldover sleeve—a messily crayon-colored line drawing of a bob-haired girl stomping in a puddle, rainhat in one hand, umbrella in the other—furthered the record’s aura of nostalgia.

The songs are fuzzed-out, unpolished pastels-in-pop influenced by everything from doo-wop to ’60s garage rock to the late-’80s UK “C86” bands. “Black Car,” a bittersweet three-chord lament, conveys some aspect of what I was feeling those months, its prettiness nearly—but, crucially, not quite—obliterated by pink-noised guitars and abrasive warbles of feedback. Pam Berry’s vocals are untrained but sweet and melancholic (“a wavering, off-key batch of dodgy lyrics,” in her own words), and reverbed even more heavily than Alex Chilton’s. Archie Moore’s “all-on-one-string” bassline climbs beside Berry’s voice in the chorus and then subsides; a ticking ride cymbal floats above the din, but the drums (Moore: “just an overturned kick drum resting on cinder blocks, a snare, and an all-purpose cymbal”) sound as though they’re being pounded from within some deep cavern. The sonic palette differs from Big Star’s, but the mood is similar. The lyrics manage both to describe and embody the same teen awkwardness of the early Big Star records:

Your black car and your front seat
To touch your hair and feel your heat
Try to get the courage up to tell you that I think you’re neat

I watch you
But you don’t see me
I’ll touch you
But it’s in my dreams

Until Berry recently corrected me, I’d always heard the first verse as “Your black car and your front seat / Do you touch your hair and think of me? / I try to think of her name / Try to tell you that I think of you.” (While deciphering lyrics has never been among my skills, my mistranslation here is perhaps a testament to the density of Black Tambourine’s feedback. When I asked for help with the lyrics, Berry responded, “It was probably for the good of the public that the lyrics were buried under all that ace guitar noise, so…don’t have hopes for anything life-affirming once they’re on paper!”) My version, I think, suggests, rather than a crush, a complicated separation—which the distance between my girlfriend and me would, soon enough, become—though my mix-tape-as-missive intended to convey only some of the song’s yearning. The feedback that I heard as a welcome trespass on the song’s plaintive melody, elevating it from pretty guitar-pop into something darker, more somber, more vital—this was recorded in 1991, before guitar feedback was entirely clichéd—my girlfriend heard as screechy and annoying, and it rendered the song unlistenable for her.

V

Another version of the narrative we might trace:

The Rolling Stones: “Paint It Black,” Aftermath (1966):

I see a line of cars and they’re all painted black,
with flowers and my love both never to come back

Big Star: “Thirteen,” #1 Record (1972):

Won’t you tell your dad “Get off my back,”
tell him what we said ’bout “Paint It Black”?

Big Star: “Big Black Car,” Third/Sister Lovers (1975):

Driving in my big black car,
nothing can go wrong.
I’m going and I don’t know how far—
so, so long.

Black Tambourine: “Black Car,” “By Tomorrow” seven-inch (1991):

Your front seat of your black car,
I’ll take the wheel and drive us far

Alexander Theroux, “Black,” Conjunctions: 30 (1998):

In this sharp dichotomy along the lines of “us” versus “them,” black is—legendarily, has always been—precisely that wickedness. If white is known, safe, open and visible, black[,] unknown, hostile, closed and opaque, is the masked and unmediated alternative.…It has an unholiness all about it, does black.…Black suggests grief, loss, melancholy, and chic.…Mystery doesn’t so much surround the color black as it defines it.

Well before Mick Jagger sang about wanting to blot out the sun and paint everything black, rock music was the established province of the misunderstood outsider (or at least the insider who wanted to believe he or she was still an outsider), and both “Big Black Car” and “Black Car” are written from the perspectives of such outsiders—people whose feelings are somehow different (one who feels too little, one who feels too much), people whose tastes are different. But as the endlessly replicable digital file has become the primary format in which most of us listen to music, the computer or smartphone the primary means of playback, and vinyl increasingly an artifact rather than a consumable, it seems nearly impossible to differentiate oneself according to one’s tastes or feelings about music. The newest, most minor band on MySpace possesses at least hundreds of friends and well-wishers; the earned expertise of the pop-culture scholar has been replaced by the hypertext link; the most obscure information is accessible, every digital track accompanied by metadata, and, online, everyone is invited to contribute ratings, opinions, and lyrics (often as laughably incorrect as my rendition of “Black Car”). Black may be unknowable, mysterious, the “unmediated alternative,” but our music is now mediated and knowable in ways unimaginable even only a few years ago.

