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Holly George-Warren’s “A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton” Reviewed

by Holly George-Warren

by Holly George-Warren

There are a million Alex Chilton stories.  Mine is less interesting than most.  During the early ‘90s, Chilton performed one of his trio gigs at Juanita’s Mexican Cafe & Bar in Little Rock, Arkansas.  The mercurial rocker was in good spirits that evening, performing a set that included “Bangkok,” “Volare,” and, much to the crowd’s delight, “The Letter.”  The following day, Chilton signed autographs at a record convention in town and we briefly chatted.  He had mastered the celebrity art of being simultaneously polite and terse.  While friendly enough, he was shaking in a very pronounced manner that afternoon and he was accompanied by a young teenage girl that appeared to have been in some kind of caretaker role.  It was a strange experience.

Author Holly George-Warren expertly chronicles Chilton’s uniquely strange life in her new book about the man.  We learn that the Chilton family landed on American shores in 1660 and his forefathers were new world aristocrats with an extended history of serving in positions of power and influence.  His own father did not continue that tradition.  During his youth, Alex lived in a post-war Memphis suburban home and was known as a shy, introverted, yet mischievous boy.  His older brother Reid, ten years senior to Alex and a person that he idolized, tragically died at the age of seventeen, sending shock waves through the family.  The Chilton’s relocated within the city and their new home became a bohemian hangout for musicians, progressives, and anyone looking for a party.  His father, a tenor sax player, often stayed up all night performing with other musicians that would meander in and out of the home.  Alcohol flowed freely in the Chilton household.

Alex was a good athlete as a teenager, but began drinking, smoking, and developed a life-long obsession with pot at a young age.  After performing at a high school talent show, a Memphis garage band with connections named the DeVilles recruited him to be their lead singer.  At the age of 16, after partying all night with a girlfriend, a groggy Chilton walked into a recording studio for the first time and belted out “The Letter,” – a number one pop hit that eventually sold over four million copies.  The DeVilles were rechristened as The Box Tops and Alex was thrown into pop stardom.

Chilton, who had already tried to commit suicide before “The Letter” hit, didn’t find being in The Box Tops particularly satisfying.  He had good enough ears to profusely thank songwriter Spooner Oldham the first time he heard “Cry Like A Baby,” but he became stuck for the next few years performing music he wasn’t terribly fond of.  One of the side benefits of the touring was working with the Beach Boys; Carl Wilson was particularly generous in giving Alex guitar lessons.  Visiting the Beach Boys in California and awaking to find Charles Manson, then friends with the Wilson brothers, staring at him intently was less pleasurable.

After leaving the Box Tops, Alex shuffled for a few years between Memphis and New York.  He recorded solo material at Ardent Studios and performed as a solo artist in Greenwich Village folk clubs.  He then joined Big Star, whose musical successes and commercial failures have been well documented during the past few years.  George-Warren is more direct in dealing with Chris Bell’s sexual orientation issues than the producers of the Nothing Can Hurt Me documentary.

After Big Star’s 3rd/Sister Lovers album was released, a self-destructive Chilton who was heavily into drugs and had spent all of the money from his Box Tops days moved to New York and soaked up the 1977 CBGB’s punk rock scene.  He then focused on side projects, such as serving as the producer for the Cramps and a guitarist for the Memphis performance art project Panther Burns.  By the early 1980s, he was supplementing his income by working as a cab driver.

Chilton dropped out of the music business in the early ‘80s, moved to New Orleans, and worked a number of menial jobs (dishwasher, janitor, tree trimmer).  During the mid-80s, his commercial and cultural fortunes improved dramatically.  The Bangles covered “September Gurls” as an album track and Chilton would eventually receive over $100,000 in royalties from that recording.  When The Replacements, the most critically acclaimed band of the ‘80s, wrote an ode to Chilton, young music fans became interested in his work.  The use of “In The Street” as the theme song for That ‘70s Show brought even more income.  (However, none of this money kept Alex from living in a tent for the majority of the 1990s.  He was a different kind of guy).

Chilton spent the last few decades of his life alternating between his touring trio, working in a reformed version of Big Star, and even doing lucrative shows on the oldies circuit with The Box Tops.  He became something of a walking Great American Songbook, with a deep love for blues and jazz pop songs.  On an interpersonal level, the innate contrarian was often a self-absorbed jerk (he didn’t treat women particularly well, nor did he take on an active parenting role).

George-Warren hits every note perfectly as Chilton’s biographer.  She has the background in journalism to be heavily invested in the facts and she’s an astute critic that can convey both the technical and emotional aspects of the music Chilton produced.  Although she knew Chilton personally, there are no grand pronouncements or effusive praise that impacts the writer’s credibility.  Chilton was a fascinating rock ‘n’ roll character and Holly George-Warren has delivered a book that deserves shelf space next to #1 Record and Radio City for any serious music fan.

Grade – A

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