Welcome to the first in a new series we’re calling A Small, Good Thing, which is a reference to the Raymond Carver story and NOT Martha Stewart’s “Good Things.” Anything can be a small, good thing: a song, a sentence in a short story, a scene from a movie, a particular episode of a television show, a side dish at a restaurant—so long as it’s worth celebrating.
“Speed of Sound,” from former Big Star co-founder Chris Bell, is one of the saddest laments for lost love ever put to record, though it took years for anyone to hear it in that form. Those expansive, glacial guitar chords and seasick synths droning in the background sound like the gradual approach of some existential sadness, or at least the recognition of it. Every time that rattled-bones chorus comes around, it surprises me.
It’s also a jealous song, with a raw, subjugated meanness fading at the heart of it. And that’s how Bell was: sensitive and begrudging. He carried himself with an air of tragedy. He wrote “Speed of Sound” in either 1974 or 1975, not long after leaving Big Star, where he felt overshadowed by the more famous Alex Chilton. He was battling depression, a heroin addiction, and the growing sense that he wasn’t fit for the world, which he tried to reconcile with a strong belief in Christ. He was either 23 or 24 when he recorded the song, already a fading light outshone by other, brighter lights.
The song wouldn’t see the light of day until its inclusion as track 3 on 1992’s I Am the Cosmos, released fourteen years after Bell died in a car crash in his hometown of Memphis, Tenn. He was 27 then, making him a member of the infamous 27 Club. I Am the Cosmos was his only album, and to my ears, it’s one of the greatest posthumous records ever—really, one of the best records of the 70s, even if the 70s never had it.
Follow Phillip Pantuso on Twitter @phillippantuso.