BWW Reviews: A MAN CALLED DESTRUCTION Covers the Bases
Holly George-Warren's A Man Called Destruction is the first full-length biography of Alex Chilton, the sort-of famous, sort-of genius and leader of the sixties-era garage band the Box Tops (of "The Letter" and "Cry Like A Baby" fame) who can-among other things-be credited, during stints that ranged from co-leadership of the cult band Big Star to a variety of solo projects and producing such seminal bands as the Cramps and Panther Burns, with godfathering alternative rock.
First full accounts of the semi-famous offer a distinct challenge to the biographer. Publishers aren't likely to be clamoring for a 500-page volume on such relatively marginal figures. As a result, an almost inherent choice has to be made between getting as many of the knowable facts down in one place as possible (realizing this might be the only opportunity for such) and offering some really in-depth explanation of why this particular person should perhaps be more famous than they are.
George-Warren has, wisely I think, chosen the former approach. She seems to have assumed that anyone reading this volume will already know who Chilton is and care at least somewhat about his music. Especially given that Chilton, who died of a heart attack in 2010 at the age of 58, was a rather elusive figure, it's a safe assumption that those of us who are "in the know" about his music will likely want as much raw information about the man as possible.
On that count, the author has done a well-organized and fully coherent job-a task that could not have been easy, given the chaotic, often contradictory, nature of its subject. Now that George-Warren has, among other things, drilled down far enough to identify him rather precisely as the kind of fellow who could write some really great songs about parental alienation while sponging off of mom and dad, Alex Chilton probably won't need another just-the-facts biography.
Be warned, though. Whether you are a fan of Chilton's or not, this is not a book for anyone who wants to feel warm and fuzzy about him.
To his credit-and George-Warren catches this quality fully-there was no point in his self-abusing life when he strove to attract such feelings.
Chilton was a native of Memphis. His parents seem to have been southern bohemians straight out of a Tennessee Williams play, fully representative of the magnolia version of that odd well-to-do-but-down-at-heels combination that seems forever destined to produce troubled children. The central event of a childhood that consisted of a not-terribly-warm-and-loving world of pool parties, back houses and jazz musicians jamming in the living room til all hours seems to have been the death of Chilton's beloved older brother, Reed, who became prone to seizures after a fall from a rooftop and eventually drowned in the family's bathtub when Alex was nine. (Another brother would, many years later, die of a drug overdose.)
George-Warren does a convincing job of suggesting the significance of such traumatic events without overselling them. She makes it clear that they affected who Alex Chilton would become, but, perhaps because Chilton himself was so consistently reticent on such matters, does not speculate too deeply on the precise connections. Suffice it to say that the various tragedies and difficulties of Chilton's youth, in particular, hang in the background of the story, but they aren't dragged out and offered as explanations for the often thoroughly unpleasant human being he became or the damage he clearly inflicted on others (particularly an abandoned wife and child).
To be sure, the less than flattering aspects of Chilton's personality that emerge in this telling are not exactly news to those who followed along during his lifetime.
The mixture of self-aggrandizement and self-contempt that is common among boho's and their children (it's usually part of what they insist makes them special, not to mention "misunderstood") was ever-present in Chilton's famously laconic interviews and it isn't glossed over here.
One particularly persistent theme is Chilton's deep ambivalence-famous among his followers-towards the music he must have known he was destined to be remembered for, namely that which he made with the Box Tops and Big Star.
Those bands were reflective of some pretty deep ambivalence themselves.
The Box Tops grew out of a Memphis garage band called the Devilles, who hired a fifteen-year-old Chilton because he sounded "black as hell." Chilton had to catch rides wherever they went because he was too young to drive, but his immersion in the city's legendary music scene-and a particular love for R&B passed on by his deceased brother-lent his voice sufficient authority to make him one of the era's truly great "blue-eyed soul" voices. The band soon changed its name, recorded "The Letter" and watched it soar to the top of the Pop charts while also making some noise on the R&B circuit, where the Box Tops were frequently booked on the assumption that they were black and then welcomed by the surprised audiences-a practice that would end (as a lot of other things ended) with the assassination of Martin Luther King.
Though the group made several albums and had a series of large-to-medium-sized hits, Chilton, establishing a pattern he would follow for the rest of his life, soon became restless with the music and contemptuous (or perhaps frightened) of the fame.
