A MAN CALLED DESTRUCTION
The Life and Music of Alex Chilton From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man
By Holly George-Warren
Viking. 370 pp. $27.95
By the time Alex Chilton was 18, in 1969, he had sung lead on a No. 1 hit (the Box Tops’ “The Letter”), fathered a child, married, divorced and begun a long slide into alcoholism and drug abuse. He was on the has-been track, and he did eventually wind up homeless and working menial jobs.
But Chilton, who died of a heart attack in 2010, also carved out a remarkable career in rock music that influenced generations of other artists. His work with the legendary ’70s band Big Star, his solo records, and his partnerships with the Cramps and Tav Falco created a catalogue of music that defies easy description. Some of it is sublimely beautiful, some profoundly bizarre, and most of it Chilton tried to destroy and deny. Holly George-Warren chose the perfect title for her biography of Chilton, “A Man Called Destruction.” That was also the name of his last solo recording and a label he seemed to embrace.
Growing up in Memphis, Chilton was a rebel’s rebel. Against what, it’s hard to say. His life was comfortable and artistic — his father played jazz, and his mother was a personality in the local arts community, running a prominent gallery from their home. Photographer William Eggleston was a lifelong friend. One terrible event marred Chilton’s youth: the untimely death of his older brother. In George-Warren’s telling, Chilton and his family never got over that pain. It’s tempting to say that the loss is what kept pushing the younger brother off the rails, but Chilton’s life comes across as tragic in the classic sense: Something in his nature, some fundamental contrariness, caused him to take bad turns at every setback.
After Chilton tasted fame at age 16 with the Box Tops, he walked away because it seemed too confining. When critics raved about advance copies of the first two Big Star albums, legal problems prevented the music from being widely distributed to the public. He responded by recording a third Big Star album so harrowing — with some songs drunkenly sabotaged by Chilton in the studio — that his label shelved it for years. Chilton then wandered from the punk scene in New York to the psychobilly scene in Memphis, putting on shows so provocative and irritating (untuned instruments, power saws, that kind of thing) that they were more performance art than music. A 1980s low point cited by George-Warren: A former acolyte, Steve Wynn, brought his own successful band — the Dream Syndicate — to perform in New Orleans and realized the janitor sweeping out the club was none other than his hero, Alex Chilton.
Chilton enjoyed a bit of a comeback in the ’90s and 2000s, touring with both a reconstituted Box Tops and a reimagined Big Star. Artists including the Replacements, REM, Guided by Voices and Pavement all counted Chilton as a major influence (and his song “In the Streets” became the theme for “That 70s Show,” providing some much-needed income). But with one or two minor exceptions, he never again attempted the transcendent pop rock that made his work with Big Star so legendary. And, frankly, that’s part of the legend. He was, as George-Warren faithfully chronicles, the very definition of the self-destructive artist. It makes him a compelling figure but a miserable human. Whatever that might say about the origins of art and the relationship between artist and audience is something this book fails to explore.
But here’s hoping “A Man Called Destruction” can join the 2012 documentary “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me” to restore Chilton to his rightful place in the rock-and-roll firmament.