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A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton

By Holly George-Warren
Viking, 2014

amancalleddestructionIn a world of trans-media, integrated marketing, torrentware, and hashtagging, rock and pop musicians are allowed to, nay, are lauded for committing once unthinkable acts. It’s commonplace to find rock icons scoring video games and peddling songs to sell flatscreen TVs. Nowadays, NPR (not long ago the pillar of squaredom) is as respected a source for new and obscure music as Jersey City’s WFMU or Seattle’s KEXP. Not even a treacly mainstream origin condemns a musician these days. Just ask the ubiquitous and now universally-adored, ex-Mickey Mouse Clubber and former boy-band member Justin Timberlake, who has been in in-things for nearly a decade—from Dick-in-a-Box to Inside Llewyn Davis … not to mention his successful solo music career. Yet despite all the gimmicks we tolerate from our favorite musicians, there’s something inappropriate, something unacceptably artificial, about a rock-and-roll biography.

It’s an old cliché, but arguably a valid one: rock and roll is raw emotion. Its melodies are mostly straightforward, its rhythms are guttural (or pelvic), and its themes are base and distillable to a single word: lust. Lust for sex, sure, but also lust for love, lust for what has been lost, lust to make a mark on the world, and, to quote the great Iggy Pop, a lust for life. Bearing in mind cultural and generational biases, it seems fair to say that rock and pop music “speaks” to young audiences more directly and more intimately than any other musical genre of the 20thth century, and perhaps more than any other artistic medium. At the crudest level, the experience of rock and roll requires nothing more than the relatively scant amount of money it takes to purchase a radio: The music is literally in the air. Thus it has the ability to reach its audience in their most private spaces—alone in their cars or at home in their living rooms and bedrooms. From this we draw the stereotypical image of the teenager lying L-shaped on her bed, legs resting vertically against the wall, her ears enveloped by headphones: naive, defiantly lazy, and supremely blissful. It’s an overly romantic scene to be sure, but also a common one. The ease with which listeners are able to enter the emotional world of rock and roll is the reason that so many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers emote so emphatically about their “connection” to The Beatles and Nirvana. It’s the reason why musicians “speak” to us as individuals, and why we “love” and claim to “know” these lifelong strangers. Rock and roll has borrowed from the religious/spiritual lexicon since its inception, with its pop idols and rock gods. There’s something inherent in human nature that draws us into relationships with untouchable entities, to love them from afar. A deep-rooted, intensely personal, and often unquestioning type of love is aroused by our rock-and-roll heroes. Or, as David Johansen of the New York Dolls would slur it: “When I say I’m in love, you best believe I’m in love—L-U-V.”

Maybe one should know everything there is to know about a beloved’s past, the events that formed her personality and perspective, and so on, in the hope that greater knowledge will bring about a greater connection. But there’s a contrary philosophy that says none of this matters—love is immediacy, not history. This idea takes on unique significance when applied to cherished rock/pop idols, because they have bodies of work that, rightly or wrongly, can be read as personal statements. Granted, it’s naive to take a musician’s music as wholly autobiographical or wholly honest, but because of the intimacy of the form, fans tend feel as if they know the person behind the music.

Enter the rock-and-roll biography, those paper mausoleums of research and reflection that mistake particulars for poignancy, and intrude on the individual relationship. Naturally we can assume that the author of such a biography is also a great fan of the artist, and no doubt has his own intimate relationship with him, but this is also a jab—the long-time mistress who approaches the long-time wife and says, “Let me tell you all about your husband.” It trivializes the fan; it insinuates that because the biographer has performed more analysis his conceptions are more authentic. Does a fan need to know the biographical facts about a musician? Do these facts enhance the enjoyment of the listening experience? Do they put a keener edge on the relationship between artist and fan? Do they explain the artist better than the artist’s musical output? The truth is that mundanities and minutiae are charisma’s assassins. It’s the same act of destruction David Berman of Silver Jews describes in the song “Tennessee,” when he states, “Punk rock died when the first kid said, ‘Punk’s not dead.’” This is especially true when those facts are presented with as much sterility as they are in Holly George-Warren’s new biography of the rock-and-roll ghost and indie-rock deity Alex Chilton.