Soon enough he was on his own, diving into independent scenes in both Memphis (where he recorded the tracks for an album that wouldn't be released for nearly three decades) and New York (where he was relatively ignored by a burgeoning punk scene that more than shared his own contempt for his previous "commercial" success).
It was a path numerous hit-makers of the sixties went down-the path to "serious" musicianhood which was also generally a ticket to well-deserved obscurity. Though George-Warren doesn't belabor the point, it's clear enough that what happened next in Chilton's life-the formation of Big Star-is the exception-to-the-rule reason that he, almost alone among such figures, is worthy of a full-length biography all these decades later.
A review isn't the place to discuss the full ramifications of Big Star's influence. Like the Velvet Underground a few years earlier, they sold very, very few albums but affected almost everyone who heard them very, very deeply. In later years, there would be direct tributes by numerous bands (ranging from the Replacements' "Alex Chilton," to the Bangles' shining cover of Big Star's "September Gurls" to pretty much REM's entire career), but the real tribute was probably the entire DIY ethic-the shifting of the essential garage band ethos, for better and worse, from "let's make the charts" to "let's change the world....by making our feelings known."
It's here that A Man Called Destruction serves its highest purpose especially well. George-Warren does a thorough job of not only tracing the band's rise and fall, but of placing their story within the context of a Memphis music scene that had become one of the most important in the world in the previous two decades but was literally falling apart around the group (all Memphis natives) as they laid down the sound of the future on records for which they would receive little attention and less money.
The personal damage that resulted from thwarted ambitions (the name Big Star was meant as both a joke and a statement of purpose) was considerable. One suspects from this account-not to mention the music itself, which often sounds like a loose affiliation of associated dreams more than the work of a conventional band-that whatever slim chance there was of Chilton living some sort of stable existence was gone by the time he was left to record the band's third album (which would be released over the years with various titles and track selections) virtually by himself. The band dispersed and-soon enough-co-founder Chris Bell wrapped his car around a tree and joined the rock and roll era's staggering death toll.
Having thus barely survived both the classic garage-band experience (while it was happening) and the classic indie-rock experience (almost before there was such a thing), Chilton began to drift. There would-in addition to a string of menial jobs (dishwasher, janitor, cab driver, tree service removal)-be some interesting, if sporadic, solo efforts through the years, along with the embrace of a new generation of underground musicians, eventual rapprochement with surviving members of both the Box Tops and Big Star, a nice pay-day when Big Star's "In the Street" was adopted as a TV theme song and, through it all, nothing that reads much like personal growth or the pursuit of anything more compelling than the desire to consummately define slacker culthood.
For better or worse, Alex Chilton stayed who he was--which was namely a guy who never seemed to quite know who he was. It doesn't appear that any of the few relatively deep relationships he formed, from family to romances to fellow musicians to the inevitable hangers-on, really lasted or reached any great depths. His modus operandi seems to have been keeping the world at arm's length. His "presence dominated the room," according to one of those not-quite friends "and he controlled what was cool and what was not. No one challenged him."
Not a formula that was ever likely to make for a happy life or pleasant reading and it's very much to George-Warren's credit (she knew Chilton, though not intimately, and is obviously a huge fan) that she keeps all of this persistently in front of us and conveys Chilton's obvious charms without sugar-coating his essential character. Eventually, the reader is forced to confront a man who remained a mystery--a mystery one does not necessarily want to solve. One of the musicians who got close to him in later years seems to have summed it up best:
"He'd abuse somebody who he perceived as invading his little trip, or was worthy of his contempt. We'd travel around and I'd meet all these people who used to be on the inside and weren't any longer, and I'd see the way he dealt with them-but what I didn't realize was that one day it would be me."
As a huge fan myself, I found myself neither wanting or needing to know much more than the basic facts about a man who could consistently inspire such feelings. And I'm betting Chilton--likely the only essential "cult" figure in American music who rejected actual (as opposed to theoretical) commercial success to pursue a truly profound personal vision, a rare man who was equally intimate with (and equally uncomfortable with) the trappings of both success and failure--would have preferred it that way.
I suspect that, for all the time he spent dismissing it or putting it down, he probably would have wanted what most artists want--which is to be judged by his art.
On that score, Alex Chilton's legacy is secure and this book is a worthy adjunct to his brief, but enduring, spark of genius.