Rhino Interview: Jody Stephens of Big Star
The tale of Big Star is one filled with critical acclaim and commercial indifference, but thanks to the three albums the band released during the '70s - 1972's #1 Record, 1974's Radio City, and 1978's Third / Sister Lovers - the band has gradually found a devoted fanbase over the years. Regrettably, the majority of its membership is no longer here to appreciate it: of the foursome who founded Big Star, guitarist Chris Bell died in a car crash in 1978, frontman Alex Chilton suffered a fatal heart attack in March 2010, and bassist Andy Hummel succumbed to cancer only a few months later, in July 2010. Thankfully, drummer Jody Stephens still walks the earth, happily flying the Big Star flag - and still playing a little music - while also serving as general manager at Ardent Studios, where the band recorded the aforementioned trio of albums.
Rhino: First of all, it’s good to talk to you again. You may not remember the first time we chatted – it was during the flurry of press you were doing when Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me was being released – but if nothing else, I was probably the only person to ask you about Van Duren that day.
Jody Stephens: You probably were! [Laughs.] And he’s come up several times recently, ‘cause we’re doing a tribute to John Fry and John Hampton. It’s April 22. The Gin Blossoms are gonna play, and Jon (Auer) and Ken (Stringfellow) are coming in, and we’re gonna do Big Star songs. And one of our other bands is kind of a… I don’t know, kind of a Black Crowes-y / metal band called Tora Tora that’s pretty cool is gonna play, too. It’s an interesting combination. Us and the Gin Blossoms make sense, but Tora Tora? [Laughs.] But when they were, like, 17 or 18 year old guys, they worked with the production company we developed with Ardent, so it actually does make sense, but…well, anyway, not to digress or anything!
No, you’re fine: there are certainly worse ways to start out than with a mention of John Fry! But let’s get started with the Big Star story. You actually entered the picture because you were a member of the band Icewater, correct?
Well, Icewater existed prior to my being introduced to Chris in Ardent. It was a project that Steve Ray and Chris Bell were working on, and…I guess I became a part of that because Steve had been playing drums and guitar and singing. There’s a song called “All I See Is You” on the box set (Keep an Eye on the Sky), and that’s what they were working on when I had my first introduction to them. And then we cut some demos subsequent to that – with Andy (Hummel) involved, of course – and then we all got on a plane and went to New York to shop the demos. That was probably around December of 1970, I think. December of ’70 or January of ’71.
You actually knew Andy before you met the rest of the guys in the band, right?
I did. In fact, I’d met Andy when I was in, like, the seventh or eighth grade. Probably the seventh. I’d been introduced to Andy via a friend of mine, Mike Fleming, who was a Midtown friend. Mike played guitar, and my brother Jimmy wound up playing in a band with Mike and Andy and…a guy named Scotty (Bringhurst) on drums. So there was that connection to Andy pretty early on.
And then a few years went by, and I hadn’t seen or talked to Andy, but he came to a performance of Hair – the musical – at Memphis State. It was the first college production of it, so it was probably in February of 1970. I was still in high school, but my brother and I had this band, and we all kind of auditioned to be in the band for Hair, and our lead singer – well, one of our lead singers – Don McNatt was auditioning for the part of Berger. So Andy came to see that performance and came up onstage afterwards and asked me if I wanted to come play some with friends. And I said, “Sure!”
So what was your own musical background? Did you grow up in a musical family, or did you just kind of discover music on your own and start playing?
Well, my dad had played a little guitar and piano and sang in the choir, but…not really. They had this little bridge club that they belonged to, and when they had people over, it would be the Reader’s Digest kind of compilation of background music that they would play. So I don’t think I got any inspiration from that. [Laughs.] It was primarily the Beatles. When the Beatles hit, that’s what kind of got me inspired and engaged.
As far as Big Star’s actual origin, what I’ve always read is that Chris invited Alex to see a performance by Icewater, and the rest is history, as they say.
