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The Backwards Life Of Alex Chilton In 'Destruction'

by Jason Heller
Mar 27, 2014

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Music journalist Holly George-Warren first met Alex Chilton in 1982, when she threw up in his sink after a night of drinking.

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Alex Chilton was 16 and hung over from a night of drinking, smoking, and having sex in a cemetery the morning in 1966 that he showed up at a Memphis studio to record his first single, "The Letter." It became the biggest hit for his new band, The Box Tops, and the biggest hit single ever recorded in Memphis — but Chilton almost didn't live to see it. Between the time "The Letter" was recorded and released, he attempted suicide by slitting his wrists. He lived. The Box Tops continued making hits until they broke up in 1970, and Chilton formed a new group called Big Star, whose magnificent, eloquent power-pop wasn't enough to make them actual stars. In the end, he retreated from the music industry, becoming in turn a punk provocateur, a recluse, and ultimately a vastly influential cult figure before dying of a heart attack in 2010.

These basic facts, and many more, are covered with clarity and grace in A Man Called Destruction, Holly George-Warren's biography of Chilton. Former Rolling Stone Press editor George-Warren more than has the chops for the job — and she has a personal connection to Chilton. "The first time I met Alex Chilton, I threw up in his sink," she writes in the book's epilogue. That incident led to a sporadic friendship that lasted decades — and an offer from Chilton to write a book with him about his life as a teen pop star in The Box Tops. The book never materialized - but upon Chilton's death, George-Warren began writing A Man Called Destruction.

Despite her unguarded affinity for her subject, George-Warren maintains a respectful distance. At times, that distance runs toward dryness; certain pages read more like strings of music-industry trivia than a narrative. Overall, though, her passion for Chilton and his songs shines through, and she fills in parts of his life that have been long neglected. Chilton's time in The Box Tops has often been glossed over over by writers, with the group being dismissed as one-hit teenybopper wonders. The truth is more complex and captivating, and the book devotes substantial effort and attention to these formative years of Chilton's life, in which he befriended The Beach Boys, hung out with Charles Manson, and formed his own fledgling vision of what rock music can say and do.

His segue from The Box Tops to Big Star is where the shape of Chilton's perverse, at times self-sabotaging mindset begins to become clear. His was a career in reverse: After being thrust into fame as the lead singer of a multimillion-selling band, he became the co-leader of the critically lauded but unsuccessful Big Star, and from there he turned to relative obscurity as the sideman in a small-time punk band and a solo artist whose sporadic work never touched — or even seemed to aim for — the grandeur of Big Star.

Big Star recorded three increasingly fractured and beautiful albums before dissolving in 1974 (their moment in the sun would come in 1998, when That '70s Show used Cheap Trick's cover version of their song "In The Street" as its theme); by then Chilton had reformed the group and gotten enough momentum and belated acclaim to leave the menial, cab-driving-and-dishwashing jobs he'd held for years. George-Warren captures this erratic arc with a smooth economy, spicing Chilton's pathos-laden life with warm anecdotes and just the right touch of musicology. And like all good music biographies, the book doubles as a cultural chronicle, from the British Invasion to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. to the devastation of his adopted home of New Orleans Hurricane Katrina — not to mention Chilton's brief, dramatic disappearance during the storm's aftermath, a surreal episode that seems to sum up so much of his fateful mystique.

It's hard not to compare A Man Called Destruction to Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, the 2012 documentary that covers so much of the same ground. But where the film rightly splits its focus between Chilton and his co-leader Chris Bell, the book dwells on the man who has most captured the hearts and minds of generations of fans and fellow musicians. The Replacements famously wrote a song, forthrightly dubbed "Alex Chilton," about their hero, and it's only one of the many instances of artists claiming Big Star's inheritance (R.E.M. and Elliott Smith among them). But here, the poignantly plainspoken story of Chilton's troubles pulls back the blanket of superlatives he's been smothered with for decades, instead delivering a sober portrait of a life that was anything but. George-Warren doesn't mistake the myth for the territory, and A Man Called Destruction succeeds because of it.

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