A Rock and Roll Soul
at its Finest: A Man Called Destruction:
The Life and Music of Alex Chilton

Last year the “alternative newsweekly” The Memphis Flyer published a brief piece titled “Local Man Loves Big Star,” a parody report of a gent who couldn’t stop raving about Big Star and their work, even when the conversations at hand didn’t call for it. This would’ve been pretty funny!  IF… the whole thing had not seemed so truthful. The discovery of ’70s band Big Star, at whatever point it might occur for any given individual, has a sort of obsessive-compulsive effect on the discoverer. How are these records so good, so… perfect? How have I not heard them until now? There is an immediate air of mystery that begs further investigation—who were these guys? In her biography of Big Star-man Alex Chilton, Holly George-Warren sets out to explain this, in part, who was Alex Chilton exactly? 

Chilton’s musical success came early—he was sixteen years old when he recorded his first single, performing vocals with The Box Tops on soon-to-be number-one hit “The Letter.” This band disassembled in 1970, and soon after, Chilton joined fellow Memphis musician Chris Bell’s group, renaming it Big Star. The band went on to make three albums (only the first, #1 Record with the original line-up; Bell split pretty early on), all three of which made it onto Rolling Stone’s “Top 500 Albums” list (do with this information what you will! It is at least worth noting.)

And yet in spite of the band’s critical acclaim and longevity of musical influence on bands like R.E.M and The Replacements, Big Star never quite made it to the big leagues. A mixture of bad decisions and bad luck with record labels (a la Graham Parker), messy distribution, not to mention raging egos and drugs (sound familiar?) led to Big Star’s legacy being maintained by a contingent of rock critics and rock nerds.

Now there are those individuals who might classify themselves as Chris Bell-Big Star fans, preferring the barely maintained hyper emotive turbulence of Bell’s vocals to Alex’s confident richness, a revamping of his “Gimme a ticket for an airplane…” growl. After all, Bell’s posthumously released solo work I am the Cosmos is a brilliant, hits-levels-of-gut-wrenching-truths record.  But after diving into Holly George-Warren’s well-researched (and aptly titled) Chilton bio A Man Called Destruction: the Life and Music of Alex Chilton, one is struck at once by the intensity of Alex’s rock and roll soul.

George-Warren, who was a friend of Chilton, as well as press editor of Rolling Stone, does a stellar job of putting forth the story of Alex’s life with eloquence, admiration, and removed objectivity, the result of which is a prime secondary source (and first biography) of a perhaps heretofore undersung rock icon. George-Warren had in fact been asked by Chilton himself to assist in his documenting of his Box Tops days, an idea that never came to pass, but perhaps planted the seeds for A Man Called Destruction. She spends many pages on Alex’s pre-Big Star years, most of which is fascinating: his bohemian and musical upbringing in Memphis, his time spent touring with the Beach Boys and meeting Charles Manson, and living in New York’s Greenwich Village before returning to Memphis. He was naturally rebellious, music-obsessed from a young age and onwards, charmingly seductive, self-destructive and driven to drugs and drinking to levels of excess.

Chilton’s musical evolution did not progress naturally: he started out with a number one record as a teenager, then struggled to find material success through his critically acclaimed work with Big Star that was musically superior, and so forth. Big Star had high hopes for itself that never seemed to materialize, something that Chris Bell really took to heart, and when Chilton began to take more initiative in his band, Bell felt betrayed. The initial power of the Chilton/Bell duo and their joint songwriting cracked.

Out of all of Chilton’s musical contributions however, his work with Big Star seems to reign over his other music, and the book devotes a fair amount of attention to this portion of his life. Big Star broke up in 1974 after having recorded just three albums and didn’t reform its remnants until the mid ‘90s. During the hiatus, Chilton became involved with the downtown New York CBGB scene before relocating to New Orleans, where he worked a variety of odd and non-musical jobs. He released several records during this time, including 1979’s lo-fi wonderfest Like Flies on Sherbert.

What Holly George-Warren does particularly well here is provide the ideal biographical mixture of Chilton character stories and musical descriptions of songs, albums, and the recording process. Which is theoretically difficult to do, as Chilton’s life path, both musical and otherwise, was not a consistent or linear one; yet, George-Warren depicts it (in a wordily-profitable manner too) as natural and full throughout, as though all events are of equal weight.  A Man Called Destruction also paints a thorough picture of American history in the second half of the twentieth century, taking the reader from the Beatles’ arrival to the American psyche in the early ‘60s to the turbulent events of the late ‘60s to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (when Chilton was temporarily unaccounted for in New Orleans).

It seems that of late, Big Star has been experiencing another collective resurgence of interest, once again being brought into the forefront of rock music discourse; in 2012 the documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me was released.  A Man Called Destruction is a welcome departure from the film’s focus on the band’s troubles and the familiar love/hate dynamic between Chilton and Chris Bell.  In place of this, we are given the story of one man’s life and his musical journey which began and ended early (Chilton was 59 years old when he died), allowing us to experience the full and multi-dimensional character of Big Star-man Alex. Which is in turn allowing us to experience the full and multi-dimensional essence of what a rock and roll soul is, more or less: deep love, respect and talent for music! + individual freedom! + refusal to adhere to societal demands! + live fast and die young or at least try to!  So.

So, can we play #1 Record again?

 

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  • Mary Jane W

    Fantantic review!

  • Mary Jane W

    Fantastic!  Can’t wait to read this book!

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