Music Features

I Am The Cosmos: Chris Bell and The Secrets That (Mostly) Don’t Exist

Nineteen years ago, when Weston first pitched this article to me, I was blown away. His original draft was a phenomenal piece of writing, which made my inexplicable failure to publish it all the more embarrassing. I never quite forgot how I'd dropped the ball and contemplated rectifying my mistake several times over the years, but as I'd lost both his article and contact details, it all seemed a bit hopeless.

Earlier this year, however, when I was off work with a herniated disc, I went through an intense Chris Bell phase, devouring Rich Tupica's excellent There Was A Light book and listening to I Am The Cosmos on an endless loop. Fuelled by an intense cocktail of guilt and regret, I finally managed to track down Weston who miraculously still had a copy of his article. He showed great generosity and understanding in not only allowing me to finally publish his wonderful feature, but in also revising his original text. I am delighted to make some amends for my youthful error by sharing his article today. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. - David Coleman, Founder of No Ripcord

. . .

When you're a teenager, you're looking for The Secrets. There's the bullshit adults tell you about world, but then there's some more elemental, almost Platonic world—truer, realer—underneath the dingy clothes of the day to day. Growing up, I'd sneak from my bedroom, sure my parents were aliens who, after we kids fell asleep, would unzip their human skin and sit glowing on the couch. I know that's a common kid experience, but the 1980s and 90s felt uniquely tinged with this sort of thing. Perhaps it was the foregone result of living in a country in which presidential administrations since the 1960s had, more often than not, been rooted in deception, from Kennedy and LBJ lying to get into Vietnam to Nixon paying folks to spy on the democrats to Reagan running guns and drugs through Nicaragua. Or perhaps it was inevitable that the children of Boomers—folks who'd lived through the cultural-fabric-fray that was the 1960s-70s—would automatically be steeped from birth in this Trust No One slurry.

Plus the 1990s—my teenage years—was the first time Musical Re-evaluation hit the mainstream. Sure, in the past there'd been sort of underground-ish threads folks could pursue (Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, for instance, or Alan Lomax before him), but the 1990s were the first time a whole default/template notion rose to the surface and allowed folks to find really powerful, compelling evidence that the most popular stuff wasn't the best stuff, at all, and that there was a whole overlooked history that was being stupidly ignored. This isn't to say that music's some Perfect Market, where the best stuff's always recognized, but the 1990s sure seem the start of a time in which huge numbers of folks could split away from contemporary culture and plausibly say that the overlooked stuff had just as much (if not more) merit. A friend texts that this shift likely had to do with alternative music and its attendant snobbery; I think he's likely right. But regardless: find for me anyone who truly believes the Pixies weren't just as good as whatever was playing on the radio in 1988. As of 1991, there seemed to be a recognition that what happened far from the mainstream was as, if not more, important than whatever happened in the bright lights.

The first door that opened for me came from Paul Westerberg, who, in some interview, mentioned liking Nick Drake. At the time, there was a sort of crummy, simple box set of his music available, and I got it and loved it. I didn't understand why he wasn't more well-known or popular, but I thrilled at having my first sort of Secret Musician: such folks were coins of the realm for my group of friends, anyway. The second big door opening I remember came from one of the music clubs, BMG or Columbia House. Here's a great read on those old, strange institutions, so responsible for expanding the listening tastes and opportunities for kids like my friends and I: suburban white kids in St Paul who, more than likely, weren't going to have a chance to buy or hear the new Belly or Mighty Joe Buffalo or whoever else. It would've been fall of '93 or early '94, and in some month's catalog was a write-up of the Big Star reunion disc Columbia: Live at Missouri University. I wasn't even must listening to the Replacements then; we were ensorcled by the Westerberg solo albums, and we hadn't dug backward enough to know that Big Star's singer was Alex Chilton.

But what happened to me because of that album wasn't, actually, just an intense devotion to Big Star or the Replacements, both of whom I'd get to later. No, what happened to me—the entire reason, ultimately, that album hit so hard—was track 4, I Am the Cosmos. Even the first time through, it was obviously the best track on the record by a wide margin, aching and plaintive and perfect. I must've listened to that thing a thousand times on my old Sanyo boombox. Again, this was the early 1990s. I wasn't online; I'm sure I asked around if anyone else knew the song, but who would have known? My equally socially-awkward 16 year old friends, doing their own best to find new music? My parents? I imagine I asked my guitar teacher, who'd opened my eyes to Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles; he probably shrugged and excused himself for a Benson and Hedges.

