Big Star - Isolated In The Light - Donna Ranieri and Fabrice Couillerot

by Sean Hewson Rating: Release Date:

Isolated In The Light by Donna Ranieri and Fabrice Couillerot comes in a numbered run of 1000. It is a photographic record (with some commentary) of one of the greatest bands of all time.

A lot of the images and stories printed here will be familiar to people who have seen the Nothing Can Hurt Me film or read Rob Jovanovic's book. But, seeing them all together like this, they have the feeling of a family album - albeit one that shows the good and the bad times. Ken Stringfellow totally nails it in his comments at the end of the book where he describes it as 'heartbreaking' (all the members of the band apart from Jody Stephens are now dead). He also says that it's easy to read too much into some of the photos - something that some of the commentators are guilty of - but also impossible not to, especially when you see the pain in some of the Chris Bell photos towards the end of the book where it feels like we are intruding on him in his own private hell. Stringfellow also says that 'nothing about the images you see here has much to do with 'rock' photography.' And, whilst it's true that Big Star don't look like The Velvet Underground in a Nat Finkelstein photo (they look a little preppy and a little like stoners), the beauty and heartbreak of this book is seeing them change from the fresh-faced enthusiasm of the #1 Record photos to the slightly more deranged look of the TGI Friday photos to the last few photos of Alex Chilton and Chris Bell looking lost and alone in New York and Europe respectively.

Along with the pain there is also a lot of love in these photos and stories. The book shows a very nurturing scene in Memphis - the same characters wander in and out of the photos, the commentary and the credits. It also shows the young band all working together, the solid musicians (Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens) behind the scarily talented Bell and Chilton - writing, arranging, engineering and recording classic songs at 21 and 22. The band breaks up but the bonds are still strong and you get the story of Alex Chilton telling Chris Stamey about Chris Bell's I Am The Cosmos, leading to it getting a release. You also have the love of David Bell for his troubled brother, you really feel his desperation in taking Chris Bell to Europe to get him away from his demons. He is literally trying to save his life.

Beyond the big themes of life and love, Isolated By The Light has many other interesting moments: The juxtaposition between the Southern mansions and servants that appear in some photos and the rough-looking apartments and bars that the same people also frequent; the juxtaposition between Alex Chilton, who looks like he has flown in from the mid-80s US punk scene, and Hummel and Stephens, both feathered of cut and large of collar. There are also the random photos that are exceptional or interesting like David Bell's incredible photo of his brother alone and devastated in front of the Alps with nature bearing down on him. Or the wonderfully camp shot of Alex Chilton, apparently dressed like a tennis player, having his face fondled by a smiling gentleman wearing cut-off denim shorts. More troublingly, there is a page of Chris Bell's hand-written lyrics many of which appear on the I Am The Cosmos album, possibly one of the most devastating and devastated set of lyrics ever written.

Most of what is shown here has been seen before. These are also pictures of a fairly unexceptional-looking band. However, this book does tell a story. It's the story of a band and their friends and how they came together and fell apart, but how the bond still remained. It encapsulates what made this band, that only existed for a few years, massively important. The technical skills can be seen but also the depths of hurt and emotion. At the end of the book Chris Bell's lyrics to I Am The Cosmos are printed. The first lines ('Every night I tell myself, "I am the cosmos, I am the wind." But that don’t get you back again.') remind me of Alex Chilton's opening lines to O Dana ('I'd rather shoot a woman than a man, I worry whether this is my last life. And girl, if you're listening, I'm sorry, I can't help it. O Dana.'). The way both lyrics jump straight from the metaphysical into classic pop. That sums up Big Star for me - pop songs with real depths of emotion.

 

Overall Rating (1)

5 out of 5 stars