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Monday, April 14, 2014

Alex Chilton’s Long, Strange Career

New biography on a musician who defied definition

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The shorthand for Alex Chilton is that he experienced his career in reverse.

In 1967, as the 16-year-old singer for The Box Tops, Chilton had a number-one hit with “The Letter.” He followed that group with the critically acclaimed, star-crossed Big Star whose three albums became the Rosetta Stone for power pop and beyond. The solo career that followed included albums wildly divergent in tone and material—ultimately defining Chilton as comfortable in his own skin.

With A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton from Box Tops to Big Star to Back Door Man (Viking), the singer (who died in 2010) gets a sympathetic biographer in Holly George-Warren. Equal parts fan and historian, she traces the Chilton family’s roots to Memphis, Tenn., where young Alex’s journey began with a part-time jazz musician father and mother who ran an art gallery out of their home.

A glimpse into The Box Tops whirlwind offers some perspective: “People talk about 1968 and how they were affected by it. I understand what they’re saying, but I probably played 250 dates in 1968,” Chilton said. “Whenever I wasn’t doing that I was in the recording studio.”

While these years would definitely affect Chilton’s psyche, George-Warren really digs in and offers a rare view of the Big Star years with accounts from many who experienced the scene. Virtually ignored at the time, Chilton and songwriting partner Chris Bell came up with a gem of a debut album. Chilton could be notoriously tight-lipped about this era so the author wisely fills in the blanks Rashomon-style with accounts from band members Andy Hummel, Jody Stephens and Richard Rosebrough; Terry Manning and John Fry of Ardent Studio (ground zero for the band’s recordings); Lesa Aldridge (Chilton’s muse) and producer/instigator Jim Dickinson.

While the consensus among the principals was they knew how special this music was, Chilton in later years would never give more than a lukewarm response if he addressed Big Star at all. (“Big Star was one thing. I was something else,” Chilton said.). Ultimately he made peace with his past performing ongoing reunion gigs with both The Box Tops and Big Star.

The twilight of Big Star’s gleaming flickered out as punk rock was dawning. Balancing his frustrations, personal demons and artistic desires Chilton reveled in the tidal DIY chaos. George-Warren gathers first-hand accounts from members of The Cramps (who Alex produced in Memphis) and The Panther Burns—a band whose manifesto-as-music was so wrapped in entropy that Chilton joined the group.

She also sources clear-eyed chronicles from acolytes who actually heard Big Star on their local radio stations. Before forming The dB’s, Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple both played with their hero.

Enamored with his visits to New Orleans, Chilton settled in the Crescent City in 1982, eventually buying a house there and surviving Hurricane Katrina. He also kicked alcohol and began releasing records on the French label New Rose. Touring with a drummer and bassist, Chilton barnstormed the college-radio circuit.

Observations from bassist Rene Coman and drummer Doug Garrison (who had played with Chilton’s father and had no knowledge of Alex’s career) illuminate the blueprint for Chilton’s final musical chapters. By this point Chilton had nothing to prove to anyone—not that a natural-born contrarian would have it any other way. His set lists just might include a few nods to his past, but anyone expecting more than that was gonna be sorry they bought a ticket to a gig. Chilton’s sets could include the psycho country of Porter Waggoner’s “Rubber Room,” Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song” and “Volare” sung in Italian. At a Milwaukee lakefront gig a teenage girl mistook Chilton as an oldies act and requested “Wooly Bully,” which he gladly obliged.

Taking into account everything from his teenybopper days to cult-idol, George-Warren does Chilton justice, defining him as an artist who could not be pinned down.