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Big Star, “I’ll Never Be Sane”
From Whammy Bar (1976)

Another Chiltonesque enigma is the fate of Big Star’s fourth album—one oddly untouched by Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me. (I’ve not yet read A Man Called Destruction, so I can’t comment on its treatment of the subject.) Perhaps some things are simply too bound up in skeins of myth, drunkenness, pain, and foggy memory to untangle.

My introduction to the possible existence of the album came in a lively email discussion concerning the Replacements in the late 1990s. I was a mere spectator of that virtual roundtable, which centered around what my friend Greg Sager called “one of the pivotal moments of ’Mats lore; the band’s breaking into the Twin Cities offices of their former label (Twin/Tone), stealing the masters to all of their old albums, and subsequently dumping them into the Mississippi River. It’s an event shrouded in mystery and rich in the nose-thumbing ethos of the band.”

From one correspondent (posting under the moniker of “Tom Thrift”) came this equivocal yet tantalizing reply:

If I wanted to be held accountable for my facts, I’d be a journalist (okay, maybe that’s a bad example in 1998). The whole point of the Web for lazy asses like me is that stylishly expressed bullshit will always trump gray flannel facts—the eggs benedict of opinion will always be preferable to the shredded wheat of accountability. My theory is that the ’Mats dumped not their own master tapes into the swirling eddies of the Mississippi, but the long-lost masters to Big Star’s little-known, never-released, now-lost fourth album, Whammy Bar, which were given to them by the great man, Alex Chilton, himself in Memphis during the recording of Pleased To Meet Me. Cut by Chilton and a backing band made up of former Elvis sidemen (Jerry Scheff on bass, James Burton on guitar) in the fall of 1977, it was a concept album about the recently deceased King and was, from all who heard it, the crowning achievement of Chilton’s career—despite the country disco song, “Tupelo Bunny,” that Chilton insisted on including. The fate of the album hinged on that song: Chilton came to regret writing it, recording it, playing tambourine and clavinet on it, and denied knowledge of the tapes until he met a scruffy band of post-punkers in the early 1980s. When they were in Memphis, he played them the tapes and handed them over to Paul Westerberg, saying, “Dump these for me, boy. They ain’t never gonna be right.” The ’Mats debated whether or not to make a dub of the album, but finally their loyalty to Chilton triumphed; just before they reached home, the van swung over to the side of the road and the tapes went over the bridge.

The well-connected Sager (who “had the Paul Harveyesque ‘rest of the story’ explained to me one night over a round of Hamm’s by a former ’Mats roadie in the CC Club in Minneapolis”) responded to this post thusly:

I heard roughly the same story Tom did about the Replacements reluctantly disposing of the long-rumored fourth Big Star album Whammy Bar. However, Tom’s eggs benedict did not have enough Tabasco sauce on them. Truth is stranger than fiction … and what I am about to tell you is stranger than either one.

After Big Star’s third album (initially released in ’78 as Big Star 3rd but subsequently released as Sister Lovers) failed to land the band a record deal in late 1974, the band broke up. Actually, it wasn’t really much of a band at that point; there was the increasingly eccentric and cantankerous Alex Chilton and Chilton’s producer-guitarist-keyboardist-engineer-Sancho Panza Jim Dickinson. Even stalwart Big Star drummer Jody Stephens was replaced on some of the third album sessions by Ardent studio engineer/drummer Richard Rosebrough.

Chilton then disappeared for an extended period of time, leaving only the spotty 1975 EP The Singer Not The Song (recorded at Ardent in Memphis with the usual suspects, including his current bass player Tommy McClure) as evidence of his existence.

He next assumed a public profile in early 1977, when he moved to New York City and assembled a backing band that consisted of future dBs founder Chris Stamey on bass, Fran Kowalski on keyboards, and Lloyd Fonoroff on drums. They regaled Big Apple audiences with loose takes on songs like the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and the Seeds’ mid-1960s psychopunk classic “Can’t Seem To Make You Mine.”

