In 1993, I persuaded the Tribune's then-arts editor to send me to Columbia, Mo., to report on the first show in almost 20 years of a cult band that loomed huge for those of us under its spell. Two University of Missouri undergrads had phoned the ever-enigmatic Alex Chilton asking whether he'd reunite the long-gone Big Star for the school's Springfest, and to their astonishment — and that of Big Star drummer Jody Stephens — he agreed.
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The surprise stemmed from the fact that after recording Big Star's melodic-rock masterworks "#1 Record" (1972) and "Radio City" (1974), each of which was widely praised in the rock press but undermined by parent-company woes and almost-nonexistent distribution, Chilton set out on a bridge-burning course. The band's fractured swan song, "Third/Sister Lovers" (recorded in 1974, released in 1978), offered what sounded like the sublime soundtrack to a nervous breakdown, and subsequent solo releases conveyed further instability without the counterbalance of beautiful, or even necessarily listenable, music.
Although the Big Star albums came to be hailed as classics — Rolling Stone included all three among its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and the band was championed by R.E.M., the dB's, Matthew Sweet, the Bangles (who covered "September Gurls" in 1986), the Replacements (who recorded the 1987 single "Alex Chilton") and many others — Chilton tended to dismiss his former band. So what brought him to a multi-act bill in a university parking lot tent to revive Big Star with Stephens and two members of the Seattle power-pop band the Posies?
"No good reason," Chilton drawled when I asked him before the show. After leading the band through a ragged set that ranged from transcendence ("The Ballad of El Goodo") to perversity (Chilton turning his beautiful acoustic guitar ballad "Thirteen" into something lecherous), he revealed little more. Did he want to do more Big Star shows?
Did any of the songs sound better than he remembered them?
Yet over the next couple of decades, he did perform more Big Star shows with this lineup, including one in 1994 at Metro in which he dedicated a cover of Todd Rundgren's "Slut" to Stephens' wife, infuriating the sweet-tempered drummer. Why would Chilton feel compelled to lob a grenade into what had been a glorious night? Why, over his 59 years before his death of a heart attack in 2010, did he approach his life and career with such recklessness? He gave few clear answers, leaving his friends, bandmates and now author Holly George-Warren the formidable task of assembling this complex puzzle with more than a few missing pieces.
George-Warren's "A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton from Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man" is not a triumphant book. It can't be, as it traces less an arc than a descent followed by occasional plateaus and minor rebounds. Chilton's career begins at a high point: "The first thing I ever did was the biggest record that I'll ever have," Chilton says in reference to the Box Tops' "The Letter," for which he recorded his husky lead vocal as the Memphis band's newly recruited, husky-voiced, 16-year-old singer. Clocking in at just under 2 minutes, the soulful yet poppy "The Letter" became 1967's second biggest hit (after Lulu's "To Sir, With Love," according to Billboard) and propelled the producer-driven Box Tops into a career that spanned four albums and a few more hits ("Cry Like a Baby," "Soul Deep") but offered Chilton little of the creative freedom he came to desire. It did, though, get him on tour with the Beach Boys, sparking his friendship with the three Wilson brothers and resulting in the bizarre scene of him waking up one morning on a sectional couch in Dennis Wilson's house to find Charles Manson sprawled out next to him.
George-Warren is a detail person, and she does a fine job of laying out the gig-to-gig, recording-session-to-recording-session life of a high school kid working in a 1960s professional band. We Big Star cultists tend not to be as up on the Box Tops, so this is interesting stuff. But the big picture remains elusive. The book begins slowly with a dry recounting of the Chilton family history (it involves a boat from England in the 17th or 18th century), and I'm not sure the author answers the "why are we reading this?" question that might nag at the uninitiated.
The pivotal event in Chilton's childhood is the death of his older brother Reid, who drowns in a bathtub following a seizure apparently brought on by an earlier head injury. George-Warren writes that Chilton would never fully recover from the tragedy, though this is more a matter of speculation and logic ("You can only imagine how traumatic that would have been," a friend says) than a point illustrated tangibly or dramatically. As for Chilton's own words on the subject, presented from an interview he gave decades later: "That was a big thing in the family of course."