Well, the performance…was actually the trio of me, Chris, and Andy, but I think we were being called Tommy Tutweiler and the Twisters for that one gig. [Laughs.] It’s a name that John Dando came up with, inspired by Derek and the Dominoes. You know, that alliterative kind of name. But, yeah, Chris had wanted Alex to join, and he invited Alex to that gig. Interestingly enough, I don’t really remember meeting Alex at that gig. But I’m sure we all sat and talked.
One thing I’ve always been curious about is whether or not you or any of the other guys ever had a moment with Alex where you were, like, “Oh, my God, it’s the guy from the Box Tops”?
Not really. Because, you know, I thought the Box Tops’ hits were incredible songs, and I thought Alex had a pretty incredible voice, but…I wasn’t a follower of the band. I mean, I knew they’d had hits, of course. “The Letter” was huge! And then there was “Neon Rainbow” and “Cry Like a Baby” and all of those. But I never made the connection with the individual members, you know? Not like with the Beatles, where I pored over everything, learning who they were and looking at whatever pictures I could see and reading whatever interviews I could find. So, yeah, I had a lot of respect for the Box Tops, but I wasn’t a follower, so I never had that kind of moment with Alex.
Do you recall the process of putting together the songs for the first Big Star album? Was it an easy chemistry between everyone?
Yes! Well, from my perspective, it was. You know, Alex and Chris were the primary writers. Andy would certainly join in and make some great contributions, like “The India Song,” from the first record. I’m not quite sure what he chimed in on with the other songs. They’d bring the songs in kind of complete. I wasn’t really a part of the process of the songs being written. But it was just a very easy chemistry for me in working those songs up, with the four of us kind of coming together. It was kind of Chris’s production vision, how the guitars played against each other. That’s what kind of knocked me out. There was a little building next to Ardent when it was over on National, and that’s where we would practice. I can remember working on “Ballad of El Goodo,” and it just completely floored me. You know, the songs were so great that it was pretty easy to be inspired to create whatever part was needed for them.
I know that both Chris and Alex were both big Beatles fans. When Big Star were recording that first album, were there ever any points where anyone said, “Hang on, this might be a little too much Beatles and not enough Big Star”?
I don’t remember that being the case. [Laughs.] I mean, I can always hear the Beatles in Big Star’s music, for sure. The melodies were certainly the primary point. But I don’t know that we could’ve ever gotten too Beatle-y, just because of who we were.
When you went into Ardent for the #1 Record sessions, had you ever recorded there before?
Not really. Not other than the demos and things that Alex, Chris, Andy, Steve Ray, and I were doing. [Hesitates.] Well, there was the Rock City record. I played on that. It’s apparently something that apparently Chris got involved in as an engineering project. It was kind of billed as preparing for the Big Star record. Tom Eubanks was a big part of that record and part of the writing. So I guess I’d done that prior to Big Star. I just wish I had a better memory! [Laughs.]
You’re fine. I guess my big question, really, was just how well you took to working in a studio setting, since it sounds like you were predominantly used to working in a live setting at that point.
Yeah, I mean, I’d done a little studio work. Jimmy and I had recorded at Sonic, which is where Roland Janes was engineering, and at some point I had heard that he had the board from Sun. Well, it wasn’t really Sun Studios, it was Memphis Recording Service. But Roland back in the day was engineering stuff, and I think it was, like, $10.00 an hour, so we went in a couple of times. But nothing like Ardent. Nothing with the kind of gear that was available to us at Ardent or the technical things we could do there. That, and the clock wasn’t running. We could go in after hours, after the Staple Singers were done mixing or whatever, and do some work.
Well, that answers the question about who else was there at the same time as Big Star. Were there any other artists who were around that you can recall?
Well, I’m not sure about Led Zeppelin mixing (Led Zeppelin III). They mixed somewhere around that time, but I think Terry was pretty secretive about them coming in. But I think it was just Jimmy Page coming in, anyway. Otherwise, though, I’m not really sure. But there was a lot going on.
