Every now and then, you hear a song that stops you in your tracks. At home, in the car, at the grocery store. Everything stops and nothing else matters except the song and where it’s going to take you. The first time I heard Bonnie Raitt’s “Angel from Montgomery,” for instance, I distinctly remember holding my breath for fear of missing a note, spellbound as lyric, melody and story wrapped itself around the heartache of an old woman.
How the hell can a person
Go to work in the morning
Come home in the evening
And have nothing to say
It’s an awesome experience made more powerful by the fact that you’ll never have it again — you only get one chance to hear a song for the first time. There’s a beautiful moment there, and just when you begin to suspect it won’t last, it’s over.
So it was when I ran across Chris Bell’s “I Am the Cosmos” in the Big Star documentary “Nothing Can Hurt Me.” Bell is best known as the founder of the critically beloved but commercially underachieving Memphis band, and his mercurial nature contributed to Big Star’s brief but brilliant existence. A deeply religious but also deeply troubled man, he wandered for years in pursuit of a solo career, with nothing to show for it. Well, almost nothing.
“Cosmos” is a perfectly imperfect record — uneven mixing and the shaky, anguished opening vocal leave some doubt as to whether Bell will make it to the second verse. But he does, and the ensuing guitar solo is a triumphant reminder of what made Big Star Big Star. Bell’s inner conflicts play out with the alternating verses “I really/never want to see you again,” but the jangling guitar and Beatles-esque “Yeah, yeah, yeah” refrain bring it all back to Big Star’s power pop roots. I probably moped for a week after I watched that documentary. It was like a teenage crush. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Bell would die in a car accident soon after “Cosmos” was released, while former bandmate Alex Chilton would go on to explore vastly different musical directions (as he should have), bringing one of rock ‘n’ roll’s brief, beautiful, perfectly imperfect moments to an end.
Every night I tell myself I am the cosmos
I am the wind
But that don’t get you back again