The Tragic Life of Alex Chilton

Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes ‘round/They sing “I’m in love. What’s that song?/ I’m in love with that song.”

The Replacements, “Alex Chilton”

Somewhere a long the line I figured out that if you only press up a hundred copies of a record, then eventually it will find it’s way to the hundred people in the world who want it most.

Alex Chilton in 1985 

Though familiarity with the band Big Star remains the equivalent of rock and roll’s secret handshake, 40 years later there’s little doubt about the band’s lasting impact. Big Star was not a descriptive moniker. They released four albums in the early 1970s, produced no hits, and sold very few records. Alex Chilton, the musical genius who fronted the band, is perhaps best known for a song another band wrote about him. Yet, somehow Big Star’s modest influence grew out of oblivion until it practically invented two cherished genres that define today’s musical landscape—power pop and indie rock. These days, Big Star is a lot more than a musical footnote. Scratch the surface of a music geek and you’re likely to expose the underlying dermatitis of a full-blown Big Star obsession.

Much to the delight of this sub rosa fandom, the first proper biography of Chilton, A Man Called Destruction by Holly George-Warren, landed on shelves last month. The book borrows its title from Chilton’s final solo record, and if you want to read that title as a literal summation of Chilton’s life, the book offers plenty of evidence for that interpretation. However, if there are any grand lessons to be learned from this definitive addition to the canon of rock lit, it’s really about some of the least rock and roll themes imaginable: What happens when you do—and don’t—take your job seriously.

Though Big Star is central to his musical legacy, Chilton’s legend doesn’t begin or end there. He was born to an accomplished pianist and exceedingly gifted Jazz musician in Memphis in 1950, about two years before Elvis Aaron Presley would make that city the most musically influential place on earth. While Chilton was still young, his much older brother had a seizure and drowned in the bathtub. His parents, unable to cope with the grief, chucked their staid suburban bridge club existence and bought a large townhouse in an iffy neighborhood in Memphis. His mother opened an art gallery on the first floor and his father spent all his nights in the house jamming with a never-ending parade of the region’s most talented jazz musicians, many of whom would stay at the Chilton residence for extended periods. For Chilton it was alternately a blessing and a curse that his parents were neglectful alcoholics. He had a great deal of independence at an early age and his hell-raising was abetted by his undeniable charm and appeal to the ladies.

By the mid-1960s, Memphis was teeming with teenage musicians captivated by their hometown’s role in birthing rock and roll, then the most dominant cultural expression of the era. Chilton had acquired no small amount of musical sophistication and talent just by virtue of parental osmosis. Well, that and he had a somewhat gimmicky ability to sing like soul-singers much darker and older than an upper-middle class white kid had any right to do. After a high school talent competition, Chilton was asked to join a local group of older musicians that eventually came to be called The Box Tops. Like Big Star, that name doesn’t mean much beyond music obsessives, but the band’s first single sold a few million copies and remains one of the most recognizable hits of the sixties. When “The Letter” hit number one, Chilton was just 16 years old.

The Box Tops churned out a number of minor hits after that, and Chilton, who had dropped out of school, went on tour with the band and partook in the usual rock and roll carousing. He partied with The Doors, and with The Box Tops’ brief career winding down, he even moved out to California to live with Brian and Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys. (It was there that he once crashed on the same couch with Charles Manson.) With The Box Tops breaking up, he largely abandoned the pursuit of fame. He taught himself to play guitar, worked on writing his own songs, and moved to New York where he became a fixture on the Greenwich Village folk scene. Along the way he got married, had a child, and divorced not long after. After briefly connecting with Chris Bell, a visionary musician from his teenage days in Memphis, Chilton moved back home to join his band. Big Star recorded and released their first album, the ironically titled #1 Record.

All this happened by the time he was 21. At an age when most of us were still trying to decide what we were going to do with our lives, Chilton had lit the fuse on a bomb that’s still sending shockwaves through pop music. But by the time we get to Chilton’s involvement with Big Star, well, here’s where George-Warren’s book, with its exhaustive details and an impressive authorial command, departs from the traditional rock and roll narrative. (And I do mean exhaustive—the book’s opening chapter traces the Chilton family history back to 11th century Normandy. If you want to know which houseguest Chilton’s mother showed how to make homemade mayonnaise, well, it’s all in here.)

Here’s a heavily abbreviated version of what happened: After a too brief and brilliant career, Big Star simply collapsed. Despite some positive critical notices, they remained largely unknown for a decade afterwards. Big Star’s music was so undeniably good that, over time, critical consensus simply reached critical mass. The resurrection of Big Star in the 1980s was a heartening and surprising event that’s almost unique in rock history.