#1 Record got a ton of positive press, but it failed to take off commercially. Did you go in with certain expectations, or was it all in good fun?
Well, in my case, it was, “Let’s have fun, I’m really grateful to be here.” [Laughs.] And I’m still incredibly grateful for the results. You know, we’d go in the studio, and…all that stuff just comes out of nowhere! People write songs, and I guess through experience or whatever it is – definitely some sort of creative talent – the songs just come out of thin air, and whatever you’ve done in terms of practicing on your instrument and preparing yourself with whatever music you’ve listened to, it just kind of comes out when you’re recording. But whatever it is, it would just all work. I remember laying down a track and going back into the control room, and John would play it back and…it just sparkled! I don’t know, he always made me sound better than I thought I played!
When the album wasn’t a commercial success, Chris was not happy – to say the least – and Alex apparently wasn’t exactly thrilled, either, but there aren’t really any reports of you expressing any frustration over the situation.
Well, for my part, it would’ve been nice to make a career out of playing music, but was I put out by it? No. I had kind of achieved the goal that I wanted: I was really proud of the music that we created together and really happy with it. So it wasn’t that big of a deal. Being in a commercially successful band was really sort of a pie-in-the-sky thing, anyway. Your chances of doing that are pretty slim.
And I guess a lot of Chris’s frustration happened away from me, because Andy and I were both going to school, and we all had girlfriends, so we were spending time with them. And then Chris left the band, and I kind of understood that it was that Chris just wanted to get out from under the shadow of Alex, because Alex was the focal point of all of the reviews. Which made sense: Alex had had tremendous success with the Box Tops. It’s one of those things that was kind of natural for a writer to do: “If you don’t know who Big Star is, you’ll know who Alex Chilton is.” It was that kind of thing. So I think Chris left because of not wanting to live under Alex’s shadow in that regard. I never quite caught any frustration with lack of sales and that whole distribution thing.
And I’m not sure what was going through Alex’s mind, because Alex… We never talked about it. After #1 Record, we just kind of drifted apart. And then John King started putting this rock writers convention together and asked us to play, and we came back together for that, because rock writers were our only audience. That was the first Big Star audience that we ever played to.
Rock writers and record store clerks.
[Laughs.] Yeah! It was amazing, because everybody know the lyrics, the songs, and the melodies. So it was an incredibly good time, and because of that, Alex and Andy and I came back together and did Radio City.
Did you feel like there was any chance of Chris coming back at that point, or did you feel like he was gone for good because of his issues with Alex?
Oh, I figured Chris was gone for good. And while I certainly missed Chris, because Chris was a good friend and an amazingly talented, gifted guy, I also knew that Alex was pretty brilliant and that we could move forward and be okay. We’d have a little different direction, but we’d be okay. And it proved to be true, you know? Andy also made contributions there with songwriting. So as it turned out, we were indeed okay. Radio City turned out to be… Well, I think it’s a great record.
You’ve actually got a songwriting credit on Radio City, as a co-writer of “Daisy Glaze.”
Yeah, I’ve gotta tell ya, I’m not sure what that was about. [Laughs.] But to some extent, if you sit in on the original recording of a song, you help shape that song, I’ve always thought. You know, R.E.M. and U2, I think it’s a brilliant idea to include the band on writing and publishing and that sort of thing. It certainly helps keep a band together!
Prior to reforming for that rock writers convention, were you pretty well convinced that Big Star was done?
I’m not sure I had any kind of definitive thoughts about it. But if I had, it probably would’ve been that I figured that the band was done. Alex had another band with Danny Green and Richard Rosebrough, who actually played on three of the tracks on Radio City: “What’s Going Ahn,” “She’s a Mover,” and “Mod Lang.” So, yeah, I kind of figured it was done. And then after the rock writers thing, John King had a conversation with Alex, and talked to me about the idea of kind of moving forward with it. But then Andy, I think even before Radio City was released, quit. He was just anxious to get on with his life and figure out how to make a living.
