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.