“Thirteen” – Big Star

(Note: After reviewing, I felt the first post you saw was an incoherent and muddled piece of crap that didn’t really convey what I wanted to say about this lovely song. Here’s hoping this one does a better job!)

“Thirteen” (Chris Bell / Alex Chilton)
Big Star
#1 Record (Ardent Records, 1972)

I’ve never really been lucky in the realm of romantic relationships, with all the girls I liked (probably rightfully) rebuffing my feelings for them. It’s a pain, especially having to deal with my internal emotional fallout, but I suppose getting rejected and learning how your feelings work are part of the process of growing up. During my sophomore year of high school, I fell particularly hard for this one girl I had class with, and trying to clean up that mess was so damn awkward, especially whenever we saw each other in passing. That also happened to be the same time that, listening to Mellow Gold (not the Beck album, but a compilation from Q magazine of chill summertime songs), I discovered Big Star.

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Rock and roll messiahs indeed.

The short version of the Big Star story goes as such: Alex Chilton left the Box Tops (his gravelly performance on “The Letter” hit number 1 in 1967, which you probably heard in Battlefield: Vietnam or Minions), stayed in New York City for a couple of years before returning home to Memphis, and joined with a band started by his old friend Chris Bell, along with bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens. Bell and Chilton were enthralled by the Beatles after seeing them tour the States in 1964, and even modeled their songwriting partnership after Lennon & McCartney. And thus Big Star was born. At first glance, that name works as a great statement of ambitious intent, but they chose it because they were running out of time and they saw the supermarket across the street they frequented for snacks in between sessions.

(PS: Go to Netflix and watch the masterful documentary, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, to get their full story! Their story is actually very tragic and ironic, and does a great job expressing what made and makes critics and musicians so enthralled by them.)

Even with a name that’s borne more out of adolescent procrastination rather than ambition, Big Star really does act as a guiding light for musicians and critics, who will enthusiastically tell you about discovering Big Star like a religious conversion experience. For me, Big Star not only had a pretty fitting moment coming into my musical life, but also enjoyed the benefit of a very fitting song–”Thirteen.” Chilton cut this song when he was up in New York City, and it certainly bears the influences of the folk revival scene that he rolled with in Greenwich Village–simple chords, a humorous and documentarian lyrical narrative, and an honest, melancholy bittersweetness.

“Won’t you let me walk you home from school?”, croons Chilton in his best impression of a kid asking a girl out, at the age where his voice nearly reaches cracking point. The first verse’s entreaties may sound a bit hokey (“Won’t you let me meet you at the pool? / Maybe Friday I can get tickets for the dance and I’ll take you,”) but adolescence is a hokey and corny time of life, and these simple entreaties very accurately capture that feeling of pure desire.

The saccharine sentiments of the first verse (and even the title itself, which implies that this is all from the perspective of a thirteen-year old boy) belie the growth and development of our protagonist. Verse two finds our protagonist waxing poetic with his girl about the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” while her father keeps getting on his case. The Stones had a reputation as a band of bad boys, but that may not be the only thing that makes her dad angry. For a pop song about teenage romance (and from the 1970s), the last few lines of the second verse actually hint at another aspect of the adolescent experience–developing and discovering sexual feelings. “Come inside well it’s okay / And I’ll shake you.” Ooh-hoo.

So far, it sounds like our protagonist is living out what looks like a typical experience of an adolescent boy, growing up and finding love. When you listen to the album version on #1 Record, the song sounds even sweeter, having been rearranged as a guitar duet with harmonious vocal overdubs on the refrains. But on Q magazine’s Mellow Gold, the solo acoustic demo has a raw, dusty feel to it, as if it was recorded by a kid singing a serenade on tape for his special someone. Moreso, it also shows unfiltered the emotional changes in that bridge section, as it starts to waver, ascending and descending like a faltering paper airplane someone threw in class. Limerence, coined by psychologist Dorothy Tennov for that funny feeling of infatuation, is marked by the constant shifting from certainty to uncertainty about reciprocation; that roller-coaster going from ‘she loves me’ to ‘she loves me not’ finds a musical translation here.

I won’t spoil the last verse (so you can go and listen to the song if you haven’t already), but it sums up why I love this song. Our protagonist is at an impasse, and makes one last request of his girl. And that’s the end of the lyrics. Do our two lovebirds really love each other, or was it just another case of teenage limerence? The chords keep going, as if to go to another verse–the cyclical repetition of folk music is not only borne out of keeping things simple and memorable, but also to show that “there is nothing new under the sun” as life goes on. We don’t hear the answer, or hear the next part of the story, but it could just happen all over again. I still get sucker-punched easily by limerence, and every time, this song just takes me back to all those foolish times I ever fell for someone. It’s a testament to Chilton’s songwriting skills that he caught that teenage feeling so vividly and fully, the song never gets old.

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