George-Warren’s book begins in an oddly James Michener-esque manner, with a full chapter devoted to the Chilton family genealogical record dating back to the immigration of John Chilton to Virginia in 1660. The chapter ticks its way through a familial history, which includes slave ownership, Confederate military heroism, Reconstruction-era woes, and high-ranking academics, and in doing so George-Warren seeks to establish an internal struggle between Chilton’s aristocratic family background and the pluralistic leanings of his life and music. As she claims in her first paragraph, “Such dichotomies would dog Alex Chilton his entire life.” It’s a bold statement for a biographer to make (dog and entire certainly carry some weight). It’s the kind of declaration that requires time and attention to properly support, but it’s a theme that George-Warren never revisits. This sense of vague grandiosity and misplaced emphasis come to define, and ultimately overwhelm, the entire book.

Chilton’s is an interesting story. Born to artistically inclined, sybaritic and slightly irresponsible parents, Chilton grew up in Memphis surrounded by music, alcohol, art, cigarettes, girls, and a youth culture that esteemed membership in a garage band above all else (except for maybe alcohol, cigarettes, and girls). At the age of sixteen, Chilton joined one of the more successful and respected of these local bands, The Devilles. Even at this young age, Chilton was an iconoclast; George-Warren recounts his audition for the band:

When they [the members of The Devilles] knocked on the Chilton’s door, a slight young man with acne-spotted cheeks and long brown bangs and hair covering his ears opened it. Barefoot and dressed in cut-off blue jeans and a faded black T-shirt, Alex grabbed a denim jacket and wrapped a scarf around his neck, saying, “I’m ready to go!” and followed them down the steps. Alex Chilton looked nothing like the rest of the short-haired Devilles, whose normal attire was Gant shirts, pressed pants, and Bass Weejuns. “There was a dress code without having a dress code, and [what Alex wore] was not acceptable in those days,” John Evans recalls. “A blue jean jacket—no one wore those except farmers, blue-collar workers, or trailer park people.”

boxtopstheletterWith Chilton as frontman, The Devilles changed their name to The Box Tops, and almost immediately scored a #1 single: the graveled, blue-eyed soul smash, “The Letter.” A string of lesser hits followed: “Cry Like a Baby,” “Neon Rainbow,” “Soul Deep” (none of which were written by the members of the group), and the band found themselves touring heavily and sharing bills with bands like The Doors and The Beach Boys. Despite his meteoric success, Chilton was dissatisfied, an emotional state which, as George-Warren reveals, often manifested itself in flippant and churlish behavior. About an early TV appearance, she writes:

Alex got stoned before the show and didn’t even bother trying to lip-synch “The Letter”; instead, he stared off into space, then laughed, showing what he thought of the set, with its ridiculous-looking cardboard post-office-window prop. At the point where the jet plane takes off on the record, Alex sauntered away from his mic to the PO window and handed a “letter” from his pocket to the DJ host peering from behind it. Mumbling something about taking “the letter” with him everywhere he goes, Alex then pulled out a gag correspondence that unfurled to about three feet in length.

Increasingly disillusioned by the phoniness of touring other people’s music, Alex learned to play the guitar, began experimenting with his own material, and taught himself to drink more often and more heavily.

Eventually The Box Tops disbanded. In 1970 Chilton recorded a solo album that got shelved for over twenty-five years. He then spent a short time living in New York, where he was exposed to what was left of the Greenwich Village folk scene, the up-and-coming musician/producer Todd Rundgren, and the tail end of The Velvet Underground. While in New York, Chilton ran into an old acquaintance from Memphis, Chris Bell. The two clicked musically, and when Chilton moved back to Memphis shortly thereafter he joined Bell’s band, the soon-to-be-named Big Star.

numberonerecordThough short lived (the band only recorded three albums between 1971 and 1974), Big Star defined a genre (power pop), presaged another (alternative), drew intense, nearly universal critical acclaim … and sold almost no records at all. Beginning with the immediately accessible, beautifully melodic album #1 Record (1972), continuing with the keener-edged bite of Radio City (1974), and ending with the wistful gristle of Third/Sister Lovers (recorded in 1974, but not released until 1978), Big Star’s music was intricate and sometimes sloppy, both angsty and occasionally tongue-in-cheek, alternately loud and hushed, catchy, destructive, and almost always winsome. Their body of work formed a blueprint for later bands like The Replacements, REM, and Teenage Fanclub, all of whom are self-proclaimed admirers. Big Star officially broke up in 1974 (Bell had quit the band two years before—prior to the completion of Radio City—then died in a car accident in 1978) due to a mix of commercial failure, infighting, and Chilton’s alcoholism.

