Most musicians would trade their soul for a No. 1 record and go on to carry that success like a trophy. So it's a measure of the late Alex Chilton's craft and personality that he's less defined by "The Letter," the 1967 guitar-pop gem by his band the Box Tops that hit when he was 16, than by the commercial failures that came after.
Rather, he's best known as the co-founder of the Memphis band Big Star, whose classic three records released from 1972 to 1978 have grown into some of the most acclaimed of that era. Remembered for songs such as "September Gurls," "Holocaust" and "In the Street," the latter of which served as the theme song to "That '70s Show," Chilton is a stubborn, oft-infuriating charmer in Holly George Warren's "A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton from Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man."
Chilton's musical career lasted nearly 40 years, until his death in New Orleans in 2010. In that time he wrote visionary pop music in a flash with bandmates including Chris Bell, Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens before becoming so disillusioned by the business, his relationships and life — he attempted suicide on numerous occasions — that his ambivalence extended to music itself.
At his worst he tore through friends, band members and women with reckless ambivalence. So far gone was he during the mixing of "Sister Lovers," for example, that his producer, Jim Dickinson, barred him from the studio, according to Warren. "The first night of the first session I watched him shoot Demerol down his throat with a syringe," said Dickinson. "That set the tone."
At his best Chilton turned that trouble and confusion into poetry and followed his curiosity despite the expectations of those who wanted his post-Big Star work to build on those ideas.
One listen to the dissonant deconstruction "Like Flies on Sherbert" confirms his disinterest in doing that. In fact, a few decades after he memorably sang of those who "stood on the stairs laughing at your airs" in "Holocaust" and penned the mercurial love song "Stroke It Noel," he'd nearly forsaken music and was living alone in a tent in the Tennessee woods.
Warren's deep research examines the arc of Chilton's life, uncovers periods of intense focus in famed Memphis studios, including disturbing scenes of a lover's blood on the mixing board and others of Chilton's own blood in bathtubs during suicide attempts. The writer, a former editor at Rolling Stone who has also penned books on Woodstock, Gene Autry and hillbilly and honky-tonk music among others, documents failed tours and promotional campaigns, revealing the curious fate and dashed expectations of an almost-was band and its irascible lead singer.
In fact, die-hard Chilton fans face a choice. Read "A Man Called Destruction" to better understand the dramatic life of an often indifferent songwriter and his enduring work or ignore the ugly truth behind classic lyrics such as "the drummer said you were not very clean/ And I know what he means" and remain blissfully enveloped within the music alone.
Warren devotes most time to Chilton's work and life in the 1970s and 1980s, when he moved from teen pop star to wandering troubadour to drunken ass to visionary experimenter and rockabilly sideman to devoted astrologer. While trying to get straight in the 1980s, the artist earned a living for a time as a cabdriver, dishwasher and janitor.
Gradually he returned, eventually earning a decent living through the oldies circuit, the licensing of his music, as a solo artist and a member of a re-formed Big Star, adapting to his role model status for bands including R.E.M. and the Replacements.
His was a strange path, as evidenced by the cameos in "Destruction," which include the Manson family, photographer William Eggleston, the Doors, lower east side New York scenesters and protopunks, production genius Dickinson (best known as pianist on the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses"), a coterie of first-generation rock critics (Lester Bangs included), and the Beach Boys' Brian and Carl Wilson.
The handsome Chilton's love life could be just as dramatic. It included a few devoted girlfriends, a failed first marriage and untold numbers of groupies, the volume of which, as outlined in Warren's research, suggests a man who struggled against lecherousness as well as addiction and whose gifts, coupled with an increasing disinterest with marquee fame, suffered as a result.
By the time he died of a heart attack in 2010, the music he created had been widely recognized. Such acclaim never seemed to satisfy him — nor did he require it to. It's a credit to Warren's unflinching tone that the Chilton of "Destruction" is a charismatic, oft-frustrating man unwilling to kowtow to anything or anyone, including his muse and his legacy. You'll never hear his music the same way again.
A Man Called Destruction
The Life and Music of Alex Chilton from Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man
Holly George Warren
Viking: 384 pp., $27.95