Big Star‘s “Thirteen” is just the sort of song tough-guy me typically recoils from hearing: fingerpicked acoustic guitars; lyrics about 13-year-old lovebirds walking home from school, holding hands; Rug harmonies. It’s so close to soundling like an Eagles song, or Poco. And what’s worse, Eagles or Poor Man’s Eagles? But I love it. It came on my iPod the other day and I realized it may be the most surprising song I love.
When I first came across my original radio station promo copy of Big Star’s #1 Record in a pile of records that Northwestern University’s radio station, WNUR, was throwing away, I often lifted the needle over that song. Although I was just 5 years removed from the song title’s age, I was too cool for school to like a song that sounded so much like the candy-ass tripe of mid-’70s AM soft-rock. This was the taunting soundtrack of my miserable early adolescence. The airwaves were ripe with self-satisfied love songs while my family was tearing apart, while I didn’t have a clue how to approach any of the budding pubescent girls around me, while I was the furthest thing from cool. The music of that era was nothing but false promises as far as I could tell.
Come freshman year in college, as I was becoming fully ensconced in ’60s and punk rock music, I wanted no business of the wistful teenage love songs of my unfulfilled early adolescence. I needed no further reminders that I had not yet walked home from anywhere holding hands with some sweetheart. Over the coming years, while my budding rock nerd friends agreed that “India Song” was the prime needle-lifter on that first Big Star album, I often held my tongue about my dread in hearing “Thirteen.” Plenty of my cool friends were big fans of that song, and I didn’t want to expose myself as uncool owing to the reasons I had for not liking it. It’s only been over the last 10 years that I’ve let that song play through when it comes on, and it’s only been over the last 5 years that I’ve ever intentionally placed the needle (or selected on my iPod) that song directly. I’m more at peace with my youth, and the song is great.
It makes me wonder, will I one day enjoy hearing a similar style Eagles song, or will I always be put off by what I perceive as a “smug,” insincere tone in the voices of Don Henley and Glenn Frey? Beside my own personal growth, does Big Star’s underdog status forgive them for sinking to such sappy depths? Is there something about how naked and direct the lyrics of “Thirteen” are compared with just about all other “walking home from school/holding hands in the rain” songs that make it special? You tell me.
Sappy? Far from it. The song IS about plaintive “walking home from school” and “meeting at the pool” because it evokes a simpler time in life before hormones and teenage angst complicate matters.
I’m pretty sure on the “Live” album Chilton mentions that the song was written when he was thirteen. That version of just him and single acoustic guitar is just as sweet as the original. It’s the simple honesty of this song which kept Big Star underdogs in the era of souped-up glitter glam as well as the snobbish Laurel Canyon gang.
With all due respect, for someone who didn’t have the luxury of that stage in life those kind of songs could be annoying, even sappy. More power to anyone who ever felt that way.
Let us agree on The India Song being 5 years to late to hold any kind of relevance to the times and easily the #1 needle lifter.
Yet, don’t you find Chris Bell’s “inspirational” songs My Life Is Right and Try Again more sappy that Thirteen? I would think those songs would be easy pickings.
Too funny! I love “The India Song.”
These kind of confessional, first person songs are tricky — for every good one (“Thirteen”) — there are probably 5x as many bad ones (insert Bread songs here).
I may be the only one that thinks like this, but the Old 97s “Nineteen” owes “Thirteen” a nod for subject matter and title. I like this song too.
To say nothing for “At Seventeen”. No, really, say nothing about At Seventeen!
I’m with you on that one funoka.
I love “Thirteen” and even the line about “Tell him what we said about Paint it Black”.
For what it’s worth: Here is another one about being young (12) that I love. Not as innocent but still one I love:
You Am I “Please don’t ask me to smile”
Something about the song seems to me down-to-earth, and understated in the detail of the lyrics, in a way that avoids sappiness, and it doesn’t have any of the sleaziness the marks a Poco or Eagles tune, plus the guitar playing is well-fitted to the understatement. I like the undercurrent of genuine desperation (not just romantic desperation) and the line “I won’t make you” has something vulnerable and fair about it rather than cheesy.
I’m trying out a new computer today; who knows, I may be able to return to the hall now and then, should it work out.