A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man

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9780143127055: A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man

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Prologue

“Somewhere along the line 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 the most.”

Alex Chilton uttered those words to English musician Epic Soundtracks, a cult figure in his own right, in 1985. Nearly thirty years later—during the summer of 2013—New York’s Central Park hosted a concert celebrating 3rd/Sister Lovers, one of Alex’s groundbreaking, yet commercially unsuccessful albums. The following night, the documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me premiered in Manhattan, then opened around the country. Both events resulted in a flurry of Alex Chilton–related Facebook exchanges, blogging, and media coverage. The Central Park performance marked the pinnacle of eight concerts over a thirty-month span organized by former Chilton collaborator Chris Stamey. In U.S. cities as well as around the world, participants ranged from members of R.E.M. and Wilco to Robyn Hitchcock and M. Ward. A few weeks later, some of Alex’s noisiest acolytes, the Replacements, played their first gig in twenty-two years with their 1987 ode “Alex Chilton” now reaching an audience of fifty thousand, thanks to the internet.

For more than forty years, before his sudden death of a heart attack in March 2010, Alex Chilton touched three-plus generations of fans with his diverse musical legacy. He began his life in music in 1967 as a soulful-sounding teen idol before evolving into a brilliant songwriter and then punk provocateur in the 1970s. After a time in the wilderness—driving cabs, washing dishes, trimming trees—he became the revivified elder statesman of roots music and indie rock, from the mid-’80s until his passing. Musician Chuck Prophet wrote of him, “He defies categorization entirely. ENTIRELY. Isn’t that rock & roll? What rock & roll was and should be all about?”

Alex, though, was forever hell-bent on diverting attention from his artistic accomplishments and widening influence. Unimpressed with the laurels bestowed on him by music critics, alternative rockers, hipsters, and fans, Chilton carved out a sort of incognito life for himself in his adopted hometown of New Orleans.

Alex’s passing at age fifty-nine sent shock waves of grief through the music world and the international media. His death was noted on the evening news, NPR, and in more than a hundred newspapers. The New York Times Magazine included him in their annual “The Lives They Lived,” in which Rob Hoerburger theorized, “If one measure of rock stardom is being your own man, then Chilton, whose career was tracked with impurities, might have been the purest rock star of all.” Rolling Stone had already placed his three Big Star recordings into its 2003 list of the greatest albums of all time, and Spin, in its 25th anniversary issue, said Chilton “essentially invented indie and alternative rock.” In the Los Angeles Times, Ann Powers reflected, “Chilton wasn’t just a genius writer of Beatles-inspired power pop songs. He was a lifelong epicurean and cultural adventurer who sought to brighten the corners of American popular music through his own work.”

Alex died the same week Big Star was to perform at Austin’s South by Southwest, the country’s largest gathering of music cognoscenti. Those who knew him, not wanting to face the hard truth, considered the possibility that he’d faked his demise to avoid the wide-eyed fandom he did not court. But just as it had during his life, his work shone despite the circumstances. Chilton pretty much stole the eighty-thousand-strong conference, with artists ranging from Ray Davies to John Hiatt, Courtney Love to Cheap Trick eulogizing him on various stages. A packed tribute concert became a cathartic, makeshift memorial for the reluctant iconoclast, a rainy parade of indie-rock luminaries. “A procession of guest musicians helped underscore both the timeless beauty of Chilton’s best songs and the wide-ranging influence his music had across different genres and generations,” reported the Chicago Sun-Times. More memorial concerts followed, in Memphis, New York, Los Angeles, Nashville, New Orleans, Chapel Hill, and other college towns where his trio had played small clubs off and on for twenty years. No doubt, Alex Chilton would have been bemused by all this attention, perhaps annoyed that once again his story is spun regardless of his will.

Music was Alex’s life—but what he loved more than making music was doing it on his own terms. As former Washington Post writer Joe Sasfy put it, “He [was] always riveting and real in ways few performers can ever risk. And it is those risks, in life and art, that separate Chilton from all that he has spawned.”

Falling into the music business as lead singer of the Box Tops at age sixteen, with no plan to be famous, he went on to make beautiful, sometimes harrowing music with Big Star—the group the term “cult band” personifies—and then became an iconoclastic solo artist, wandering in uncharted territory. In titling his 1995 album A Man Called Destruction—his last solo release filled with mostly his own songs—he acknowledged that he had often torn up the paths he’d taken before, wiping out the footprints, starting anew. As his longtime compadre Tav Falco said, “Alex’s process was to create something that’s beautiful, then the next stage was to destroy it.” Alex continued to use his singular voice as a stylist of songcraft from all genres, while forging ahead as a guitarist, becoming an excellent, imaginative player—“the Thelonious Monk of rhythm guitar,” according to Tom Waits.