Big Star was actually the brainchild of another young Memphis singer-songwriter, Chris Bell, who invited the more established Chilton into the band with visions of them becoming another Lennon/McCartney. That notion lasted for an album named as optimistically as the band was, "#1 Record," but despite the combination of powerhouse rockers and heartfelt acoustic songs — as well as Bell's obsessive efforts in the studio — it couldn't overcome the Memphis label's inability or unwillingness to get the record into stores. Bell's response? He tried erasing "#1 Record" studio tapes, took a bunch of drugs, attempted suicide and quit the band. He was a mess and would remain so until his December 1978 car crash death, though he did leave behind some more beautiful songs.
Chilton, who had been drinking and experimenting with drugs before he joined the Box Tops, was a mess for far longer. He, Stephens and bassist Andy Hummel forged ahead to record the more musically and emotionally raw "Radio City," which featured even greater should've-been-hits than "#1 Record." But the dissipated sessions for the third Big Star album, with only Chilton and Stephens left from the original group, grew so dark that Ardent studio/label owner John Fry had to object to blood on the console after more than one physical confrontation between Chilton and his girlfriend Lesa Aldridge, who sports two black eyes at one point. Fry and producer Jim Dickinson ultimately bar the singer-songwriter from the mixing sessions for fear that he would sabotage the recordings.
But they can't prevent him from doing the same to his career, as Chilton continues drinking, doing drugs, recording intentionally amateurish music and making a hash of his live shows as what some interpret as a prolonged punk art project. A pattern emerges as musicians who love Big Star seek him out and try to engage him musically only to wind up disillusioned by his erratic behavior and willingness to treat everyone and everything like garbage. By the time Chilton, already established as abusive, is singing a Nazi song on the radio and making anti-Semitic comments to a Jewish journalist, you may wonder why you're choosing to spend so much time with him.
For all of her exhaustive research in chronicling just about every one of Chilton's shows and recordings, George-Warren doesn't provide a fully satisfying answer. Chilton is a tough nut to crack. In interviews that the author has unearthed or conducted, he fills in some helpful plot points but reveals little more. Whatever the source of Chilton's "dark moods and aggression," noted back on page 40, is beyond reach.
It's not a book's job to explain someone who is mysterious or to establish someone's likability in order to make him a worthy subject. But it helps if that person's life can be placed into a larger dramatic or thematic context — or if the artist's creative process can be illuminated in some way. (I would've loved to hear more about how those Big Star songs were crafted and recorded.) The uncharitable view would be that Chilton and Bell were young guys who drank too much and did too many drugs, couldn't handle early career setbacks and self-destructed, though Chilton at least was able to pull himself out of his spiral. George-Warren makes clear there was more to Chilton than that — his love of various kinds of music, for one, and a generous, easygoing spirit that counterbalanced his dark side — and she knows well the worlds he inhabited in Memphis, the New York underground scene and finally New Orleans. But his life does not play out with the kind of scope or stakes of another early '70s power-pop band, Badfinger, a tragic tale that includes true villains, desperation and ultimately two band-member suicides (and is well covered in Dan Matovina's out-of-print "Without You: The Tragic Story of Badfinger").
George-Warren also gives short shrift to Chilton's final years; she asserts that he finally finds happiness with Laura Kersting, a classical flutist whom he marries, yet the author devotes one mere paragraph to the relationship on the book's penultimate page. "A Man Called Destruction" includes many quotes and testimonials, and the book certainly deepens the knowledge base of anyone with an interest in Big Star and its mercurial front man, but George-Warren can't quite get Chilton's life to sing — to make you feel his deep, wild swirl of emotions — the way he does on those unfathomable Big Star albums. But he does present a difficult tune.
Mark Caro writes about entertainment, the arts and culture for the Chicago Tribune and is author of "The Foie Gras Wars."
"A Man Called Destruction"
By Holly George-Warren, Viking, 370 pages, $27.95