Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Making the Invisible Visible – A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton

Alex Chilton. I have to say, I never gave him much thought. A quick perusal of my record collection showed that I didn’t even have one song on which he sang including his first big hit, “The Letter,” by Memphis’s Box Tops. Not even on one of those “all American Hit Parade collections.” So why would I buy a book about him? That’s right, I bought the book, it wasn’t one of those galley proofs sent out by a publisher to recruit reviewers. I selected this from the wall of books at my local shop. Got myself a tall Pike while I was at it. But after the coffee was gone I settled down to read Holly George-Warren’s fascinating biography of a musician I didn’t know, A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton.

Over 350 pages later I know quite a bit about what happened during Chilton’s career, I even bought a Big Star album, and an anthology of Chilton’s later work, and Big Star collaborator Chris Bell’s solo CD, and a download of The Box Tops greatest hits. That’s a lifetime of music, and I’ve only scratched the surface. I watched the recent bio, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me. I’m even considering reading Rob Jovanovic’s book Big Star: the Story of Rock’s Forgotten Band. Just because there’s something eminently intriguing about a rock star who never really got there. The music that Chilton made haunts me. It ranges from the blue-eyed soul of the Box Tops to the power-pop of Big Star, through years of punk, and just about every genre in between.

Chilton’s career has the added hook of being sabotaged (not just by management but) by Chilton himself. Thus the title. He truly was a man called destruction, especially as it applied to him. Holly George-Warren knew Chilton, so there’s more at stake here than just telling a litany of great rock’n’roll stories. She met him sometime in the ‘70s while he was washing dishes at a restaurant in New Orleans. Chilton took jobs like that between records. He seemed to like it and it paid the bills. Chilton produced her band Clambake. He took gigs like that too, producing The Cramps debut album among others. Chilton’s childhood started in a new subdivision in East Memphis, set aside for returning veterans of WW2. His mother “didn’t join the PTA, she and the neighbors played bridge while [the kids] were at school.” Chilton’s father was a musician, quite a good one, and a collector of jazz records. In 1960 the family moved to a big old house (4,400 square feet) close to Memphis’s inner city. His mother started an art gallery on the first floor of the house where she exhibited pottery by ceramicists Pup and Lee McCarty and work by other regional artists. Sidney Chilton (the father) started playing music again in ’61, often filling the house with late night jazz jam sessions. Alex liked rock’n’roll.

Alex Chilton and Holly George-Warren (Photo by Dan Howell)
He is quoted as saying, “When the Beatles came along, I got swept up in it. I remember walking into school the day after the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan (Feb.9, 1964) and somebody pointed at me and yelled, ‘Here comes Ringo!’” Like thousands of teenagers around the world Alex grew his hair and started singing. He asked for a bass for Christmas and his parents got him a guitar. He listened to Steve Cropper and the British invasion bands. He was only 15 years old when he sang “The Letter” in a recording studio, sounding like a middle-aged black man. George-Warren recounts the ups-and-downs of the Box Tops career. The half dozen hit singles, the personnel clashes. There are particularly in-depth accounts of the recording sessions for Box Tops songs, interviews with songwriters Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham and pianist/producer Jim Dickinson. It made me have to listen to the Box Tops again. I had missed a lot by ignoring them.

But what had I missed without Big Star. I knew about them right from the start, they were critics’ darlings. If you read Rolling Stone you couldn’t help reading about them. I just never got the bug. Even 30 years later I had ignored them when at a sale of used records my friend recommended #1 Record and I looked at it and put it back. You can’t listen to everything. As I read A Man Called Destruction I had to hear it. I bought it on vinyl and spun it on my turntable. The crystalline guitar chords and harmony vocals were everything I loved about rock and roll. They were like the Raspberries, Badfinger, the Beatles. But different. Why they didn’t get airplay is a mystery. Perhaps their best known song is “In the Street” which was used as the theme song for That 70s Show. Trouble is, it’s Cheap Trick’s version of the tune that everyone knows.

After Big Star Alex Chilton drifted from label to label, sometimes reforming Big Star (with different musicians), sometimes touring the retro-market fronting the reformed Box Tops. He played guitar for Tav Falco’s Panther Burns. His own recordings took a variety of twists and turns. He was punk, primitive, raw, and then he’d throw in something really accessible. Still no one bought it. Is it any wonder he’d take gigs like washing dishes or being a janitor for a living. Still, the records are all there, still available. The Box Tops, Big Star, Alex Chilton, by any name there’s worthwhile music included. I have to thank Holly George-Warren for opening my eyes, and ears to this music. And for an un-put-downable tour de force biography.

– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife.

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