It’s hard to really pick a definitive Big Star album, because so many people have a tendency to say, “Well, they’re all good!”
Yeah, for me, the way people perceive Big Star is shaped by all three records. At least, that’s the way I see it. They all add a different emotional element and, consequently, a bit more depth to how people perceive the band. So for me it’s hard to figure out a definitive moment, because they were all so… Well, they were pretty distinctive records.
It’s kind of one big story, basically.
Yeah. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end…at least until In Space. [Laughs.] That’s another story. But that was a fun one.
What was it like working with Jim Dickinson on Third / Sister Lovers?
Jim was great. I had a lot of respect for Jim and respect for his opinion about things, so it was cool to go back in the control room and look at him and say, “What’d you think about that?” And as long as Jim was cool with it, I was cool with it. I figured he’d know better than I. So it was great to have Jim to look to for that, and certainly for Jim to carry on with the record with John Fry and mix it, because I’m sure Jim guided how that record was mixed to an extent. John’s a brilliant mix engineer, but we kind of figured out over the years… More stuff was recorded than wound up in the mixes, you know, and John was good at kind of culling unnecessary things out.
That’s not to say that Chris Bell wouldn’t have been sitting next to him, helping guide and shape how the mixes were done for #1 Record, or Alex for Radio City. But if you listen to Third… [Hesitates.] Oh, man, what’s the song? I remember Alex walking out in the studio on this song, and he sang, “Meet! / Meet! / Meet!”And I just thought, “Wow, where’s that going?” [Laughs.] “I’ve never heard anybody sing that sort of background vocal!” But the way John placed it in the mix, it became a musical element of the song. “Dream Lover,” I think it is. [Mr. Stephens is correct: it is indeed “Dream Lover,” and you can hear the bit in question at around the 2:58 mark in the song. – Ed.] But there were other kinds of things that would happen, like distorted guitars and stuff. Like Jim Dickinson said in the documentary, John treated all bits as musical elements of a song, kind of with equal importance.
I read at some point that Alex said that you guys didn’t see Third / Sister Lovers as you were making it, and I’ve also read in interviews where you’ve said that you kind of see it as an Alex Chilton solo record. Do you still feel that way now?
I don’t know, to tell you the truth. I’m still out on it! [Laughs.] If you look at the evolution of Big Star, Chris leaves, Andy leaves, and we were still Big Star after Chris left, but you could make an argument that we weren’t Big Star for Radio City, and you can make an argument that we weren’t Big Star for the Third record, but…I don’t know. There was still that spirit, and the foundation was built and set, and how people perceive the Third record is certainly through a lens that is colored by #1 Record and Radio City. So it’s interesting. I just don’t know. It’s certainly… I mean, I’ve always thought this about solo records: if it’s a guy and a guitar, it’s a solo record, and if it’s a guy and other musicians, I don’t know how you call that a solo record, because everybody colors that music. So I don’t know. You can make of that what you will.
Well, for what it’s worth, you did have a solo composition on the album: “For You.”
Yeah, Andy had given me a guitar and Alex had taught me some chords, so…that’s how I wrote “For You”! [Laughs.] Alex was always inviting about, you know, “Hey, write some songs!” But Andy and Alex and Chris were all such great writers, it was a bit intimidating. I wasn’t sure about writing a song that would stand next to theirs!
Once the band finally did dissolve, did you ever contemplate trying to put together a solo album?
