"I guess my life has been a series of flukes in the record business. The first thing I ever did, was the biggest record that I'll ever have." - Alex Chilton, singer of the classic song,"The Letter" by The Boxtops. He was 16 when it hit Number One.
Before we start, I have a few caveats.
One: I never "got" Alex Chilton. His biggest band, Big Star, was okay. Maybe even pretty good. Nothing against him, just didn't click with me much. Seemed over-hyped. Although, credit where it's due, Alex was a pioneer in the DIY movement that led directly to Punk.
Two: I am old friends with Holly George-Warren, author of the likely-to-be-definitive Alex Chilton biography I'm about to review here, A Man Called Destruction - The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, published by Viking-Penguin.
Three: Having read the 300-plus pages of his determinedly self-battered life and art, l am almost as skeptical about Alex's ultimate legacy as I've ever been. Frankly, the way I was able to get through some the more harrowing sections of this book was by listening to various Chilton tracks I found on Youtube... "September Gurls", "In The Street", "Thirteen", "Ballad of El Good O"... Genuinely wonderful songs. Plus, I rediscovered his utterly hilarious "Baron Of Love Part 2".
When I was running the East Village record store, St Mark's Sounds in the 1980s, Alex Chilton's EP, "Like Flies On Sherbert" [sic] was a record we'd throw on the turntable when we wanted to drive 80+ people crazy on a Saturday afternoon. "Baron Of Love Part 2", a completely absurd parody of a John Lee Hooker boogie, was the opening cut. Whenever we put it on, it was always either...
"Please take this shit off, PLEASE!"
"Oh my God, I LOVE this! Do you have it in stock!?"
Kinda neatly sums up Alex, actually.
An interesting and perhaps telling coincidence...
Johnny Cash idolized his brother, Jack. Only two years older, but, Jack was a caring and charismatic natural leader. Jack was killed in a horrendous logging accident. Johnny was 13.
Alex Chilton idolized his brother, Reid. 11 years older, Reid was a god to Alex, and really, to his whole family. Of the four Chilton children, Reid was The Golden One. One morning, Reid had a seizure in the family's bathtub and drowned in a foot of water. Alex was 3.
Both men's lives seemed haunted by these deaths, as one can easily imagine. Although, throughout this biography, Alex never seemed to ever confront it.
But, as almost any baby boomer looking back can tell you, JFK's assassination pulled the rug out from under an entire generation. Who was safe if not our valiant and handsome President? So much worse, who was safe if not one's deity of an older sibling?
It never comes up in the book, but, there is a quality of Aspergers to Alex. He was clearly inordinately bright, but, his speech, assuming the quotes in this book are accurate, had an odd slightly stilted child-like simplicity to it. He had a habit of switching tenses from past to present often, sometimes within the same sentence. Beach Boy, Brian Wilson and Modern Lover, Jonathan Richman come to mind as similar types.
Alex was raised in what seems to have been the most progressive and permissive family/home in all of Memphis in the 1950s. Mom was an artist who ran a gallery in the house. Dad was a scholar, a musician, and a major jazz fan. Artists and musicians congregated all day, all night. On countless afternoons and evenings, Alex, even as a tot, was left to his own devices.
However much his laissez faire upbringing had an effect on Alex's life, by his mid-teens he was already careening towards chaos. But, what happened to him at the very tender age of 16 would've surely shaken the most centered kid from the most supportive family.
While Memphis music business pros were laboring away in the hit-record mines, slowly crafting a masterpiece of a song, a blissfully unaware Alex was something of a sullen scamp in his high school. Seemingly proud to be a good-for-nothing-much except when he'd get up and sing a song as a guest of one of the several bands that had formed in the area immediately post-British Invasion. It turned out that lazy goofy egghead Alex had this improbably great voice. He was a genuinely handsome kid in the same moody way Elvis was, those hooded eyes, that same mouth caught between a shy smile and a sneer. And like sorta Elvis, although more so, Alex truly sounded like a rugged black man in his 30s whenever he opened his mouth and sang "Mustang Sally" or "In The Midnight Hour" at local high school dances.
This section of the book, as well as a few others, seemed (at first) to indicate that my friend, Holly, had had a few haphazard days herself while writing this book. Events just ram into each other paragraph after paragraph. Then, it hit me, Ms. George-Warren was actually accurately reporting just how utterly disjointed and drifting Alex's life was at certain times, using a writing effect akin to Scorsese's ever-choppier editing in Good Fellas as Ray Liotta's Henry Hill get more and more strung out on his own product. Recall the meatball-making scene.
Back to those music pros at the top of the last paragraph... They finally had themselves a song. A song they knew was special. They had a decent little Memphis band called The Devilles to record it, with some session men helping out. But, they had no singer in their collective Rolodexes that seemed worthy of the track. They were stymied. The most important element was missing. Then, one day, someone out-of-the-blue mentioned the fact that there was this strange high school kid in town who made brief appearances with a few bands now and then and sounded like he was an old black guy. The pros' ears went back. The 16 year old Alex was tracked down. He was brought in to sing "The Letter". He did. The Devilles had a singer. The Devilles' name was changed to The Box Tops for a more 'ginchy' 1967 flavor.
