When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week Wilco takes on Big Star’s “Thirteen.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!
Whether we like it or not, there’s no stopping the process of growing old. At least not yet. And even if some bright Stanford researcher does one day discern a way to defeat aging and death, it’s difficult for me to imagine a world in which science will be able to restore the far less physiological condition of our adolescence. But that’s what “Thirteen” does so well. Without being cute, the song wastes no time placing us back into our barely teenaged minds, when walking a love interest home from school was like winning the Heisman or, for the more nerdy of us, a Fulbright Scholarship. And on the way, we’ll affirm that we’ve got tickets to the dance taken care of, too; not via PayPal, of course, but by stopping by the student activities table in the lunchroom. These were the days when the slightest hint of mutual admiration birthed a thousand sleepless nights.
“Thirteen” does more than transport us to the halcyon days of our own youth. It also reminds us of Big Star’s early days, when a young Alex Chilton, inspired by a 1964 concert by the Beatles in his hometown of Memphis, won over Chris Bell, Andy Hummell and Jody Stephens the first time he performed the song for what would soon become his band. (Bell, Hummel and Stephens were known as Icewater before the addition of Chilton.) Soon after, “Thirteen” would find a home on the group’s debut, #1 Record, which continues to rest comfortably on “greatest rock albums ever” lists despite being refreshed nearly every year. Moreover, the group’s influence as a whole, on everyone from R.E.M. to Elliott Smith, is indisputable.
Wilco would probably be proud to fall into that camp, too. In fact, I’ll admit that I’d heard far more Wilco before I heard Big Star for the first time, leading me to compare Chilton’s older-than-his-years voice at 21 to Tweedy’s as soon as the vocal melody begins in “Thirteen.” I didn’t have my band chronologies messed up so as much as I was simply stunned how much Chilton recalled Tweedy, or, I suppose, it’s vice versa. Either way, Wilco clearly has an affinity for Big Star, and the band does its adoration justice by re-creating the tune so fabulously in its own way.
Here’s to staying young no matter our age.