I don't remember how I learned, eventually, that it was a Chris Bell track; obviously the CD booklet would've had it, but I'm not sure how I teased out the connecting threads. But what I did know, basically immediately, was that I Am The Cosmos was the perfect song, and a sort of exact soundtrack of my heart's head, or my head's heart. You know the song, even if you haven't heard it, ever. Listen, can't you hear it? A crystalline D chord shimmering at the start, and the singer (in the case of the Columbia album, it was Jon Auer of the Posies) begins Every night I tell myself / I am the cosmos / I am the wind. The chords have started toward minor keys, and they're softening, shrinking down—the music feels like the lyrics do, a sort of bold declaration that the speaker knows isn't true, can't be backed up, etc. And then there's this just brutal three-note step, G to F# to E, that sounds like the universe itself being thrown down a staircase, and of course that quick sequence breaks your heart, or softens you up enough to hear the dagger Bell offers to finish that first stanza: but that don't get you back again.

The hardest trick regarding writing about youth is that maybe its greatest beauty is its certainty. You feel and experience so much for the first time and feel certain you're feeling these things differently, more intensely, more truly than any else ever has. I imagine you've got examples. Here's one: in 1991 I played my dad the opening track from Blood Sugar Sex Magik, The Power of Equality. Iwas in 8th grade and told my dad—who'd been 18 in 1969—that the song was the best song about inequality in America ever. I believe I even explained how there were still all sorts of unequal things going on, things he didn't even know about. If you're lucky, you get through your youth without pissing everyone off, and you pick up some perspective and are allowed to see that, in fact, the magic of that time is how universal it is, not how individual.

This is to say that I don't know if I cried the first time I heard Jon Auer singing those lyrics, but I felt like nobody in the history of time had ever felt anything as powerfully as I felt those lyrics. No one, in my 15 year old mind, had ever felt the profundity of Chris Bell's perfect song the way I felt it, and no one had ever, ever so perfectly captured the hopeless split, the jagged loneliness, the impossible longing of being young and wanting as Chris Bell did in Cosmos.

That's the whole song, by the way: it's a tower of wanting.

Just when I was starting to feel okay
You’re on the phone
I never want to be alone

Never want to be alone
Hate to have to take you home
Want you too much to say no, no
yeah yeah yeah
yeah yeah yeah

My feelings always have been something
I couldn’t hide
I can’t confide
Don’t know what’s going on inside

So every night I tell myself I am the cosmos
I am the wind
But that don’t get you back again.

We can sort these out pretty quickly from a pure lit analysis: some poor guy's had his heart blasted apart and can't get over his beloved, nor get the beloved back, nor even escape the beloved (you're on the phone). I'll here submit that despite earning an MFA in poetry and publishing stories and poems for the last 20 years, maybe the best lesson in concision I've ever gotten started with this song. I'm 43 now, married, father to three daughters, stable; I don't lead a jagged life of wild swings anymore. But the tempestuousness of these lyrics devastated me—their almost ruthless exposure, the absolute lack of bullshit. For a long time in my youth, I couldn't think of any lyrics more sad than the first two stanzas here: that no matter how great we think ourselves, we can't make anyone return our love, and that, no matter how much we're building ourselves back up and basically functioning, a phone call can crumble us.

(It's worth noting that the music itself, the actual chord progression of the song, is as genius as anything anyone's ever written in the history of pop; it's a Perfect Song, musically and lyrically. Why's it so great? Start with the fact that Bell continues to come back to that shimmering D chord that serves as the song's beacon and opening. The musical echo, the fact that we keep returning that D, feels like a tormented but what about—at the darkest moments of the song, when the speaker's admitting he doesn't know what's going on inside, he returns to that early, hopeful, insane, foolish, pathetic, desperate claim: I am the cosmos. The oscillation between minor and major chords in this song should have led to dozens of theses by now, either doctoral or tacked to church doors a la Martin Luther).

