Welcome to Under the Covers, your weekly dose of genre-bending with your favorite WBRU artists & songs! This week, we dip into nostalgia and romance with Girlpool’s cover of the Big Star cult classic, “Thirteen.”
Thirteen: an age in the gap between childhood and adolescence, a time of anxieties and urgency and first loves and first heartbreaks and first favorite albums. Building the memories you’ll be nostalgic about, years later. Big Star’s “Thirteen” is a song about navigating this fraught time. It’s about kids in love — with each other, and with rock & roll.
As is mentioned in every review of Big Star’s music, they (tragically, ironically) never became big stars. The Memphis band, formed in 1971, released three nervy and groundbreaking power-pop albums that won them critical acclaim but never widespread popularity. Since their breakup in 1975, they’ve gained a cult following, inspiring bands from R.E.M. to the Replacements and contributing to the rise of the power-pop and alt-rock genres.
Big Star was always influenced by the Beatles, and “Thirteen” was inspired by singer Alex Chilton’s experience of seeing the Beatles in concert when he was thirteen years old. As he wrote in the song’s lyrics, that show made him realize that “rock and roll is here to stay.” That teenage excitement, love, and poignancy, translated to the story of a young romance, pulses through the song. Chilton’s quavering voice, the delicate shimmering beauty of the guitar, and the simple lyrics all feel exactly like being a teenager and being overcome by a whole new intensity of emotion. The uncertainty and self-consciousness are palpable: every verse starts with questions, tentative and unsure of the answer.
“Won’t you let me walk you home from school?/Won’t you let me meet you at the pool?”
The spare instrumentals and quiet, close vocals lean in to your ear, vulnerable and intimate. There’s nowhere to hide from the feeling. Like any teenage love, this one is grandiose and forbidden and cinematic — a Romeo and Juliet story. “Won’t you be an outlaw for my love?” Chilton asks, as if a thirteen-year-old crush is criminal, because sometimes it really feels that way. The fragile bittersweet beauty of this song makes it one of Big Star’s most famous, and it’s been covered by artists from Garbage to Wilco to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. But today, we’re looking at a recent cover by the LA duo Girlpool.
When Chilton sang over forty years ago that rock & roll is here to stay, he was right. The sound might have changed, the genre might no longer be on the top of the charts, but Girlpool’s talent and jams prove that rock lives on. Friends Harmony Tividad and Cleo Tucker harmonize with powerful voices, creating a huge sound that still feels intimate and almost eerie. They made their first few albums with no drummer, centering the harmonies over guitar and nothing else. This made for a unique sound and visceral emotional intensity; they’re the perfect band to cover a song like “Thirteen.”
In Girlpool’s hands, “Thirteen” has the same pull of teenage emotion and innocence, but it’s a little bigger and solider than Big Star’s delicate original. Tividad and Tucker’s voices sound like an empty parking lot, like sitting at the top of a tree looking out on the world. Sung as a duet, the song takes on more ambiguity in meaning: the lyrics could almost be taken as two best friends in middle school, doing everything together and finding themselves amid the confusion of adolescence. Friendship at that age is close to a romance — all-consuming and charged with feeling.
But “Thirteen” will always be a love song at its core. What strikes me is its timelessness: in 1972, Big Star released the original, and in 2017, Girlpool recorded the cover. Over the stretch of decades, the lyrics and feeling are still relatable, real, fresh. Except for the one reference to The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black,” the song could have been written last year. Being thirteen years old doesn’t really change. Whatever the gender of the singer, whatever the genre or the year, it doesn’t matter — this song will always preserve that exquisitely beautiful, painful, quietly desperate feeling of being young and being in love.