“All my career,” Alex said in 1993, “I’ve always kind of envied somebody like the Cramps [whom he produced], who had such a well-defined bag they were in. . . . I guess I was wishing I wanted to be that way or something. But I don’t, really, and now I don’t wish for it anymore, either.”

During the last decade of his life, in his beloved cottage in New Orleans’s Treme, he enjoyed playing a piano he bought with a check from That ’70s Show, which put his “In the Street” into international circulation as the series’ theme song. Alex had grown up listening to his father’s jazz on the family’s Chickering, so this simple pleasure brought him full circle. Leading an eclectic trio for nearly twenty-five years, he relished presenting an endless variety of songs—including those from his childhood and his earliest repertoire as a teenager. His longtime drummer Richard Dworkin remembers that, as they toured America together, Alex liked to find his way without using a map, driving from town to town. Though he might choose some circuitous routes, he usually found his way, pulling up to the club just in time for the gig. As in life, Alex liked traveling the byways, even if it meant getting lost sometimes. It wasn’t an easy road—but it took him where he wanted to go.

CHAPTER 1

The Chiltons of Virginia and Mississippi

William Alexander Chilton came from well-bred, aristocratic stock. When he reached fifty, Alex took a keen interest in his illustrious family history, tracing his lineage back to the seventeenth century, when a Chilton left England for the New World. Alex proudly corrected one journalist who thought the Chiltons emigrated from England in the 1700s, telling him that it was actually 1660 when John Chilton sailed to America. Yet after this account of the Chilton family was published, Alex cut off communication with its author for the sin of including the Chilton genealogy. Ambivalent about his pedigree, Alex both embraced it and disowned it. At various times, traveling to visit ancestral burial plots, he relished his forebears’ accomplishments; at others, such a patrician genetic code contradicted his self-image as a working-class musician, the kind who once said he wanted his gravestone to read SELF-MADE MAN. Such dichotomies would dog Alex Chilton his entire life.

The “Chiltons of Virginia,” described in a 1907 William and Mary College Quarterly Historical Magazine, were “descended from an old English family, originally of French descent as the name indicates . . . [perhaps] derived from the Chalk Cliffs of Dover, near which the Chiltons are supposed to have settled on their first landing upon English shores. . . . In 1060 William of Normandy set sail for the conquest of England, and inscribed on his banner roll was the name of Sir John Chilton. This is the first mention we have of the name.”

In 1660 another John Chilton, possibly of Canterbury, emigrated to America to settle on land grants (bestowed to loyal subjects by King Charles II) in Lancaster County, Virginia; he added to his holdings by acquiring land in Westmoreland County. His son John Chilton II, like his father a planter, remained in the northern neck of Virginia, on the banks of the Potomac River, in an area he called Currioman, the name of a neighboring creek that flowed into the Potomac. This part of Virginia became the seat of several wealthy families, including the Chiltons, whose tobacco plantations were manned by slave labor. The Chiltons, continuously buying more land, thrived in Virginia for more than four generations. The present-day hamlet of Chiltons, Virginia—once part of the Currioman estate—was named for the family.

Continuing the line to Alex’s direct descendants, John II’s youngest son, Thomas Chilton, inherited his father’s plantation. He served as justice of the peace, sheriff, church warden, and major in the foot companies of Westmoreland County. At the time of his death, records show he owned sixty-two slaves.

Thomas’s son William participated in a major event precipitating the American Revolution. In 1765 he and other Virginians opposed to Britain’s new Stamp Act formed the first public association to resist the recently imposed tariff on printed paper. William and three other Chiltons were among those signing a document, later known as the Westmoreland Protest, denouncing the Stamp Act. Though William died on the eve of the American Revolution, his brothers Thomas, Charles, and John served in the War of Independence.

In 1840 John Marshall Chilton, William’s grandson, born in December 1815, moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi. “That’s how my branch of the Chilton family got to Mississippi and stayed there until two years before I was born,” Alex once related. A prominent attorney and an influential citizen in affairs of church and state, the Honorable John Marshall Chilton married Sarah Norton, of a distinguished, religious family in New Orleans. Sarah’s father, Charles N. Norton, had been appointed marshal of the state of Mississippi by John Quincy Adams in 1824. Norton, to whom James Madison had given a letter of introduction with which to travel abroad in 1806, was a professor and later president of Jefferson College in Washington, Mississippi.

Before the Civil War, the John Marshall Chilton family lived on a large cotton plantation with numerous slaves. There John wrote a history of the colonial Mississippi territory (which Alex once said made for “pretty good reading”). In 1859, not long after a journey to Minnesota, Chilton died from unknown causes at age forty-three; his fourteen-year-old son, Charles, a prodigious correspondent, wrote his Aunt Dory, “It is hard to bear this sudden seperation [sic] from Pa; but grieving cannot bring him back; and we must therefore endeavor to be reconciled to our hard lot.”