Within maybe 120 days, Alex Chilton, druggie cut-up, gifted underachiever, slightly lost soul, was the singer of the Song of the Year, as chosen by trade magazines at the end of 1967. All of 17 now, he was already a vet on the treadmill of one night stands in secondary and tertiary markets with all that that entailed. An unsupervised teenager surrounded by drugs, groupies, business jerks... uhboy!
George-Warren chronicles the slow sad wind-down of the Boxtops' career, and Alex's subsequent (mis) adventures unflinchingly. As a self-defeater, Alex Chilton was without peer. Of course, since we are discussing a career in the music industry, at least half of Alex's bad breaks were due to circumstances completely out of his control. This was particularly true regarding what was clearly Alex's Second Chance, the band he put together in 1973, Big Star.
Signed to a small start-up label in Memphis called Ardent, owned by the guys who ran Ardent Studios where Big Star had recorded their debut, the Ardent label had a distribution deal with Stax, then a powerhouse of a label. But, the fact is, Stax, while a deluxe Soul and R&B label, had never dealt with white guys playing guitars. Way different rules. No clue. On top of that obstacle, a very big deal Stax had in the works with Clive Davis at Columbia fell through when Clive was escorted out of the building for having had his son's bar mitzvah paid for by the record label he was running. Just as Big Star was launching, Stax's gravy train was lurching to a halt. These were the kind of things that an Alex Chilton could only sit and watch like his house burning down in a drought.
But, it was good before it got bad.
The debut album by Big Star, "Number 1 Record" was/is the reason we are even discussing this Famously Flaky Boy. This was a very solid pop-rock album, taking its cues from at-that-time almost unfashionable six-songs-a-side Beatles albums at the height of the Yes/ELP/King Crimson era. In other words, hobbled out-of-the-gate.
But... But... But... Big Star were the recipients of a one of, if not the, best marketing ploys ever concocted. Genius, really. John King, the guy at Ardent Records in charge of marketing and PR, along with two high-profile rock writers at the time, Jon Tiven and Greg Shaw, both already Big Star acolytes, came up with the idea of having the first-ever Rock Writers Convention in Memphis, Big Star's hometown.
Let that sink in.
Dig... Ardent talked Stax into footing the bill (some $40,000... about a quarter mil in 2014 bucks) to fly over a hundred rock writers from all over the USA, and even some from the UK, to Memphis, putting 'em all up in a Holiday Inn, taking 'em all to Graceland (wow!), wining them, dining them, just stupid lavish for these pretentious smart-alecky knuckleheads. The last night of "the convention" was a showcase of local Memphis talent at one of the big deal clubs, The Lafayette. At midnight, the stealth reason for the entire affair, Big Star, went on last, to a club engorged with happily blasted scribes. In what would be a rarity for the rest of his career, Alex and Big Star played a knock out set when it really mattered. A few dozen rock writers, many a big name even, became life-long converts. Van Halen's David Lee Roth once said that rock writers liked Elvis Costello because he looked like them. The fact is, Alex's rumpledschlumpystiltskin just-got-out-of-bed-at-4pm look exactly mirrored almost the entire audience's sartorial splendor. Alex was one of them.
As a musician, the most dichotomous aspect of Chilton was the deliberate lazy/laid back quality of most of his vocals, compared to his visceral and muscular guitar playing. Many people are quoted in A Man Called Destruction raving about Alex's 'natural feel' and 'command of the instrument'. I've been playing guitar for 50 years. There are several clips on Youtube that amply prove his fans right. Cat could play.
It was the Big Star chapter of Alex's life where, I, Binky Zelig Gump, wound up in this book about one of Rock's strangest and most enigmatic cult heroes.
Let's turn to page 154...
"'Big Star had a buzz going immediately.' recalls Binky Philips, lead guitarist of New York band The Planets, who went to Max's en masse [on March 14, 1974] to catch Big Star's show that night. 'We somehow got a table directly in front of Alex. The band came on, and it was evident that Alex was having ummm a taciturn night. The music never gelled. Alex remained clearly ambivalent throughout the show. The other members of Big Star seemed kind of confused and maybe even a little resentful, like, 'Alex, this is Max's Kansas City! Why are you barely phoning it in?!' But the audience seemed not to care. I had never seen a band gain a worshipful cult as quickly.'"
I'd left as soon as the show was over, but, The Planets' singer, John Taylor, stuck around and wound up upstairs in Big Star's dressing room. John was/is a hyper-articulate and charismatic guy, who, at the time, was vying for the the most outlandishly dressed band guy in New York City, which, what with the New York Dolls in full bloom, was a helluhvuh trick. Anyway, John's smooth and elegant chat-up convinced the Big Star guys to attend a Planets rehearsal the next day.
Back to page 154...
