A Man Called Destruction: The Life And Music Of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops To Big Star To Backdoor Man
During the 1990s, I went to hear Alex Chilton at every conceivable opportunity. This was the late-model Chilton: a no-frills trio, Chilton on guitar and vocals, a bassist, and a drummer. His unassuming, low-key demeanor was an enigma, not quite jibing with a wildly oscillating career and famously turbulent past.
Chilton, onstage, was ever the precise blur. It was hard to gauge his sentiments as he reached into his musical grab-bag and launched into “April in Paris,” or “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” from Bye Bye Birdie. Was this tongue-in-cheek irony or sincere appreciation? It was, most likely, both.
Audience members, from time to time, would call out questions, which he graciously attempted to answer. At one particular venue, he seemed entirely unfazed as a clueless box office employee mistook him for a wandering fan about to crash the musicians-only area. After the end of another concert, Chilton hung by the door as the audience filed out, offering greetings or the stray autograph. The vibe felt akin to the conclusion of an author appearance or a particularly meaningful lecture.
A Man Called Destruction, Holly George-Warren’s biography of Alex Chilton, is a welcome attempt to gather the strands of a very messy life and legacy. Chilton was raised in the musical hothouse of Memphis; his artistic, unconventional—and heavy-drinking—parents hosted the cream of the city’s bohemia. The teenaged Chilton shot to sudden fame as the gritty-voiced front man for the Box Tops. Success came early, as did dissipation—the latter significantly more of a constant than the former.
Big Star, his 1970s post-Box Tops ensemble, garnered critical accolades and paltry sales. The group was plagued with internecine battles worthy of the Who and an incompetent, byzantine record industry that ensured that Big Star’s music never escaped the confines of a coterie of devoted listeners.
But those devoted listeners, who spread the word with the fervor of acolytes, included the Bangles, the Cramps, the Posies, Teenage Fanclub, Counting Crows, and perhaps the most devoted of all, the Replacements, who offered the ultimate musical homage by naming a song after him.
Big Star came to be seen as the progenitor of what became known as power pop. “[B]ands were forming to emulate the Big Star sound,” George-Warren writes, “while their albums became a sort of ‘Holy Grail,’ as R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck would later call them.”
The iconoclastic Chilton’s lack of pretense and anti-corporate instincts were harbingers of the D.I.Y. ethos “that would become the credo for indie bands in the ’90s and ’00s.” Big Star’s “In the Street”—marijuana reference primly edited out—became the recognizable theme of the Fox sitcom That ’70s Show. And so, steadily, incrementally, Alex Chilton’s music seeped into the larger world.
A Man Called Destruction is full of fascinating nuggets. The well-read Chilton was a devotee of astrology and of the psychoanalytic theories of Wilhelm Reich. Not surprisingly, the musician who crafted haunting commentary on the Vietnam-era draft—“The Ballad of El Goodo”—was intensely political. (He remained so throughout his career, as on the lesser-known, brilliant “Guantanamerika”: “Breathing in the mist of the crop duster / gazing at the stars that have lost their luster / sieg heil to the in-God-we-trusters.”)
Artistic vindication notwithstanding, the dominant emotion of A Man Called Destruction is sadness. The Chilton saga is full of ruined lives. His down-and-outness was the stuff of legend: in the midst of his music career he had stints as a cabdriver, a dishwasher, a janitor, a tree trimmer. He was an emotional wreck. He drank and drugged to excess and fathered a neglected son who wound up in prison.
Alex Chilton died suddenly on March 17, 2010. By then he had managed to overcome many of his personal demons; his musical repute was such as to warrant widespread obituaries and now, this full-length biography. “The important thing is to make a good record,” he is quoted here, “because if you make a good record, it doesn’t matter what happens. [...] even though it doesn’t sell anything when it comes out. [...] If it’s really good, people are going to want it from them on, and that’s the important thing. It might take five or ten years for it to pay off—or it might take twenty years, and you might be dead when it pays off. If it’s good, it’s going to pay off for somebody, sometime.”
Richard Klin is the author of Something to Say (Leapfrog Press, 2011).