No, never a solo album. Van Duren and I got together and did some writing. We wrote “Andy, Please.” He wrote most of it. I think I wrote the bridge or something. And we did a few other songs. Maybe five or six songs in there. Actually, Andrew Oldham came into town and produced, like, four of them. It was a neat experience, doing those. That was a trip. I still see Andrew from time to time. Life’s a bit different now for both of us. Especially Andrew. [Laughs.] And then I did some writing with a guy named Gary McGill, and then I went to England in ’78 and spent two and a half months in London. I’d been communicating with Chris about putting something together, and that kind of fell apart. But Chris and I had a band together for awhile, with Van Duren. It was Chris, Van Duren, a guy named Mike Brignardello, and me. We were called the Baker Street Irregulars. And then at some point we became Walk n Wall.
Did you guys ever record anything as that unit?
I…don’t think so. And to revisit what you asked a minute ago, I never really thought about doing a solo thing, but I’ve been doing some writing with Luther Russell, who lives out in L.A. He was in a band called the Freewheelers when I first met him in ’91 or 92. Gary Gersh introduced us. The Freewheelers were signed to Geffen at the time. But at any rate, when they did the Big Star documentary, they wanted me to sing some songs, so I got Luther involved in that, and then Luther encouraged me to start writing songs. So we’ve wound up writing 11 or 12 songs together, and we’ve got a single coming out on Burger Records, actually, for Record Store Day. It’s just a 7”, but we’ve also got a couple of gigs for SXSW. We’re called Those Pretty Wrongs. [Laughs.] You know, because Luther kept calling it a solo thing, and I kept saying, “Luther, you’re 50% of this. How can I call it a solo thing?” So I borrowed a line from some Shakespeare sonnet (#41) for a song – Those Pretty Wrongs – and made the most of it.
One more quick question about Chris Bell that I meant to ask a moment ago: you’re on I Am the Cosmos, correct?
No, I’m not. That’s Richard Rosebrough. [Hesitates.] Oh, wait, you mean the album? Yes, I’m on the album. Sorry about that. But I’m not on the song “I Am the Cosmos.” I apparently play on three or four songs, according to Richard, who’s the primary player on there. But I know I played on “Get Away.” The one with the slap back snare on it. There’s two versions, but mine’s the one with the slap back on the snare. It’s really busy. But apparently I played on two or three other songs, too. [Laughs.]
Do you remember anything else about those sessions that stands out? Was Chris pretty confident about the material? Because I don’t mind saying that I think it’s a pretty great album.
Yeah, I do, too. I think it’s pretty amazing. But, hey, it was always a good time in the studio with Chris. I just always felt this bond with Chris, with his songs and performances. So it was easy. I always felt lucky to be there, because the songs were so good.
I’ve seen this credit, but it didn’t occur to me to ask Greg Dulli about it when I talked to him, so I’ll ask you: are you really singing backup on the Afghan Whigs’ Gentlemen album?
I am. Somewhere. [Laughs.] Which is pretty damned cool, because I’m a big Afghan Whigs fan. Greg floors me. I saw them at the Bowery Ballroom in New York, and there was a guy from Memphis playing drums with them, Paul Buchignani. But they all came out, and Greg was…not only the singer, but also the emcee. And they would play a song, and then they’d break down to just a beat, and Greg would talk, and then another song would rise up from that, and then go back down to just the beat. Poor Paul. I think Paul played the whole two hours! But the first time I saw Greg was at Club with No Name, out in L.A., with the Afghan Whigs. Steve Earle was on drums, and they just completely ripped my head off. They were amazing! A friend of mine introduced me to them, and that’s kind of how they wound up coming to Ardent to record. Greg and I just hit it off. It’s easy when you’re such a fan of the band.