But it’s not clear that Big Star ever could have been resigned to their fate of musical obscurity. Some of the blame for Big Star’s initial failure belongs on the usual corporate music industry shenanigans. However, if we’re being honest, A Man Called Destruction makes it clear enough that the band’s demise was the result of the usual hell broth of ’70s rock excesses: booze, quaaludes, egos, women, and mental illness compounded by all the preceding factors. For better or for worse, rock legends typically venerate this behavior by lamenting how fame is thoroughly corrupting and impossible to resist. Big Star puts that lie to the test, because the band was never famous to begin with. Far from excusable, reading about the band’s self-destructive behavior becomes simply maddening. All that squandered potential!

Bell, a brilliant songwriter his own right, left the band after the first record. He was prone to violent outbursts and soon spent two months in a psychiatric ward following a suicide attempt, largely because he was unhealthily preoccupied with the band’s dismal sales. Chilton continued to crank out some fantastic tunes without Bell, but his selfish indulgences, cavalier approach toward performing, and snotty attitude toward his fans and press makes you want to reach through the pages and slap the guy. Another member of the band just got sick of the drama and went back to college. Reading about this is all the more frustrating when you read accounts of innovative employees at the band’s little-record-label-that-could working hard to sell a band they genuinely believed in.

However, all of this terrible behavior at least puts what the band did right into pretty sharp relief. The band wrote fantastic songs, but a huge part the band’s success was simply that their records sounded amazing. Chilton put it this way: “We spent a lot of time recording… and tried to get good sounds out of our guitars. I don’t think that people will make a guitar band sound better than we made our band sound.” Far from boasting, Chilton here is simply stating a fact. Grab some headphones and listen to “Thirteen.” Forty years on, and I’m not sure any rock record has so perfectly captured the organic essence of an acoustic guitar. Now check out the chiming guitars in “Back of A Car.” You know that jangling sound that defined R.E.M. and legions of other indie rockers? Bow down, because Big Star was the first to perfect it.

As Chilton says, this was not an accident. If you’ve ever spent any time in a studio, you probably have some idea of what a tedious process recording is. And that’s doubly true in Big Star’s era of analog tape, where autotune and the notion of cutting and pasting digital sound files was a matter of science fiction. Bell was a recording engineer prodigy, and Chilton also spent considerable time apprenticing at the Ardent Studios where their work impressed the studio’s owner and employees. As a result, Big Star was allowed free rein to and unlimited time to record their albums at the best recording facility in Memphis. While rock and roll may seem like little more than young turks bashing away on instruments, the precision, labor, and technical complexity involved in engineering records that sounded as good as Big Star’s albums speaks to an uncommon dedication in men so young. Indeed, A Man Called Destruction lovingly recounts the amazing amount of work that went into the band’s recordings—it was not uncommon for the band to record through the night and sleep on the floor of the studio.

As for the band’s justly praised songcraft, again, we find that it only sounds effortless. The first time I heard Big Star’s “Daisy Glaze” I half-wondered if I’d imagined the song. The song’s unconventional structure, melody and tempo changes are so far ahead of its time it seems like it couldn’t possibly have been recorded four decades ago. The song starts out as a contradiction; it’s a gorgeous, plodding, dirge until about two minutes in. A snaky guitar line emerges as the whole song breaks wide-open melodically. The rhythm accelerates into a constrained, straight ahead beat as the harmonies of the chorus ascend. The tempo pulls back again as the drums get heavy. And then the guitar scales ever upward and eventually the whole song just swirls away.

Pulling off that kind of musical sophistication in the context of a 3-minute pop-song was not a happy accident. In A Man Called Destruction, Chilton nonchalantly plays off the intellectual exercise involved in writing Daisy Glaze. “I had some experience listening to Baroque music before that, but I was starting to get into it more and more in 1973,” Chilton recounts. “I was really starting to dig on Bach and Handel—discovering Handel for the first time. … The transition from slow to fast cops Handel Movement One of Concerto Grosso Number 7.”

It seems clear that, if Chilton and Big Star had taken even a fraction of the next level effort they put into their music and applied it to the other areas of their personal and professional lives, Big Star might have actually been big stars.