Post-Big Star, Chilton moved back to New York, played in and around the city’s burgeoning punk scene, released some singles, produced The Cramps first EP (Gravest Hits) and LP (Songs the Lord Taught Us), released a superbly messy, and, as per his usual, criminally ignored solo album (1979’s Like Flies on Sherbert), then joined the avant-blues/country/rock-and-roll/punk band Tav Falco’s Panther Burns, then moved to New Orleans, then recorded some more solo albums, and so on. As the ‘80s passed, then the ‘90s, Chilton went through periods of self-sabotage and near-complete obscurity, dotted with spikes of cultural reverence and relevancy as various bands/musicians proclaimed their affections for his work. Chilton, uninsured and, for all intents and purposes, broke, died of a heart attack in 2010 at the age of 59.

This is the (much simplified) arc of Chilton’s life—from teen pop/rock chart-topper to revered underdog—and, to her credit, George-Warren provides a comprehensive and cohesive telling of the facts. Unfortunately, George-Warren uses her research only as a means to reconstruct the chronology of Chilton’s story, rather than breathe life into his obscured biography. Though peppered with the occasional gem, the bulk of the book is weighted down by pointless anecdotes, like this one, attributed to a childhood sweetheart, Louise Leffler:

Alex also got her [Leffler] a present from his mother’s gallery: a clunky handmade ring. “It was huge, a glob of iron in the shape of a ring. I’m ashamed to say that I don’t remember wearing it very much.”

Moments like this are yawn-inducing, to be sure, and are made even more tedious when coupled with George-Warren’s too-frequent critical suppositions, like this one regarding the inspiration behind “Thirteen” from #1 Record:

Sung in a voice even more vulnerable than that he used on “El Goodo,” [another track from #1 Record] Alex’s yearning ballad paints a portrait of teenage first love, with lyrics that could have been inspired by his junior high days spent with Louise Leffler.

likefliesonsherbetThe book is rife with such glosses on the obvious (it doesn’t take a Woodward or Bernstein to work out that a song entitled “Thirteen” which has lyrics like, “Maybe Friday I can get tickets for the dance and I’ll take you,” likely draws on the teenage relationships of the songwriter). Still, it isn’t fair to lay full blame on George-Warren. Detail and analysis are the pick and brush of biography, and justifiably so. Biographical research and authorship, after all, are largely left-brain intellectual pursuits. But the process of excavating of a pottery fragment is not the same as staring at the night sky and theorizing the substance of the universe. The tools for rock and roll are the instruments, granted, but they’re also the yelp, the slurred phrase, the bit of spittle hitting the microphone, the grunt—an entire genre held in an animalistic expulsion of air. How does one transcribe a grunt?

It doesn’t help that George-Warren insists on maintaining a sense of journalistic objectivity. She’s obviously a fan, and, as she reveals in the epilogue, a longtime acquaintance of Chilton. When she writes about his music she meticulously fingers every strand of every song of every album; she notes his vocal inflections, the instrumentation, the mood, and the poeticism of his lyrics. Take, for example, this thorough breakdown of a song from Radio City:

Alex’s future musical direction is evident in the moody “Daisy Glaze,” with its vulnerable vocal approach. There’s a break, signified by three beats on Jody’s bass drum, and then the tempo and narrative’s location change, from slow in a car to fast in a bar, before building to a nihilistic ending—”I’m thinking, Christ, nullify my life / You’re gonna die, you’re gonna decease“—accompanied by the driving guitar’s ascending notes. Credited to all three members and originally entitled “Knoxville,” the song was a work in progress for weeks, and much of its sonic intricacy was overdubbed after the basic track was finished.

The detail in these passages is thorough; evidence of her research, surely, but also of her familiarity. Yet you wouldn’t know her affection and intimacy from her tone. Her writing is carefully passionless, and sometimes reserved to the point of timidity. The result is a book so distant from hagiography that it reads more like the completion of an assignment. Undoubtedly, her book will bring Alex Chilton to the wider world—just one more spike in his long history of rises and falls—and stand as an acceptable, more extensive companion to Drew DeNicola and Olivia Morito’s 2012 documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me. Beyond that, it doesn’t manage to genuinely expose his genius and charisma, or bring a shred of his angst and humor to its pages. Though George-Warren tried to boldly scratch his name on that great Rock-and-Roll Toilet Stall in the Sky, Chilton remains, defiantly, and perhaps even more than ever, a mystery. And that’s a good thing, L-U-V.

Matthew Stevens is a writer who did not grow up listening to Big Star.

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