You know, it’s funny how things tie in. Having recorded Afghan Whigs at Ardent is how Jack White came to mix the Raconteurs’ Broken Boy Soldiers and the White Stripes’ Get Behind Me Satan. I think it was Patrick Keeler who was at John Curley’s studio in Cleveland – John was the bass player for the Afghan Whigs – and Patrick was saying, “Hey, I think we’re gonna have to go to New York, because we can’t find what we need anywhere else,” and John said, “Check out Ardent!” And Jack had done some work in Memphis before with the White Stripes at Doug Easley’s studio, but then he looked at the credits here – because we have certain engineers here and we have their credits online – and one of them was John Hampton, who engineered the Vaughan Brothers record that Nile Rodgers produced (Family Style). But what really caught Jack’s eye, I think, was the Cramps’ record that Alex Chilton produced. And John engineered that! Well, I guess the Cramps didn’t have a bass player, either, so I guess Jack just thought it was a cool thing. He didn’t ask for an engineer’s reel, he just had his management call and book the time, and then Jack came in, and Hampton mixed the Raconteurs’ record, which was on eight-track, one-inch tape. And then Jack said, “Hey, if you’re not doing anything in a month, I’ll bring back the White Stripes’ record!” That was a good time, I have to say.
You also spent some time as the drummer for Golden Smog.
I know you’re on the Weird Tales album, because you actually had the opportunity to co-write a song with Gary Louris of the Jayhawks and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, which is not bad as musical company goes.
Yes, I know! I was pretty lucky. I mean, again, they’re a pretty generous band. That band was like a Boy Scout troop getting together. You know, there were certain serious elements about it, in terms of the quality of the music and the performance, but it was everybody’s side project, so there was certainly a lighter sort of feel to our being a band.
I got a call from Maggie McPherson, the band’s manager – that was probably November of ’96 – who asked me if I’d like to join. She said, “It’s Gary Louris and Jeff Tweedy and Marc Pearlman and Danny Murphy and Kraig Johnson.” And I said, “Sure!” I mean, it took about one second. [Laughs.] Just long enough for her to finish the names of the band members. I said, “Sounds like a good idea!” So I wound up flying up to Chicago, and I sat in on a couple of songs with them. Noah (Levy) was leaving to join some other band, or something like that, so I joined in.
They all came down to Ardent, and we tracked probably that January or February of ’97. They all kept saying, “Write a song! Write a song! Write a song!” And I didn’t. But then everybody came back down again maybe a year later, in January ’98, and when we were watching the Olympics, and I wrote “Fear of Falling” – just the lyrics – and gave it to Gary, and then Gary and Jeff finished the music. And I think Gary wrote some additional lyrics, too. So, yeah, I got lucky. I got my name in there with Gary Louris and Jeff Tweedy.
You could do a lot worse for co-writers...
Oh, yeah. And it turned out to be a really cool song, too!
We’re in the home stretch, I know, but I just wanted to say that a lot of people – including myself – appreciate that you continue to fly the Big Star flag.
Yeah, you know, I can’t imagine a better flag to fly. That, and the one for Ardent, and carrying on John Fry’s legacy. It’s just a joyful kind of thing to do.
Is there anything left to the Big Star story that’s not yet told? I presume that anything that can be released has been released at this point.
Yeah, that’d be a question for Adam Hill. He’s kind of the official Big Star archivist. He knows what’s there and what’s not. I have a feeling that if there is anything else, it probably wasn’t intended to be released. But I don’t know that for sure.
I know you agreed that it’s hard to really separate out a definitive Big Star album from the three classic albums, but is there a definitive Big Star song to your mind, or at least one that you think of as a gateway drug into the band’s catalog?
If I had to pick one song, it would be “Ballad of El Goodo.” It’s got the guitar performances, the vocals, the background vocals, the lyrics… Yeah, if I had to pick one, that’d be it.
• CLIP: http://youtu.be/cnf-DpngF2c
Excellent. Well, I appreciate you taking the time to chat. I came late to Big Star – I’m one of those guys who only discovered the band when Jon and Ken from the Posies teamed up with you and Alex in 1993 – and learned the back story of the band, but it’s a story I’m glad to have learned.
