We all know how dreamily handsome Jody Stephens, the once and future drummer for Big Star, has always been (damn, check out Jody in his to-die-for patchwork leather jacket on the back cover of “Radio City”; with that feathered hair and jawline, the dude made Keith Partridge look like Ernest Borgnine). But he also stands as one of nicest guys and thoughtful interview subjects I’ve ever had the pleasure of talking to: Gracious, engaging, warm, self-deprecating, patient, and wryly funny. I caught up with Stephens late last century when his other cool band, Golden Smog (led by members of Wilco, the Jayhawks, Soul Asylum, and Run Westy Run), were headed to Boston for a show. I figured it was the perfect opportunity/excuse to grab Jody for a chat about what it felt like to drum for the greatest group that never was. He could not have been more congenial. I also turned a good portion of our interview into a nifty Q&A for Rolling Stone.com, which I’ll also be putting up this weekend as part of “RPM”‘s Independence Day weekend-long tribute to Big Star. Oh, and just how nice was Jody? A couple of weeks after our interview, a small package arrived from Ardent Studio, in what looked like the original stationary from the 1970s. I opened it. Inside was an original radio station promo of Big Star’s scarce single, “Watch The Sunrise,” its white outer sleeve inscribed to me and autographed by Jody. I told you he was dreamy!
The last time Jody Stephens played Boston, his band, Big Star, had all of their equipment stolen before the show. Everything, that is, except for Stephens’ drums, which were safe and sound inside the band’s trailer. It was 1974 and the group — comprised of singer-guitarist Alex Chilton, bassist Andy Hummel, and Stephens (co-founder Chris Bell had by then quit the group) — were touring in support of its second album, *Radio City,* opening up for Badfinger at the Berklee Performance Center. Stephens remembers that a band fronted by a fledgling local rocker named Billy Squier loaned Big Star their equipment that night.
Here it is nearly 25 years later and Stephens is coming back to Boston, having recently signed on as drummer for Golden Smog, a roots-rock supergroup side project of sorts featuring members of the Jayhawks (Gary Louris, Marc Perlman), Wilco (Jeff Tweedy), Soul Asylum (Dan Murphy), and Run Westy Run (Kraig Johnson). Stephens’ new band, who’ve just launched a club tour in support of its new album, *Weird Tales* (Ryko), comes to the Paradise Dec. 8 (coincidentally, Alex Chilton performs the same night over at Avalon, opening up for the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion). “I’m bringing the same drum kit I used back then for that Big Star show to Boston,” says Stephens by phone from his lair at Ardent Studios in Memphis, which he co-manages with partner John Fry (the man who produced and engineered each of Big Star’s three studio albums).
Time has been kind to Big Star, a band whose albums stiffed commercially at the time, but who are now considered to be one of the most influential, beloved American rock & roll outfits *ever.* The title of a forthcoming tribute project Stephens has in the works, *Big Star, Small World,* reflects the scope of the group’s reach and the indelible impression it left on the pop music landscape. “I hear (Big Star’s) albums with the same ears and heart that I heard them with in the ‘70’s,” says the 46-year-old Stephens. In addition to what he says were Bell and Chilton’s gifts for melody, “the lyrics, more than anything, I think, are lyrics of struggle. They reflect the struggle that was going on in the writers’ lives during that period, but you know, everybody’s struggling with something. So even though the particular platform for struggle can be a little different as you get older, it’s still about struggle.”
An itch to get back to basics — namely, playing in a rock & roll band — and an invitation to join Golden Smog led Stephens to dust off his drums. “I had a great sense of desire to feel like belonging again,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong — I’m married and I have a great relationship with my wife. But I love playing drums and being a part of something. Walking into the room for the first time, I immediately felt that sense of togetherness between them, and I felt like I belonged. And watching them play, and the way they interacted with each other, I just sat there with my mouth open at how talented these folks were.”
Chances are the guys in Golden Smog had the same reaction when they first heard their drummer’s first band. The Jayhawks once named a song “Big Star,” and at an acoustic performance at the Middle East Upstairs earlier this year, Tweedy covered the Bell/Chilton-penned classic “Thirteen” from Big Star’s equally classic debut, *#1 Record*. Ardent’s familiar hallways have kept the group’s short-lived, though resonant, history close at hand. “When I started here in 1987, the Replacements were doing *Pleased To Meet Me* with Jim Dickinson (the Memphis legend who produced and played on Big Star’s posthumously released final album, *Sister Lovers*), and it was really interesting because I didn’t know about all the bands that known about us. The Replacements had a song called ‘Alex Chilton’ on that record, but it really wasn’t until years and years later that I actually talked with Paul Westerberg.”
The cult following that had sprouted up around Big Star came as a surprise to Stephens, given the group’s commercial failure during the early ‘70’s, an era dominated by the rock of Led Zeppelin rather than the pop of the Beatles. “We didn’t have much of an audience when those first records were released — I think our first record sold 4,000 copies,” he recalls. “It wasn’t maybe what commercial radio wanted to hear. And the second record (*Radio City*) was very edgy for its time. Alex’s lyrics on that record were very dark.”
Still, Stephens says he’s never been bitter about the fact that Big Star never sold as many albums as, say, Emerson, Lake and Palmer. “It’s been really gratifying,” he says. “We haven’t made any money, but I’ve sure had a lot of fun and met some really nice people because of (Big Star). I never had any aspirations of getting a record deal. I was 19 years old and the goal back then was to get a gig. So when the opportunity came around to make a record, it was really exciting. A record was something I could hold in my hand that was going to be around forever.”
“Somebody once told me that I should wake up every day and smile that I was a part of Big Star,” Stephens says finally. “And I do. And now, I get to add Golden Smog to that.”