VI

“Driving’s a gas,” Chilton sings in “Big Black Car,” and this poor pun has, perhaps—despite the song’s near-concurrence with the 1973–1974 oil shock—never achieved the resonance it now possesses. In the past decade alone, American car preference has evolved from ever-bigger SUVs to the Toyota Prius; a Republican president with a century-long family history in the oil industry used the State of the Union address to warn that “America is addicted to oil”; the price of gasoline reached, in July 2008, four and a half dollars per gallon; that fall, crowds at political rallies chanted “Drill, baby, drill”; and now, in the spring of 2010, I must amend this paragraph to include the images from one of the worst—and ongoing—environmental disasters in our history: oil-drenched pelicans on the coast of Louisiana, dead sea turtles and dolphins, “tar balls” and gobs of rust-colored oil, plumes of oil drifting through the waters of the Gulf of Mexico from the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion. Oil seems at the center of everything: our shifting global climate, our country’s decade-long war, the frail world economy.

The black car is not meant to be flashy, is not meant to draw attention to itself except in comparison to other, brighter colors: the black car is not a muscle car, a hot rod, or any other phallus-by-proxy, but rather the color of the hearse, and similarly attuned to memory, loss, nostalgia, an unrecoverable past. (It is thus unsurprising that both “Big Black Car” and “Black Car” depend so heavily on the device of reverb.) Still, despite whatever iconographies we might assign to the color black—and the passage I’ve quoted from Theroux’s meditation more than implies the idea of racial otherness and appropriation that has been a profound tension in rock music since its beginnings—lately I can see in these songs and my memories of them only the blackness of oil: both the car and the vinyl record are products of the petrochemical age now passing from an extended era of decadence into its final agonies. (While the vinyl LP has survived and essentially outlasted the eight-track tape, the cassette, the CD, the Digital Audio Tape, the MiniDisc, and the MP3, among other competing audio formats, it will certainly become one insignificant casualty of a post-Peak Oil economy.) Not so long ago it was utterly natural for me to purchase music stamped into the molten discs of dead dinosaur bones and to pump more of the same into the tank of my car so that I could drive endless loops around the small city in which I grew up, mainly as an excuse to commune with the music I’d recorded from LPs onto cassettes for the car: such were the luxuries of my life, the limits of my teenage imagination, and the price and plenitude of oil, that I could happily waste the proceeds from my job on refined crude in several of its many guises. Nor did I have much sense that I was rehearsing the teen narratives that Chilton had sung about inheriting over a decade earlier.

I’m not certain how—or if—those narratives have been revised. With gasoline so expensive, and the LP, for most consumers, just another dinosaur to leave behind, what teen is going to drive in circles to listen to her iPod? What private spaces are left for teenagers now that they transcribe their melodramas on blogs, revise them hourly on Facebook, and upload them to YouTube? And do they daydream themselves into black cars? Does a black car still connote danger, otherness, any of the atmosphere I ascribe to it? (Consider that, in 1975, Chilton’s big black car would almost certainly have been an old car; a new car would have been compact, fuel-efficient, and painted safety orange.)

When, lonely for my girlfriend in North Carolina, I listened to the tape I was making for her (I’d record a few songs, then drive around town for an hour; record a few more the next night, and repeat—all mix-tapes are, after all, constantly evolving daydreams, made as much for the maker as for the intended recipient), it never occurred to me to accumulate those miles driving south down I-95 rather than retracing endlessly the concentric grooves of Park Ave and Salisbury Street, Chandler Street and Mill Street; gasoline cost, that summer, probably under a dollar a gallon, and few of us worried about the size of our carbon footprints, but I am a Massachusetts boy, and any drive over an hour or two still seems unbearably long. “Black Car” was perhaps a song better suited to accompany a teenager mooning over an unattainable crush than a circumstantially and temporarily single college graduate, but at that moment North Carolina seemed a long way from New England, and, in my nostalgic self-pity, I felt fourteen again. Quite often, I still do. It’s taken years for me to feel old enough to fathom any of the exhaustion Alex Chilton voices in “Big Black Car,” though I’m beginning to understand it better every day.


___
Joshua Harmon‘s book Le Spleen de Poughkeepsie was awarded the 2010 Akron Poetry Prize and is forthcoming next year. His two previous books are Scape (poems) and Quinnehtukqut (a novel). Other essays in his ongoing Annotated Mix-Tape series have been published in Agni, Florida Review, Gulf Coast, New England Review, and Quarterly West.

One Comment »

  • Thomas says:

    Dear Joshua Harmon,

    as a huge admirer of Third/Sister Lovers, I very much enjoyed your thoughts. You might be interested in the version of “Big Black Car” on “Keepin’ an Eye on the Sky” where Chilton sings “Maybe we fuck in a holiday inn” instead of “I sleep” and which ends with one of the most lyrical guitar solos imaginable. But probably you know this already…

    Thanks,
    Thomas

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