"'Just as we finished tuning up, the three B Stars walked into our tiny crude space. We played five songs - probably an Eddie Cochran cover and some of my originals. Jody and John stood the whole time, Jody kind of rocking back on his heels. Alex crouched down in a sort of upright fetal position in the corner of the room furthest from the amps and drums. He seemed miserable the whole time, he never met my eyes, and looked like he might've had a bad, bad headache. The Planets back then were simply violent with our volume. I don't know how any of us could stand it. We took a break. Alex stood up, smiled weakly, and said a polite little 'Cool' as I was stepping out to hit the bathroom down the hall. Suddenly, drummer Jody was by my side, grabbing my right arm. 'That is what my band should sound like!" he growled, jerking his thumb back towards our little noise room. He was genuinely, deeply pissed off. I was nonplussed. No idea what to say. I felt bad for the guy.'"
A couple of years ago, I connected with Jody Stephens on Facebook. I ran the above story by him and asked if he recalled it that way. Within minutes, he'd answered that yes, that was exactly how he remembered it, too.
An amusing thing happened regarding The Planets and Big Star. About a week before their Max's gig, I'd gotten really angry with our singer, John, for blowing off a rehearsal. He went out and bought a Binky pacifier and started wearing it around his neck on a piece of ribbon, as if to state, "Hey, you can't be mad at me. We're going steady. I have your ring around my neck." He was wearing it at Max's and again at our rehearsal the next day. The Big Stars thought it was a wonderful goof. When they returned to Memphis, Alex and his girlfriend created a mini-craze for a few weeks by wearing Binkys around their necks, too.
But, sadly, the book is filled with stories that just keep hitting the same harsh note; Alex just trashing gigs left and right, ruining chances, developing a rep as an unreliable drunk/druggie who never ever delivered a gig (or a recording, for that matter) that the audience had been hoping for.
Alex had also developed a genuine aesthetic taste for musical chaos. He'd go into Ardent studio, cut a beautiful moody ballad and then a few days later add what seemed to everyone else as pointlessly shrieking feedback guitar. Just constantly undercutting his own work.
Now and then, a self-defeating story would be funny... Big Star's road manager, John Dando recalled a show on April 9, 1974 at a place called The Brewery in Syracuse. After being entirely uncooperative to one and all before the show, Alex discovered the house hors d'oeuvre was a favorite, fried stuffed mushrooms...
"Alex was eating the mushrooms onstage while he was trying to play. He couldn't sing because his mouth was so full. Alex loved free food."
Holly George-Warren deadpans, "Perhaps it was a case of the munchies."
Her book follows Alex on his sojourn in New York City in 1976... "Everybody loves me here. In Memphis, everybody thinks I'm a jerk. Come up here, get respect, girls wanna sleep with me."
We also get the full inside stories of his involvement with Tav Falco and Panther Burns, New York legends, The Cramps, his Backdoor Man stint, and all of his various solo outings. Through every phase, Alex spent his time either in a manically creative state or just maddeningly self-abusive.
One of Alex's several on-again-off-again drummers, Richard Rosebrough, hits the lowest note in the book...
"Alex was morally at a point of drunken debauchery and wanting to go lower..." According to RR, one night in Memphis, Alex allowed a very drunk young woman to "blow him right there onstage while he was singing and playing guitar. His face went red. He came. That was it."
Take that (non-existent) line of demarcation and apply it to his drinking and drugging and whoring...
You will recall, Alex was living this very life by the age of 17, on the road (which was "the road" back then, too, nomesane) with The Box Tops, while his own voice came at him out of every radio almost hourly in every part of the country every day for months on end. You'd expect him to "pull back" at the age of 24?
Alex's sudden death by heart attack at the early age of 59 couldn't have been more brilliantly/tragically timed. Typical of him, really. Two days before the hugely anticipated and headlining full-scale reunion of Big Star at the 2010 SXSW, Alex died, collapsed in his car as his wife Laura frantically ran red lights trying to save him.
Towards the end, Max Bell, an ardent (yes, a pun, dammit) and much published Alex fan, an esteemed music writer in the U. K., found himself sadly noting, "The danger zone in the rock world, its temptation to commit irreparable self-abuse, finds its absolute summation in the career of Alex Chilton."
Paul Westerberg of The Replacements was single-handedly responsible for turning at least a few hundred thousand people onto Alex with his paean-song to his musical hero, entitled, yes, "Alex Chilton". Nonetheless, years later, even Paul found himself wondering "whether Alex was some brilliant chameleon or just a guy who lost it real quick."
Regardless, the man was remarkably influential, much like the Velvet Underground, given how relatively small his cult was/is. Make no mistake, to name but one example, there never would've been R.E.M. were it not for Chilton. I try not to hold that against him.
Author Holly George-Warren, a staunch fan and friend of Alex's for many years, tries with all her might to remain clear-eyed and "journalistic" as she reports yet again, "Alex was back to really drinking heavily." or "Overnight, Alex decided to scrap the whole project." But, one begins to feel her own exasperation, disappointment, and sadness between the lines.
Given any number of inspired/inspiring songs he wrote, his absolutely unique voice and delivery, his odd negative charisma, his wonderfully gritty but top-chops guitar playing, his True Vision, it is a shame that this excellently researched and heartfelt biography can leave you feeling as baffled as it did me.
Dammit, Alex, what the heck was your deal, anyway!?