A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, from Box Tops to Big Star to Back door Man by Holly George-Warren
Penguin Books 2014
Alex Chilton is depicted as a teenage pop idol, a troubled and misunderstood genius and a cult hero in the book, A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, from Box Tops to Big Star to Back door Man. That is pretty much the arc of this well-written and entertaining biography of one of rock’n’roll’s greatest mysteries.
There’s a revelation in the beginning of this book about a family tragedy that explains of lot of destruction and abuse that haunted Chilton for the rest of his life and influenced some of his best songs.
Before he started writing his own material, he became a pop star at the age of sixteen in Memphis, Tennessee. George-Warren does a great job at transporting us to Memphis of the sixties, where Chilton started playing in various garage bands only to be discovered by the management of a band called the Devilles that was soon renamed The Box Tops with the addition of Chilton. After the band released the blue-eyed soul perfection called “The Letter” in 1967, Chilton’s life changed in what seemed like overnight when it became a number one hit. The book offers interviews with the producer Dan Penn and Chilton’s bandmates, as well as an analysis of their numerous TV performances,to paint the picture of a teenager struggling with his identity while becoming a pop star in the turbulent late sixties. After three years, the hits dried up and Chilton was left arguably disappointed and jaded at age nineteen before joining Big Star.
The most valuable recollections of his time spent as a member of Big Star, apart from his bandmates, Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel, are provided by John Fry, the in-house producerof Ardent Studios and musical genius in his own right, and Chilton’s long time on-and-off girlfriend, Lesa Aldridge. It is thought that the passionate and volatile relationship between Aldridge and Chilton’s are reflected in some of Big Star’s best songs.
A lot of attention is given to Chilton’s collaboration with the other principal songwriter of the band, Chris Bell. He is also considered a hugely talented musician and questionably more troubled, having attempted to commit suicide after the commercial failure of their first record. Alcohol, Quaaludes and numerous other downers were a daily regimen for Chilton and company for most of the seventies.
The mood of the book turns darker when Chilton teams up with another crazy, multi-talented Memphian, Jim Dickinson,to record the final Big Star record 3rd(later reissued as Sister Lovers). In an effort to show the dark side of the time spent recording the final album, Dickinson provides an account of the apparent domestic abuse between Chilton and Lesa. He explained, “There was physical abuse of Lesa and I thought she participated in that willingly. I use to have a picture of me and Lesa sitting in a control room together, with her two black eyes, and she’s grinning into the camera.” This depiction contrasts the album’s current status as a masterpiece by making the reader consider the costs in creating it. Although, the final Big Star record was universally rejected by a number of record companies before finally released four years after its conception. By that time, Chilton didn’t care anymore.
According to George-Warren, there were two things that got Chilton out of his depression at the end of the seventies– Wilhelm Reich, the German psychoanalyst who came up with the concept of the sexual revolution, and punk rock.
The band from the punk era that impressed him the most was The Cramps, and he went on to produce their first two albums. The band’s demented take on primitive rock ’n’ roll led him to another eccentric Memphian by the name of Tav Falco with whom he would form Panther Burns.
At the same time, the cult of Big Star grew and a select group of fans were starting their own bands that would become REM, The Bangles, The Replacements, The dB’s, and many more. Instead of riding the wave the new jangly alternative rock bands, Chilton moved to New Orleans and started getting deep into jazz and blues.
Never comfortable with his privileged southern background, he took on various jobs that included sweeping floors and driving a cab, which arguably helped create a new blue-collar image of him to contrast his familial origin. As a musician, he had interesting quirks. As a lifelong student of astrology, he chose his band members according to their date of birth. Backed by a rhythm section, he toured the country playing stripped down versions of his old material, weird covers and new songs from genres as wide ranging as punk to crooning. As he himself put it, “Somewhere along the line I figured that if you only press up a hundred copies of a record, then eventually it will find its way to the hundred people in the world who want it the most.” While this quote may seem obsolete in the age of Internet, it is interesting to consider his perspective at the time.
As Big Star cult following grew and mainstream recognition followed, especially after “In the Street” was used as a theme song for That ‘70s Show, Chilton started playing well-paid reunion gigs with Big Star and The Box Tops. George-Warren takes us through the fascinating and, at times, disturbingly troubled life of Chilton. The author included a quote by Andy Schwartz of New York Rocker that captures the essence of Chilton as depicted in A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, from Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man. The Schwartz quote on Chilton is taken from piece covering a Cramps and Panther Burns gig in 1979. He wrote,“His child-like visage fascinates me; he seems to know something you should, but don’t know. At the same time, there’s an air of contempt about him as he holds court with a couple of adoring girls, neither of them who could be a day over sixteen. With his sense of superiority and his admiring clique, Chilton is a kind of a punk mirror-image of another Memphis rocker, Jerry Lee Lewis.” At the end, we walk away both knowing and unknowing Alex Chilton as the teenage pop idol, a troubled and misunderstood genius and a cult hero.
By Marko Petrovic