As the leader of hugely influential but largely unpopular power-pop icons Big Star, Alex Chilton was perhaps the quintessential rock & roll cult hero. But Chilton, a gifted songwriter, angelic singer and idiosyncratic guitarist, was far more than just the frontman for a brilliant and underappreciated band. In her new biography, A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man, author Holly George-Warren sheds much needed light on her subject, who died of a heart attack in 2010 at the age of 59. We spoke with George-Warren about the book, which is available March 2oth.
You knew Alex a little while he was still alive. In the course of working on the book, what was the most surprising thing that you learned about him?
I had no idea about the incredibly traumatizing event that happened when he was six years old, which was discovering his beloved older brother dead in the bathtub, drowned after a seizure. I think that had a huge effect on Alex's life and his personality; I had no idea about that. That was definitely eye-opening.
Insofar as people know about Alex Chilton, he seems to be thought of as the tragic cult hero of Big Star. How much of the impulse behind writing your book was to show that there were other sides to him?
Yeah, he was driven by his insatiable thirst to experience all kinds of music as a fan, and as a very talented musician try to learn all these types of music. He was really interested in baroque music, classical guitar. He had this really great natural talent. He could sing in so many different styles, but he never had proper training. Pretty much everything he did was soaking it up like a sponge and learning how to do it himself. At such a young age working with producers like [songwriter and producer] Dan Penn, and then working with [Big Star bandmate] Chris Bell and being around music in [his adopted hometown of] New Orleans and seeing a lot of R&B artists and soaking that up — I think he never stopped loving music, but it was always on his own terms. After he got back together with Big Star for example in the Nineties, it would have been so easy for him to cash in on that style, and agree to cut an album in the vein of #1 Record or Radio City, but he had moved on.
After Big Star, it seemed like Chilton never really tried again to "make it" in a conventional sense. Do you think there was an element of self-sabotage to his career?
I think part of [Chilton's post-Big Star] period, the Panther Burns period and the punk rock period, [self-sabotage] was part of the milieu. He was part of the time and he appreciated that. I think Picasso once said that to create you have to destroy. That was part of Alex's aesthetic, when he first moved to NYC in '77 and got caught up in the punk scene in CBGB, he was still caught up in Big Star songs, but he started doing other kinds of music. His stage persona took on punk rock. He was still pretty young — 26, 27 around that period — so it makes sense he would go through that phase.
What's a favorite Alex Chilton story that you had to cut from the book?
This is one I wish could have made it: Alex has such a rep of being a sourpuss, which is really not true. He was doing a gig at Coney Island High, a great old club [in Manhattan] — it was him, his trio, with Question Mark and the Mysterians. He loved meeting the guy behind "96 Tears." [Chilton] came out first, then Question Mark came out. Anyone who has seen Question Mark knows he is quite eccentric. The whole stage was covered with stuffed animals. So some wiseacre in the crowd took one and threw it. In the back Question Mark was freaking out. Alex goes out and says, "We've gotta go get teddy." He gets everyone to go out and start searching everywhere for teddy. All of a sudden, Alex pops out from where the sound guy is and he's waving teddy in the air and he brought it back to Question Mark, who was so grateful. That's a good one that didn't make it into the book.
For someone who knows Chilton's Big Star music, and maybe some of the Box Tops' hits, but is unfamiliar with the rest of his catalog, what would you recommend they listen to next?
The [pre-Big Star] Free Again sessions. One song, "All We Ever Got From Them Was Pain," was really so precious in showing a vulnerable side of Alex. But there are also some great deep cuts: He did an incredible version of "I Shall Be Released," the Dylan song. So that's another great one. People should really go back to [1979's] Like Flies on Sherbert — it's this real anarchy-filled release. The Big Star stuff, [The Box Tops'] "The Letter" — that stuff never gets old. Alex once said something to the effect of, people don't even remember [Seventies power-poppers] the Raspberries anymore, and they had a hit [1972's "Go All the Way] around the time of #1 Record. Maybe if Big Star had a hit we would have been forgotten.