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History would come to recognize it as his creative masterwork, but for Chris Bell “I Am the Cosmos” was less about making pop music than reaching a personal apotheosis. In its three minutes and 46 seconds lies an anguished epic, a profound expression that distills hope and fear, love and longing to their essence.
Written in the months of uncertainty and depression that followed his departure from Big Star, the band he helped cofound, “Cosmos” was a love song delivered as existential conflict. Its quavering guitars and coruscating opening lines provide a window into Bell’s tortured soul: “Every night I tell myself ‘I am the cosmos, I am the wind’/But that don’t get you back again.” Despite its obvious power—and that of several other songs recorded during the 1974 recording session—Bell remained in a dark place.
Concerned about his state of mind and drug use, Bell’s brother David took him on a sojourn to Europe that fall. Over the coming months spent on the continent, Bell would continue to work on the song. In London, he hooked up with longtime Beatles’ engineer Geoff Emerick at AIR Studios, where the final touches and mix were completed. With “Cosmos” as his calling card, Bell would spend the next two years engaged in a frustrating chase to get a label deal in the U.S. and Europe. With those prospects dimming, he eventually abandoned his career, and took a job with his family’s fast food chain back home.
In 1978, amid the first stirrings of the Big Star cult, “Cosmos” was released as a 7″ single by fan and fellow musician Chris Stamey, on his tiny North Carolina-based Car label. The song (backed with the equally brilliant “You and Your Sister”) would be the only solo work released during Bell’s life. Just a few months after the record was pressed, Bell would die in a late-night single-car accident near his home in East Memphis. He was 27. Four decades later, however, Bell’s music—particularly “Cosmos”—lives on: massive in scope, achingly intimate in nature, a beautiful paradox that’s only become more pronounced over time.
Bob Mehr is the music critic at Memphis’ daily newspaper The Commercial Appeal. He’s also written liner notes for Rhino’s Big Star box set Keep An Eye on the Sky and the deluxe reissue of Chris Bell’s I Am the Cosmos.