I lived that duality, of course; you probably did, too, when you were younger. And so the magic offered by the song was one of identification: Finally, I thought, here's someone who gets it. Sure, there were songs I'd resonated with, or felt to varying degrees; I'd been listening to pop music since I was a kid, and who knows, maybe as a ten year-old I felt Jon Bon Jovi's hold on to never say goodbye profoundly because one of my best friends moved away. Maybe, sure. But the truth was, the music I felt most in my teens felt intellectually and emotionally distant: I came of age chanting With the lights out / it's less dangerous, but I hadn't a fucking clue what that meant (nor what it meant to me, in 7th grade). Did I like to tell myself I deeply, completely understood Westerberg when he sang On your mark / here I am / I'm your spark / runaway wind? Sure. Any truth to it? Not really.

But Chris Bell? Fucking hell. I'd never heard anyone sing both sides of how I actually felt, inside my own ugly skin and ferocious trap of a brain. By the time I finally got around to listening to Bell's actual version of the song (which had only come out in 1991! other than a tiny pressing of the 45 from Car Records [which of course once I grew up I tracked down a copy of]), I knew from the Columbia disc that the end of the song refrains 6 times with Really want to see you again, before, on the 7th and penultimate time, breaking into never want to see you again and rising immediately back to really want to see you again.

It was that split that did me in: the proximity of the come close and get the fuck away. In some Aimee Bender story a character wears a shirt that reads Go away on the front and Come back on the back. I know I'm supposed to be Mature now, and have some stability, but I don't think life has ever gotten much more complex than that shirt and the final lines of Bell's Cosmos."

I Am The Cosmos was not just the formative album of my youth, it was a shibboleth. Before my senior year of high school I was talking to some much cooler college kids; when we started in on music and I mentioned Chris Bell, I was granted the sort of respect a mob boss gets in movies—an immediate and broad deference. It meant something to not just default to talking about the Pixies or Jane's Addiction or even Hüsker Dü; there was some value, some Secret uncovered, by digging Chris Bell and not just Big Star or Alex Chilton.

But of course it wasn't ever much about knowing some cool secret or anything like that, really. Chris Bell, like any great artist, just makes you feel less alone. Or, I don't know: makes the aloneness feel bearable. I've spent the last week listening to I Am the Cosmos and it remains a masterpiece, as searching and haunted as ever. What other album's most rambunctious, fun rock track has a chorus in which the speaker keeps saying he Got Kinda Lost? Is there a song with as many nakedly vulnerable lines as Though I Know She Lies? (Choose between Lie awake in the bed trying to cope with my feelings, or I fall every time / though I know she lies / I can't stay away) Is there even a way in contemporary music to be as unironically direct and earnest as Chris Bell is when he sings, in the chorus of You and Your Sister, All I want to do / is to spend some time with you / so I can hold you?

And maybe that's what I discovered that very first time, and what I come back for now: Chris Bell's raw, searching innocence. As we all discover in adulthood, The Secrets mostly don't exist. Sure, maybe some bands have slipped culture's notice, but when you get to about 40, you recognize that clinging to a story in which there's some Out There To Be Discovered Secret is a form of childish delusion. The Rothschilds aren't in control, the government didn't plan 9/11, and most great music has been found and acknowledged by someone. I couldn't have understood—or, honestly, believed—all that at age 15 or 16. It seemed incomprehensible that anyone could hear I Am The Cosmos and not recognize it as the greatest pop song ever made; I needed there to be some occult reason that Car Records, in pressing their 300 records, didn't splash Chris Bell the way I thought he should have been splashed. Surely it was an indictment of the world, and broader culture, that such majesty had been overlooked and ignored.

But of course age softens us, and I can't believe that anymore. I think Chris Bell was probably what all accounts of him claim—a guy who had a hard time making his way—and his music tracked how it felt to live through that feeling of too much. Too exposed, full of emotion, direct. It's nothing to house a bag of Doritos as a kid, or guzzle multiple cans of Mountain Dew, or whatever the indulgence of choice was for you; as we age, most of us have to learn balance and moderation, and as a result lots of us end up equating the too muchness of youth with seeming silly, or immature, and yet it's not. That bristling innocence, a completely earnest worldview in which just hearing someone's breathing on the other end of a telephone is enough to right one's emotional ship? That's not weak or immature: it's just more plain, more direct. I'm not sure what you need, but after days of meetings and emails and the usual Adult Negotiations, I need all the reminding I can get of that more innocent and true realm.