In rock ’n’ roll, they say it’s better to burn out than to fade away, but as in any industry, there are other ways of living and dying. Alex Chilton cut a path somewhere down the middle. Igniting at 16 and smoldering the rest of his life, he was brighter and more sober at certain parts than others. He survived, despite impressive efforts against himself, to become an indie music icon, a founder of power pop and a driving force in the psychobilly and punk scenes. In her new biographyA Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, from Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man, Holly George-Warren maps out his musical life and the brilliant moments and black-outs along the way. No one in rock ’n’ roll has been so high and low.
George-Warren’s portrait shows that, to a larger degree than Chilton’s fans might care to admit, his musical career was largely defined by his collaborators, sometimes in a balance that disfavored Chilton. At 16, he joined the Box Tops, a Memphis boy band that found chart-topping success in the late ’60s thanks to songs written, produced and often recorded by others (“Gimme a ticket for an air-o-plane…”). His startling growl of a voice struck a chord, though he rarely sang that way again. He developed a habit of not giving people what they want.
In 1971, after the Box Tops disbanded, Chilton returned to Memphis and reconnected with some other wealthy Memphis kids jamming and gigging around town. One of them was Chris Bell, a confident talent expecting to make it big. They formed Big Star and made #1 Record, a power-pop masterpiece, which, despite the duo’s plan for Lennon-McCartney-like credit, and despite Chilton’s greater renown in the music press, is arguably more Bell’s record than Chilton’s. Similarly, the album’s immaculate polish was cooked up by John Fry, perhaps the era’s best engineer. Of course, Chilton’s maturing talent was all over the music, but even he would be loath to call the album anything close to his.
Regardless, the record tanked, primarily due to bungled distribution. Bell couldn’t handle the disappointment; he attempted suicide and, for the most part, gave up rock ’n’ roll. He died at 27.
Sans Bell, Chilton and the rest of the band regrouped with new material—“September Gurls” being the standout—as well as some uncredited Bell co-compositions that turned into Radio City, another classic by today’s standards. At the time, though, in 1974, the album didn’t do much. A third Big Star album—Big Star in name only, since it was mostly a Chilton affair—was recorded with legendary producer Jim Dickinson, who (rightfully) considered himself a collaborator but was accused of indulging an increasingly unhinged Chilton. By then, Fry had seen enough of the insanity Chilton was bringing into the studio, so he cut the sessions short. Those deranged, beguiling recordings weren’t even properly released until years later.
Still, Chilton didn’t give up—or rather, he was unsuccessful at giving up. Over the years, his sex/drugs/rock ’n’ roll lifestyle was of clichéd proportions that could have been mistaken for a death wish; he slit his wrists at least once, too. Even later, at nearly 50, he told a journalist he’d never felt more alone. But somehow, in the face of such frustration and disappointment, where other musicians—Chris Bell; anyone—might have ended their careers or their lives, Chilton bounced back every time, brimming with renewed energy usually pointed in a new direction.
And for all George-Warren’s deep research into recording sessions, playlists and tour dates, that element of Chilton’s personality remains hidden. How did he have the fortitude when others didn’t? Where did he get the strength?
“[Alex] continued to pursue his muse—wherever it took him,” George-Warren says. “He became disillusioned with the music ‘biz’ and wanted to do things his way, to play music that interested him rather than what others wanted him to do.” That was punk when punk was just figuring out what punk was. He moved back to New York right before punk broke in 1977, as if he knew it would and he’d fit right in.
After years of being surrounded by ace musicians and studio professionals, Chilton found enjoyment in vivacious amateurs. Maybe that borrowed, easygoing passion was the source of his own vigor. Or maybe it was his David Bowie–like sense of rejuvenation by producing and latching on to new, usually unrecorded bands: the Cramps, Tav Falco and Panther Burns, the Replacements, to name a few.
Borrowed or not, that passion and artistic integrity put him on a pedestal for a new generation, especially since, as jaded music fans realize, the path to irrelevance is an oft-taken, easy one.
Of course, pop analysis aside, creating some kick-ass tunes had something to do with it. “His music overrides the cult of personality,” George-Warren says. “When people discover his music, they often feel like they’ve discovered a lost treasure.”
Big Star, in particular, has taken on that lost-treasure status, like a secret handshake for music lovers. Chilton thought differently, as he often did: “I think in general Big Star is overrated,” he once said.
Ryan Leahey is an Indie editor at Kirkus Reviews.