may be just a footnote in the big star myth, famously namechecked (and begged for…) in the hit-that-never-be “Kizza Me” (“Kizza Me/ Lesa, Why Not?), Lesa Aldridge (or Lisa Aldredge as she’s often spelled) was the main inspiration behind Third.
The nephew of one of the greatest american lensman, William Eggleston, who portraied the sheer, breathtaking beauty of her youth in a famous shot titled “They needed to Talk” and published in a previous post (you can read its complete story here). Lesa (Elizabeth) Aldridge was a senior in high school when she began to date Alex Chilton. That stormy, often violent relationship provided the main body of the songs that made Third one of the best record ever.
Their first encounter is mYthologized in “Kanga Roo”, their erratic nightlife in memphis is narrated in “Nightime”, the purity and uniqueness of their romance is sung in “Dream Lover”. But Lesa wasn’t only an unlikely teenage muse, she collaborated in many ways during the recordings. As Rob Jovanovic wrote in his Big Star: The Story of Rock’s Forgotten Band: “Lesa Aldridge added the High- School-French backing vocals which Dickinson was adamant should stay on the album. ‘Lesa was a big, big part of the record,’ he said. ‘Alex reached a point in his creative process where he started to go back and erase her -there was a lot more of Lesa on the album than there is now but I stopped him. I said you can erase this, you can erase that, but this stuff is staying’. (…)”. She co-wrote “Downs” and Sung main vocals in the Kinks cover “‘Till The End of the Day”. Her vocal take was eventually erased and replaced with Alex’s.
But Lesa’s version ended up in a rare EP titled Barbarian Women in Rock published around 1980, along with an other Velvet Underground cover, “That’s The Story of My Life” (Lesa was credited to have introduced Alex to the VU, transforming him in a Memphis Lou Reed) and a Beatles one, a rough, ramshackle “Twist & Shout”.
After she split with Alex she played (and still does…) in the Klitz, an all female punk rock band from Memphis (check here and here), married another musician from memphis, the late Tommy Hoehn and she teaches English in a college.
The transiction from the lush, dissonant but melodic, almost avant-guarde sound of third to the low-fi, almost whimsical punkabilly of Like flies on Sherbert perhaps can be explained with the absence of Lesa. one of the most moving part of the big star documentary Nothing can Hurt me is when photographer stephanie chernikowski talks about meeting Alex in the late-’70s and asking him why he didn’t write songs like Big Star anymore, and how Alex just said “I can’t,” and then Chris Stamey says how that was because of losing Lesa. That’s how much important Lesa was. Not just a footnote…
Four years are already passed since the untimely death of the great alex chilton (1950-2010). teenage idol with the box tops, power popper turned freaked songwriter with big star. by 1975 the latter band split for good, a disenchanted alex tried various daily jobs (dishwater in a restaurant, cab driver)
until he left memphis for new york city in early 1977. in the last days of big star he bonded with cris stamey and peter holsapple (later founders of dB’s) who travelled to memphis to meet their heroes alex chilton and chris bell just to find that big star was ready to implode. He teamed up with stamey and with richard Lloyd (television) as part-time guitarist and under the name Alex Chilton and the cossacks played several times at CBGB’s. Ork records (the same label who has issued “little Johnny Jewel”, the first Television single) released a great Ep: The Singer not the song, containing the Jagger-Richards penned title-track, “Summertime Blues” by Eddie Cochran and three great, rocking originals.
After seeing the Cramps at the forementioned venue, he cut a inspirational, almost perfect single “Bangkok”, backed by a cover of the Seeds classic “I can’T seem to make you mine”, as narrated to the late epic soundtracks in this wonderful interview.
In late 1977 with Jim Dickinson at the controls cut the ragged, lo-fi classic Like Flies on Sherbert, an exercise in fucked-up tempos, microphone pops, out of tune guitars, frenzied vocals and… beautiful tunes, as someone stated, the stubborn deconstruction of the big star myth. It was released by the tiny Peabody records in 1979 and then by aura records in 1980 with a little different tracklist.
But just before entering the phillips and ardent studio to record Like Flies on Sherbert, alex recorded a bunch of demos for elektra. They are most sedated, polished versions of several songs that would appear on the Flies on Sherbert lp, the missing links between big star and following patchy chilton’s solo career. you can find it here.
Big star’s third is a ragged, deranged masterpiece that everyone of you should love and know note for note. it’s still debatable whether it is the last big star output or the first alex chilton lp. Even its exact title is uncertain: beale st? third? sister lovers? the fact is that the sessions were erratic at their best and jody stephen’s effort in the recordings is minimal at last. producer jim dickinson (rolling stones, bob Dylan, Flamin’ groovies, mudhoney, ry cooder among others) was a master in creating a chaotic but creative atmosphere even when working on a layered, multitracked song. alex chilton, disenchanted for the commercial flop of both Number 1 Record and Radio City, stressed by the implosion of stax recors (distributor for ardent records, the label that signed big star back in 1971), fueled by alcohol and drugs, entangled in a stormy relationship with the enigmatic, very young memphis scenester lesa aldredge, delivered a bunch of masterful songs of love and despair, laced in feedback noise as well as in lush orchestrations. The sessions burdened by chilton’s temperemental ups and downs were stopped by ardent mogul john fry. a tentative master version was mixed by larry nix on 13th february 1974.
All the efforts to market it failed: mayors execs literally refused to touch it, until pvc in 1978 and then aura records acquired the tapes. too late to save the big star as a band… during the 80’s indie darlings supergroup This mortal coil covered “holocaust” and “Kang roo”, the latter covered in the 90’s by the late jeff buckley. Since then Third has exited the cult status and has reached that of undebatable masterpiece it deserves. it has been reprinted several times, the ryko disc cd encompasses almost all the songs recorded in 1974. A couple of years ago, omnivore records released for the record store day a test pressing edition on transparent vinyl in a lavish box with a precisely annotated booklet (don’t try: it’s sold out…).
Alex Chilton, Steve Cropper (who played guitar on the cover of Velvet’s “Femme Fatale” on the record), Jim dickinson, chris bell, andy hummel are all long gone. But the fragile, aching beauty of third is still intact. And the world still need it.
So a vast and ever changing group of musician decided to tour the big star masterpiece around the world. It has included among them: michael stipe and mike mills (r.e.m.), jeff tweedy (wilco), chris stamey and peter holsapple (db’s), ken stringfellow (posies, r.e.m. and big star touring bands), mitch easter (let’s active), robyn hitchcock, sharon van etten and the great jody stephens himself. Here some highlights.