I just read Holly George-Warren’s A Man Called Destruction: the Life and Music of Alex Chilton. I was a huge Alex Chilton fan in my not-so-wayward youth in the 1980s, as I discussed in this 2010 post (prompted then by the 33 1/3 book on Radio City and the Big Star box set), so it was great to fill in a lot of details and to understand parts of the story that had always been hazy or sketchy for me. Overall it’s an excellent biography, I thought –at least for a fan; you might not have the stamina for the whole thing if you weren’t already one.
A few observations:
- This isn’t news, but reading the whole biography made clear how incredibly strange Chilton’s career was, with some weirdly history-defying twists and diversions. He’s a teenage star as the singer of the somewhat manufactured pop group the Box Tops in the mid and late 60s. When the band finally fizzles out in 1970, Chilton is all of 20 years old. When Big Star similarly (well, very differently) fizzles out in 1974/5, the guy is 25 years old, having already lived through two full lives in the music business. What I hadn’t really fully understood is that in the immediate post-Big Star years, Chilton spent quite a lot of time in NYC and was even a semi-fixture at CGBGs right in the dawning of the punk scene. He “stayed in New York for much of 1977, the year punk broke… Ball and Ork had already booked another prime gig: opening for Talking Heads at CBGB March 3-5, two sets each night.” Chilton told a fanzine, “Everybody loves me here, it’s incredible. In Memphis everybody thinks I’m a jerk. Come up here, get respect, girls wanna sleep with me.” “CBGBs soon became Alex’s second home…. ‘I could drink free at CBGBs,’ Alex said. ‘The Ramones, Blondie, and the Talking Heads were all coming out of that scene and were already too big to get close to or to be friends with. But Richard Hell was omnipresent… The Dead Boys lived right across the street; I enjoyed their company.” “Alex and the band opened at CB’s for Lester Bangs… The previous night, two of Alex’s favorite bands had been on the bill with Bangs– the Ramones and the Cramps… Alex had become obsessed with the Cramps and saw them whenever possible.” Etc. There’s something about all of this that just seems so strange. Chilton was/ should have been a total legend at this point. But instead he’s this punk fanboy hanging around CBGBs waiting in line to see the Dead Boys. And he’s still just 26 or so.
- Perhaps the most mind-blowing such detail, with Chilton as a strange Zelig figure of the late 70s scene: “Alex still had his derelict apartment on East Ninth Street, which now had no electricity. He hadn’t paid rent in two months and was about to be evicted, so he packed his duffel bag once more and headed back to Memphis in time for his 27th birthday. A week later the Sex Pistols played their second show in America… in Memphis… Arriving early, Alex helped set up equipment… and tuned Steve Jones’ guitar for him.” !!??!!
- Something else I probably should have realized: Lou Reed’s Berlin was a big influence on Sister Lovers/ Big Star Third. That makes sense. (That the album contains a cover of a Velvet Underground song (“Femme Fatale”) somehow kept me from considering Reed’s later music as an influence.) In 1981 a New York Rocker writer and musician (Glenn Morrow), reviewing a dissolute live performance, observed, “Like a Memphis version of Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal,… Chilton reminded me a bit of Lou Reed, circa 1975, slightly paunchy in plan t-shirt and jeans mixing banality with the occasional glimmer of greatness.” Morrow concluded (wonderfully), “To be so fucking talented, a great songwriter who doesn’t seem to be writing anymore, a gifted guitar player who chooses just to sing, a singer who chooses to warble off-key. It doesn’t take much to sit in the corner laughing while the bull trashes the china shop. Come on, Alex, ain’t it about time you took the bull by the horns?”
- Few others are likely to care about this, but I was fascinated to come across a citation from a thoughtful piece on Big Star published in 1975 or something by Mike Saunders, later “Metal” Mike Saunders of the Angry Samoans! I knew that he’d been a rock critic, but this still surprised me.
- Speaking of the Sex Pistols, Chilton’s on-again off-again relationship with the beautiful Lesa Aldridge (a lot of the songs on Sister Lovers are about her) eventually degenerated into Sid and Nancy territory. Not pretty. (There’s also at least one verified report of Chilton making an offhand anti-semitic comment, although it’s not entirely clear to what degree this reflected real prejudice, as opposed to being more about trying to shock and piss off the journalist.) The drug intake at times becomes pretty startling even by rock ‘n’ roll standards. Jim Dickinson on working on the Sister Lover sessions with Clinton: “”The first night of the first session I watched him shoot Demerol down his throat with a syringe,” said Dickinson. “That set the tone.””
- The biography left me pondering some large questions about causality, character, talent, and luck. What most explains Chilton’s fucked-up career and the fact that he never really got the recognition he deserved? The book sometimes feel like it could be titled, Operation: Undermine Music Career. The book can suggest various different possibilities. One relates to trauma and depression. Chilton’s beloved older brother Reid suffered a powerful seizure (he was prone to them) while taking a bath in 1957, just after graduating from high school, and drowned. This hit the 7-year-old Alex hard, and he later attempted suicide twice (cutting his wrists), and once passed out in a bath and almost died as his brother did. One gets the distinct impression that Chilton’s drug abuse was partially (as it usually is, probably) self-medication. Or, one can read his drug & alcohol problems less as effect of something else, and more the central thing itself: perhaps he just happened to have an addictive personality, a tendency toward self-indulgence, and a dangerous profession for someone with those tendencies.
- And then, when it comes to his relationship with the music business, do we see him mostly as a victim of a system that couldn’t recognize his genius? Or as bearing more culpability or at least agency in the process? There’s a lot of evidence for the first view, as Big Star couldn’t have gotten much unluckier when it came to the way their records were handled. OTOH, Chilton had opportunity after opportunity that he either squandered or passed up, either out of perversity, bohemian intransigence, integrity, drug-addledness, depression, just not caring, following his own muse, not working well with others (choose your own theory).
- One detail that was fascinating to me: Alex’s older brother Howard got (or worked towards) his PhD in philosophy at Indiana University, and through Howard, Alex got turned onto the ideas of Wilhelm Reich. He later cited Reich’s 1933 book Character Analysis as a major influence, saying that after reading it, “I began sorting things out. Character Analysis helped me understand myself and the people around me… From then on, I kind of knew what I was doing and where I wanted to go.” He also seems to have taken astrology pretty seriously, to the extent that he had to vet any potential musical partners to ensure compatible astrological signs. (Well, it’s better than Scientology.)
- I just read Carl Wilson’s good review of the book, in which he makes the nice observation that “Chilton’s story is … a mystery about whatever drives a handful of artists to be great at the expense of being good, to gamble double or nothing on the long odds.”