For whatever reason, the meaning others found in Big Star’s music was largely lost on the people who created it. Or at least it was until it was too late. Bell continued to struggle with depression, but found Jesus and worked with Chilton a few more times before dying in a car accident in 1978 at age 27. Bell at least left behind I Am The Cosmos, his justly celebrated, posthumous solo record. (Oddly enough, it was the irreligious and astrology-obsessed Chilton who recorded Big Star’s earnest tribute “Jesus Christ.”) As for Chilton, he eventually gravitated to New York’s punk scene, before fully embracing his legacy in the ’80s. During the last few decades of his life, he performed with reformed versions of both Big Star and The Box Tops, as well as put out his own solo records. Carrying on the family tradition, his New Orleans home became haven for friends who wanted to stop in and jam.

By the time he died in 2010, several successive generations of rock bands were claiming Chilton and Big Star as their own. Legends like The Replacements and R.E.M. rarely failed to name check him. Alongside huge hits “Walk Like An Egyptian” and “Manic Monday,” The Bangles multi-platinum record Different Light also featured a cover of Big Star’s “September Gurls.” In the ’90s, critical darlings Teenage Fanclub did such a blatant and admirable job recapturing Big Star’s sensibilities with loud fuzzy guitars that Chilton used to fly to Scotland to hang out with the band. And by the turn of the century, Cheap Trick had turned Big Star’s “In The Street” into the theme song for That ’70s Show, one of the most popular programs on television.

Chilton died in 2010 unexpectedly of a heart attack, and while his death at 59 was tragic and far too soon, it was a wonderfully un-rock and roll way to go: He died mowing the lawn. There’s no evidence he ever found spiritual redemption the way that Bell did. But among Christians, there’s a succinct motto for how to find meaning in life dating back to St. Benedict in the 6th century: Ora et labora, or simply “pray and work.” Reflecting on his time with Big Star, A Man Called Destruction notes that whatever counterproductive tendencies dogged Chilton in his younger days, he eventually got the work part of the equation right. “The important thing is to make a good record,” he said. “Because if you make a good record, it doesn’t matter what happens. It’s going to sell from then on to some degree, even though it doesn’t sell anything when it comes out and is a big disappointment to everybody. If it’s really good, people are going to want it from then on, and that’s the important thing. It might take five or ten years for it to pay off—or it might take twenty years, and you might be dead when it pays off. If it’s good, it’s going to pay off for somebody, sometime.”

This statement was eerily prophetic in one respect. Chilton died just a few days before he was to appear at a massive tribute concert to his musical career at the South By Southwest Music Festival in Austin. The number of rock luminaries lined up to participate meant that the event might well have even been the apex of Chilton’s fame. But one more missed opportunity in a life full of them doesn’t mean much for the legacy of Chilton. The work he left behind will be paying off for a long time to come.

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6 responses to “The Tragic Life of Alex Chilton

  1. I tried #1 Record and just didn’t get it. I suspect a lot of people had the same reaction. The problem with critics’ darlings and cult heroes is that we’re supposed to feel guilty because we don’t do what journalists tell us to do.

  2. @Chris Davis, that’s why music is so subjective. I didn’t get that the author meant for anyone to have to agree with his assessment. I’m from Memphis and perhaps had a hometown love for Alex but I’m also acutely aware of his influence on some of my favorite guitarists. And that’s where I think his memory should be. Just my opinion of course.

  3. Just to set the record straight on a few facts mentioned in the review above:

    1.) ‘A Man Call Destruction’ was not his last album (which was “Live in Anvers”) or even his last studio album (that was “Set” or, as it was title in Europe “Loose Shoes and Tight Pussy,” a title that comes from an infamous quote by politician Earl Butz). Also, there literally was “a man called Destruction,” and it wasn’t Alex (though I’m sure Alex meant it to apply to himself as well). This biography mentions that Alex was tipping his hat to an blues pianist who played with Howlin’ Wolf early in the Wolf’s career: William “Destruction” Johnson.

    2.) Chilton’s dad was a fine amateur pianist, but by no means “exceedingly gifted” or professionally accomplished. He sold industrial lighting for a living. A cool man, no doubt, but it’s not like he was the Bud Powell of Memphis.

    3.) He didn’t have a “somewhat gimmicky ability to sing like soul-singers much darker and older than an upper-middle class white kid” until Dan Penn got him in the studio and coached him, syllable by syllable, on how to sing in the voice he used on ‘The Letter’ and other Box Tops hits. Alex was a natural musician, but his vocal work on the Box Tops’ records was largely dictated by how his producer Penn envisioned a the sound of a given record. Prior to working with Penn, according to the biography being reviewed here, Alex was more like to try to sound like Chet Baker than Wilson Pickett.

    4.) Chilton did apparently have a heart attack brought on by mowing the lawn, though he literally died in the hospital later that day.

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