John Marshall Chilton’s younger brother, Robert Hall Chilton, graduated from the U.S. Military Academy and served in the Mexican-American War, during which he rescued Jefferson Davis at the Battle of Buena Vista. In 1861 Major Chilton joined the Confederate Army, where he became chief of staff under General Robert E. Lee. After the war he settled in Columbus, Georgia, where he became president of a manufacturing company. His son Robert Lee Chilton married Sydney Norton Chilton, his first paternal cousin and the daughter of the Honorable John Chilton. Alex’s grandfather Howard Sidney Chilton may have been named after her.

Alex, no doubt, was dismayed that his ancestors fought for the South in the Civil War. He was known to deride Confederate heroes; as he once said to a friend, “I hope your street isn’t named after the vicious war criminal/genocidal racist Nathan Bedford [Forrest]. How are these honors for these monsters allowed to continue?” Another time, while performing in Athens, Georgia, he blurted out, “The South sucks! All those clichés about our racism and sleaziness are true!”

Alex may have felt more sympathy for John Marshall Chilton’s son Charles, who attended boarding school in Virginia prior to the war and became known as kind and generous toward the former slaves who continued to work on his family’s estate near Clinton, Mississippi. Charles wrote his grandmother in 1866, “Things go on much as usual here, nothing to break the monotony of the week, except an occasional quarrel with some freedmen. I however have so far gotten along swimmingly with them, and have no reason to complain.”

Nine years later, however, Charles would fall victim to the turbulent period of Reconstruction. In September 1875 Democrats and Republicans were vying for votes in the upcoming November legislature election, with candidates organizing gatherings for their black and white constituents. On September 4 a picnic was held in a grove about a quarter mile from Charles Chilton’s home. Candidates from both parties gave speeches to an audience comprising sixty to seventy-five whites (Democrats and Republicans) and approximately a thousand to twelve hundred black Republicans. As the speechmaking ended, an altercation broke out between whites and blacks, guns were fired from both sides, and a melee erupted. During the ensuing violence, six blacks and three whites were shot and killed, at the picnic and in the neighboring cotton fields. The mob raced from the scene on horseback and on foot. When Charles Chilton, hearing what had happened, ran to his front gate to usher his hired hands into safety, a black man galloping by on a horse shot him in the back with a Winchester.

At a subsequent inquiry, reported nationally as the “Clinton Riot,” it was determined that “Chilton met his death while endeavoring to protect the colored women and children, and had handed his gun to a colored man in his employ at the time he received his death wound. Chilton was well liked, well thought of by his neighbors and friends. A young man of fine family.” (After the killings, a vigilante group of whites took revenge, murdering a dozen black residents of the county.)

Charles’s mother, Sarah Norton Chilton, described the tragedy in a September 17, 1875, letter to her sister in New Orleans:

He died in the arms of his brother John. I was three miles distant from him and had to go all the way through an infuriated mob—with no one but a negro—in order to bid him farewell. It seems to me like a thousand years since then. I never have looked upon any human face so beautifully peaceful as was his dear dear face. He said in every look, “All is well.” The country is in a sad state of excitement—men never take off their weapons except when they...

Revue de presse :

"It's a credit to Warren's unflinching tone that the Chilton of Destruction is a charismatic, oft-frustrating man unwilling to kowtow to anything or anyone ... You'll never hear his music the same way again."
~LA Times
  
A Man Called Destruction is also the only thing about this criminally under-appreciated band you’ll ever need to read. It does more than all the articles, books, documentary films, and cover albums with liner notes written by famous fanboys about how important and life-changing Big Star’s recordings were combined…Nobody has done such a great job telling his story before. This is what makes Holly George-Warren’s achievement such an important one, and A Man Called Destruction one of the most important books on the life and work of a musician to come out this year.”
~Jason Diamond, Flavorwire
  

“This book is all Chilton, all the way.”
~The New York Times

“A revelatory account of [Chilton’s] career."
~NPR

 "A thoroughly reported biography illuminating the life and work of one of the more mystifying and influential cult figures in rock.... Chilton receives the biography he deserves."
~Kirkus Reviews (starred)
 
“The immensely gifted  and highly influential musician Alex Chilton has long deserved a big biography. Holly George-Warren's meticulously researched and beautifully written book shows us Chilton in all his mysterious glory. A Man Called Destruction gets to the heart of the man by focusing on the music he made (and the music that made him) with great precision and authority. I loved reading this sensitive, sympathetic, and intelligent portrait of a complicated and important figure.”
~Dana Spiotta, author of Stone Arabia

“This book is the very definition of a labor of love. Every page of it is infused with Holly George-Warren's affection for and deep understanding of Alex Chilton and his groundbreaking work. Even its most candid moments are presented with empathy and a profound respect. Chilton could be thorny and difficult character -- he is fortunate to have found a biographer eager to untangle the knots of his character and to find the sweet heart beating within.”
~Anthony DeCurtis, Contributing Editor, Rolling Stone
 

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