So I saw Counting Crows this past weekend, as I recounted on my Amazon blog. And I’m hearing a certain line in my head, one from “Mr. Jones”:
We all wanna be big, big stars, but we’ve all got different reasons forI’ve been moved over the years, following my favorite band, to hear their various permutations of this very popular song. It was their first hit, an anthem of youthful aspirations. The desire to leave your mark, to be Bob Dylan, to be at the very top of your particular game; all of these emotions were embodied in their jangling first hit. Yet the song, for all its charming and naïve aspirations, is still infused with a certain wistfulness, as represented by the above line. I guess we could call it wistfulness in advance. Seeing the horizon, the fame to come, and knowing that no matter the drive, the motivations might not be pure… or at the very least, totally different for every person who hears the song and wants to be something bigger. It was a track they cut on their debut album before the first flush of fame had touched them, yet you can already hear the argument and regret.
In 1997 when I saw the Crows at Chastain Park in Atlanta, and was fortunate enough to be in the front row, they rendered another version of this anthem. It started with a slow, haunting version of “So you wanna be a rock ‘n roll star….” by the Byrds. The song gained a whole new context: They’d broken out, become famous and achieved their dreams. But the whole journey had a bitter, broken edge now that they stood gazing down from the other side of the wall.
On very rare occasions, you can dissect pop lyrics as if they were poetry, tracing the provenance of a line, seeing the multi-tiered meanings within an overall rock context. Yes, it sounds ridiculous, but let’s play for a moment here.
BIG STAR. One of the biggest bands you’ve never heard of, influencer of countless others, from the Crows to the Replacements to REM to the Bangles. It could be said of Big Star, as has been said of the Velvet Underground, that not many people bought their albums, but everybody who did started a band. Doubt that the Crows were truly referencing Big Star with this song? Try this: They covered “The Ballad of El Goodo” in concert numerous times, a song that appeared on Big Star’s #1 Record—an epic title, promising so much future that failed to materialize. As with the Crows, there’s a tone of looking backward on defeat—yet infused with almost heroic optimism. Bravery in the face of “unbelievable odds,” as the song says.
A few years later, another favorite band of mine, the Jayhawks, came out with the song “Big Star,” a portrait of an artist confronting the fact that he may never achieve the dreams that motivated him in his youth. He waxes philosophical about his propensity for “perfecting the finest art of wasting hours,” and longs for the accoutrements of success: “fine bourbon, Cuban cigars.”
With a title like “Big Star,” we can only assume they are alluding to the sadly under-received geniuses embodied by the band Big Star—especially given their overwhelming musical debt to the group. But this is also their story, that of a group who has toiled and toured, and has every reason for success based on the accessibility of their sound—yet has never known more than a modicum of fame.
So now we have two separate bands, each influenced by a little-known sleeper of a muse, what you might call the Great Inspiration, and each showing a different side of the seductive-yet-tawdry price of fame.
For what purpose do we pursue our dreams? To be known by the masses or because the need to create is so compelling, so driving, that we can’t help but chase the dream?
Would I respond to these themes if I’d been someone for whom everything had gone perfectly in life? I doubt it. But then I wouldn’t know as much as I do now, or appreciate as much as I do in the beauty of the things I encounter—like these. It’s the twin pairing of longing and regret, the yin and yang of what might be and isn’t, that compels me as a writer.