An Invisible Man, A Visible Voice
By Robert ReaMay 10, 2014
A Man Called Destruction by Holly George-Warren
A MAN CALLED DESTRUCTION records the life of pop idol-turned-cult hero Alex Chilton. “In titling his 1995 album A Man Called Destruction — his last solo release filled with mostly his own songs — he acknowledged that he had often torn up the paths he’d taken before, wiping out the footprints, starting anew,” writes Holly George-Warren. The evocative name of the album casts Chilton’s life as a variation on the American dream, a rags-to-riches tale in reverse. He burned brightest as a teen vocalist for the Box Tops and power pop innovator with Big Star, so the title suggests, before eventually fizzling out. Much more than this, A Man Called Destruction is an endlessly fascinating bio of a self-made — indeed, a self-invented — iconoclast “starting anew” at the cutting edge of rock’s domain.
George-Warren’s thorough reporting brings Memphis to life during an era of possibilities for aspiring musicians. She neatly traces the ascent of Sun Studios, Sam Phillips, and Elvis Presley as a partial backdrop for Alex’s boyhood. His adolescent years unfurl alongside the rise of soul hit makers at Stax Records. Closer to home, the Chilton household doubled as an artsy clubhouse for the cultured crowd, which included photographer William Eggleston. A classically trained jazz pianist, Sidney Chilton often hosted fellow musicians on their way to and from gigs, and his considerable record collection captivated his son at an early age. On Saturday nights, Alex tuned his radio to the weekly broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. Listening to WDIA, the nation’s first all-black-staffed radio station, he discovered the Delta blues. Memphis furnished a welcoming environment for a precocious kid who’d score his first #1 single before graduating high school.
Alex launched his career as a blue-eyed soul singer under the guidance of Chips Moman and Dan Penn. The duo hit it off as songwriting partners on Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.” In 1967, Moman left his position as house producer at Stax to design and oversee American Recording Studio and hired Penn from Muscle Shoals as his engineer. Around the same time, Alex hooked up with one of the hottest bands on the high school circuit, the Devilles. Soon afterward, their manager booked a recording session at American, where Moman handed the group a demo with a song called “The Letter.” With Penn as a first-time producer, the newly renamed Box Tops cut the biggest hit of 1968. Alex was sixteen-years-old.
“I guess my life has been a series of flukes in the record business. The first thing I did was the biggest record that I’ll ever have,” Alex reflected twenty years after “The Letter” climbed the charts. By his own admission, his career as a pop star took a downhill turn from there. Even so, he continued to evolve as an artist. After two years of constant touring, he quit the Box Tops and moved to New York. Whereas Memphis molded him into a famous frontman, Greenwich Village nurtured his sensibility as a forward-thinking artist. Experimentalism, rather than commercial appeal, prevailed in Lower Manhattan’s thriving underground scene. Alex thumbed through the vinyl racks at Village Oldies where Lenny Kaye worked as a clerk, bumped in to Patti Smith at a Todd Rundgren gig, and caught the final shows by the Velvet Underground at Max’s Kansas City. Alex especially admired Lou Reed. Brian Eno might as well have been speaking of Big Star when he said everyone who bought the first run of Velvet Underground records had started a band. Just like Reed and John Cale, Chilton and Chris Bell had an enormous impact on a younger generation of rock bands, despite underwhelming record sales and minimal crossover.
The story’s been told in the superb documentary Nothing Can Hurt Me, but it bears repeating. In February of 1971, Alex moved back to Memphis to fulfill a promise to join a new group formed by Bell. As if the band’s name weren’t ambitious enough, Big Star doubled down by titling their debut #1 Record. Overwhelmingly positive reviews from all the major voices in music writing followed, but the critical acclaim never culminated with a hit record. How did an album widely recognized as a power pop masterpiece initially come off as a commercial flop? George-Warren sheds light on Big Star as a cult phenomenon by probing the question from all sides. Part lore, their story personifies all the usual rock tropes: squabbling among members, shady business deals, drugs and alcohol, youth and innocence, that sort of thing. For Alex, the reason for Big Star’s commercial failure was elusive. At one point, he faulted Chris for refusing to book gigs, “We thought we were the Beatles and weren’t playing live anymore.” He later blamed the lack of audience on general trends in mainstream rock. “We weren’t popular in our environment at all,” he recalled, “All these fledgling kinds of heavy-metal outfits and blues-playing outfits — that’s what people wanted to hear. Me having been in the Box Tops was sort of a disgrace [among hard rock fans] at the time, too.” Whatever the cause, the relative obscurity of Big Star only burnished Alex’s legacy as an uncompromising romantic for indie-rock bands like R.E.M. and the Replacements.
While Alex’s post-Big Star body of work isn’t celebrated like his early material, he reinvented himself once again in the late 1970s as a punk pioneer. The release of his solo debut, Singer Not the Song, led to an opening slot for the Talking Heads at CBGB. Memphis studio wizard Jim Dickinson produced his first full-length, the underappreciated Like Flies on Sherbert. An early proponent of the Cramps, Alex took the role of producer on their first album, the psychobilly classic Songs the Lord Taught Us. As the 1980s unfolded, he accepted a backup role as guitarist for Tav Falco and the Panther Burns, a freewheeling ensemble noted for their deconstructive take on country, blues, and rockabilly. All the while, the legend of Big Star grew in stature. Paul Westerberg’s ode from the Replacement’s Pleased to Meet Me, of course, mythologized Alex as an archetypal hero of the indie-rock ethos. By the early 1990s, he had come to terms with his cult status. Big Star reunited in 1993 with a new lineup and remained active, touring internationally, until Chilton’s death in 2010.
Vividly written and carefully researched, A Man Called Destruction indeed chronicles how substance abuse, squandered opportunities, and erratic performances paved a destructive path for Alex. But spotlighting such a predictable downward spiral elicits all the insipid played-out-ness of a Behind the Music episode. What makes his life remarkable instead is his relentless determination to push the artistic boundaries of rock, with little regard for the dream of American success. George-Warren’s definitive portrait makes Chilton — an invisible man for people who don’t follow pop music closely — a visible voice, even if the title partly clouds what shines between the covers.
Robert Rea lives in Oxford, Mississippi. He has written pieces on literature and music from the American South for the Southern Literary Journal, Southern Quarterly, and Mississippi Quarterly, among others. He currently teaches courses in American literature at the University of Mississippi.
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