Yeah, that’s an amazing kind of chapter for it all, too, with Jon and Ken. I was lucky to be introduced to them…and, again, by Gary Gersh! [Laughs.] Without them, we wouldn’t have continued on. I don’t know who else could’ve joined in with those kind of vocals and their performances, plus the fact that they were sort of in charge of their own schedule, so we could book Big Star dates around Posies dates.
It strikes me as ironic that, in looking at the credits, In Space is the one Big Star album that appears to have been written by the band…by which I mean, that, barring the pair of covers, it appears to have been a group effort.
It is! We were kind of charged with writing and tracking a song a day, even if it was just basic tracks. So if Jon brought in a riff, we would kind of sit down and play through that and develop it into a song. Or Ken would. I actually brought in a couple of songs…and one, interestingly, came while I was walking my dog! [Laughs.] I went out one night, I was walking my dog, and I got an idea, so I came back to the house and got lyrics and melody lines for…three-quarters of the song, anyway. I brought in the next morning, and Jon and I finished it. We cut it that day.
What song was that?
That was… I’m not sure, but it was either “Best Chance” or “February’s Quiet.” But that night I came home, I was walking my dog again, and I had another idea – melody lines and lyrics and stuff – and Jon Auer and I finished that one the next day, too. I mean, Alex and Ken made contributions, too, but I was the one that approached everybody and said, “You know, I think we all should at least share 10% of the song.” So, you know, if Jon and I were the primary writers, we’d get 40% each, and then Ken would get 10% and Alex would get 10%. And the same with the other songs, like Ken’s “Turn My Back on the Sun.” That one was pretty much Ken, but we all got our 10%. That was brilliant, too. That was a 12th-hour sort of song.
There were moments where we’d get in the control room and not have anything to do that morning, and things would somehow materialize. I mean, one morning, Adam Hill said, “Why don’t you re-cut ‘Mine Exclusively’?” Well, I have the single pinned to my wall, the one that we did with the Teenage Fanclub guys, so we played it, and then we re-cut it that day. And I was thinking, “Oh, man, it’s not gonna hit that rough charm,” but it turned out incredibly well, I think. And then “Love Revolution,” man, if you listen with headphones, there’s Jon Auer’s little noodly guitar things, and Alex’s guitar lines are completely trashy. [Laughs.] But his vocal delivery… He’s such a free spirit when he delivers a vocal that it’s just fun. It works.
I wasn’t there, but I heard this story from either Nokie (Taylor) or Jim Spake, who were there. Jim was on sax, and Nokie was on trumpet, and they ran through the song, apparently, and then they ran through it again. And at the end of that take, I think Jim said, “You know, I think we probably have this. Let’s go ahead and cut it.” And Alex said, “Nope. That one was great.” And that’s why… I mean, there are brilliant moments that don’t have to be a technically perfect performance, and he caught them when they were just kind of in mid-creation, finding their way. There’s a lot of fascinating elements to that. Alex was good at capturing people as they were finding their way.
Just to wrap up, last year I talked to Stephen Fredette, whose band opened for Alex some years ago. I don’t know if you remember Scruffy the Cat or not.
Yeah! They recorded here at Ardent!
Actually, I’d forgotten that! Well, in talking about touring with Alex… These are my words, not his, but it sounded very much like Alex was eccentric but pleasant enough, if on his own terms. Is that at least a semi-fair description?
Alex was kind of predictably unpredictable, I’ll say that. There were surprise moments, and there were completely generous, compassionate moments. I don’t know. He certainly had a dynamic personality. [Laughs.] But I always had a great admiration for him, because he could pretty much do anything he wanted to do if he put his mind to it. One of the things that stands out to me when it comes to Alex as a performer is when we did the reunion gig in Columbia. We did “Duke of Earl,” because he was just, like, “Hey, let’s do ‘Duke of Earl’!” It wasn’t like it was anything we’d rehearsed…but Alex just seemed to nail every note! And it was, like, “Damn!” His repertoire and his ability to sing and to interpret songs…. It was pretty amazing.