He would break this band up by the summer of ’78 to return to Memphis and enter into his full-blown wacko-lounge-lizard phase, when covering KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes” and the saloon chestnut “Volare” seemed to be logical career moves in his mind.

The missing piece of the puzzle is 1976. What happened then was that Chilton, hearing about the rise of a new and exciting scene in New York City centering around the seedy Bowery nightclub CBGB, made his initial foray to Manhattan at that point. Bringing back Stamey and ousted Blondie co-founder Gary Valentine to Memphis with him, he reassembled Big Star for one last go at Ardent Studios. This group consisted of Chilton and Valentine on guitars and vocals, Stamey on bass and vocals, and Stephens on drums and his requisite cameo vocal appearance (a la “Way Out West” and “For You”). Dickinson sat behind the board and filled in on keyboards and brass (along with his fellow former Rolling Stones sideman Bobby Keyes). The resultant double album Whammy Bar was, contrary to Tom’s description, not a tribute to Elvis but rather a freewheeling masterpiece of offhand power pop gems recorded by a bunch of has-beens, not-yets, and never-weres.

Included alongside “Tupelo Bunny” (not, as Tom indicated, a song about the King but rather a snide riposte by Valentine to his former bandmate/ingenue vocalist Debbie Harry, whose mad crush on Van Morrison was an open secret in the mid-1970s New York punk scene) were such classics as Chilton’s “I’ll Never Be Sane,” “No Pets” (later reworked in the 1980s as “No Sex”), and the title track. An early version of Stamey’s and Peter Holsapple’s dBs single “Dynamite” also appeared on the album—with Bobby Keyes’s honky-tonk saxophone replacing the whirling organ of the dBs version.

Covers abounded, most of them recorded during warm-ups to the sessions. They included Big Star concert staples such as the Kinks’ “Come On Now,” T. Rex’s “Baby Strange,” Loudon Wainwright III’s “Motel Blues,” and, of course, The Box Tops’ “The Letter”—as well as “Can’t Seem To Make You Mine” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”

Like the third album, Whammy Bar had no takers in terms of labels willing to release it. The band disintegrated, Chilton went back into hibernation, and Stamey and Valentine returned to New York. But while Dickinson and Chilton managed to get the third album released on the independent PVC label in ’78, Whammy Bar faded into the ether.

Chilton accompanied the Replacements on the fateful day in the mid-1980s when they broke into Twin/Tone’s offices and stole the master tapes to their old recordings. In fact, it was his daring them to do it that led Replacements roadie/driver Carton to pull the van over on that fateful Minneapolis bridge. When they actually went through with the caper and dumped the masters into the Mississippi River, Chilton had to live up to his end of the dare. He reached into his travel bag, pulled out a reel of tape containing the long-lost Whammy Bar, and tossed it over the side into the swirling waters that had already sucked in Hootenanny, Let It Be, Sorry, Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash, Stink, and The Shit Hits The Fans.

Some time later, the surviving trio of Replacements—Paul Westerberg, Tommy Stinson, and Chris Mars—felt so guilty about their complicity in destroying what may very well have been the high-water mark (pun intended) of 1970s rock-n-roll that they went to Ardent Studios to see for themselves if any other copies of Whammy Bar remained. Whether Dickinson had (or has) his own copy remains a mystery, but the band did end up recording Pleased To Meet Me at Ardent (with Dickinson producing) while they were there—an album which includes their tribute to the only man alive apart from Brian Wilson with enough moxie (or bad craziness) to destroy his own masterpiece … Alex Chilton.

Sager later polished and published a version of this tale on the late, lamented Seattle-based music site PandoMag, but that, too, is now lost to the ever-flowing river of the digital past.

Clearly, as this post proves, copies of at least some of songs from Whammy Bar survived. As with all such “grey-market” material, the wheres and hows of how they came into my possession cannot be revealed.

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