The sad life of a Big Star
By David Cotner 05/22/2014
A Man Called Destruction:
The Life and Music of Alex Chilton
2014, Viking, by Holly George-Warren
There has always been something timeless about Alex Chilton.
In A Man Called Destruction, Holly George-Warren’s heartbreaking, incisive new biography of the American singer-songwriter, it becomes poignantly apparent that it’s a timelessness that’s worked itself into the framework of the American songbook, its strains and influence finding a way out through everything from oldies radio to the spirit of independent music.
It ties together generations in a way that’s emblematic of the secret despair that operates behind the scenes of American life. Chilton’s hit single “The Letter,” written for his band The Box Tops, languished before taking off in the wake of his suicide attempt and the love of his life disintegrating. The sudden success of the song — taking off as quickly as the ascending jets heard in its background — belied an unhappiness Chilton suffered through as a young man with a baby and a fractious young wife, a situation put off by touring with The Box Tops even as public tastes changed and the fortunes of the band flagged.
After a period of drifting and rootlessness, Chilton became inspired by the dark unlikeliness of The Velvet Underground and New York City punk. Those phenomena were a fascinating counterpoint to the earlier blues and Beatles influences that were disliked into #1 Record, the 1972 debut album by his new group Big Star, named for a local grocery store and founded with longtime friend and sometime enemy, guitarist Chris Bell.
Bell, who would die in 1978 after having been crushed by a utility pole after crashing his car at age 27, left after acrimony between the band members weighed against the near-universal acclaim of the album by the music press. It was a death that changed Chilton irrevocably; Bell was buried on Chilton’s 28th birthday. He began to work more as a songwriter and mentor to others — a “backdoor” man whose influence on up-and-coming artists is an archetype as old as the man who legendarily tuned Robert Johnson’s guitar at a Mississippi crossroads. It was a kind of withdrawal that served his sanity as much as the mythos surrounding his storied, troubled existence.
The ageless concerns that flow from normal boring life often become art that transcends time, and Chilton tapped into these aspects of life even as he transmuted them into songs that, by the time of his death in 2010 at 58, influenced everyone from The Replacements (most famously with their sonic love letter “Alex Chilton”) to Tom Waits and The Cramps (whose debut album, Songs The Lord Taught Us, was produced by Chilton). In a moment of rare financial deliverance, the Big Star song “In the Street,” which was written for #1 Record with Bell, was used as the theme song for That ’70s Show, bringing him an unimagined level of peace (and a new piano) in his New Orleans retreat.
And yet after all the years of difficulty with finding Big Star’s records — a casualty of war of Big Star’s parent label Stax and its subsequent owners Columbia, which increasingly warehoused records on a label it owned but didn’t truly understand — Chilton was blessed with a Zen-like sense of perspective. “Somewhere along the line,” he admitted to late drummer Epic Soundtracks in 1985, “I figured out that if you only press up a hundred copies of a record, then eventually it will find its way to the hundred people in the world who want it most.” Or, as George-Warren so insightfully reveals in A Man Called Destruction, the people in the world who need it most.