The life and times (and music) of William Alexander Chilton.
Alex in 1971
photograph by Michael O’Brien
“Here I am at the top, doing something I don’t understand and don’t really have any feeling for and getting really famous for it. Gee!”
That was Alex Chilton looking back on his ’60s career in a story that ran in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1985. (Headline: “Ex Box Top Bounces Back as Rock Legend.”)
“I don’t have anything to say.”
Those were Alex Chilton’s words to an MTV interviewer in 1993. Which didn’t stop that interviewer from asking, “A lot of fun today?” To which Chilton replied: “Right.”
Maybe not that day and not to that MTV interviewer, but Alex Chilton did have things not only to sing but to say. And truer words were never spoken as when he once said:
“The important thing is to make a good record, 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 20 years, and you might be dead when it pays off. If it’s good, it’s going to pay off for somebody, sometime.”
“The Letter,” a song written by Wayne Carson and recorded in Memphis at American Recording Studios, featured vocals by Chilton, who fronted a band soon to be dubbed the Box Tops. The year was 1967; Chilton was 16 years old and a 10th-grader at Central High School. When he arrived at American to record “The Letter,” however, even Chilton admitted he wasn’t in the best of shape. He had a hangover. His throat was sore. But that song went on to pay off big time. It would sell 4 million copies worldwide. Cash Box named it Song of the Year.
Chilton’s response to such success?
“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.”
But would so many remember the name Alex Chilton had he not graduated from the Box Tops to Big Star, along with fellow band members Chris Bell, Andy Hummel, and Jody Stephens? Had Big Star not recorded #1 Album (1972), Radio City (1974), and 3rd (1978) — and suffered career-crushing distribution deals with Stax and Columbia? Had Chilton not helped to define what became known as “power pop”? Had Chilton not grown to become a reluctant but bona fide cult figure among musicians and audiences alike? Had Big Star’s “In the Street” not been introduced to younger listeners thanks to its use as the opening theme to TV’s That ’70s Show? And had Chilton not become, in the words of writer Joe Sasfy, “one of the most persistent footnotes in new wave history”?
Make that rock history. And make Alex Chilton a lot more than a footnote now that he’s the subject of a full-scale biography, A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man (Viking), by Holly George-Warren.
George-Warren — journalist, co-editor of The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, author of a biography of Gene Autry, co-author of The Road to Woodstock, and co-editor of Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues — met Chilton in New Orleans in 1982. She’d been a fan of the Box Tops when she was a kid. She would go on to join an all-girl band, which called on Chilton for help in the studio. He later asked George-Warren to help him with a book about his life on the road in the ’60s — including a meeting with Charles Manson (and “family”) inside the home of Beach Boy Dennis Wilson — but that book never happened. Nevertheless, George-Warren remained a Chilton fan and friend. If A Man Called Destruction contains tales Chilton would “have preferred were left untold,” it’s a book she hopes “will do.”
It begins with some genealogical background, which traces Chilton’s well-bred family back to seventeenth-century England, then to Virginia, then to Mississippi. By the mid-1940s, Chilton’s father, Howard Sidney Chilton Jr., an industrial lighting designer, had moved his family to Memphis to take advantage of the city’s postwar building boom. Sidney also made a name for himself as a jazz pianist, the family home in Midtown operating an open-door policy for local and touring musicians, including Herb Alpert. Chilton’s mother, Mary Evelyn, had her own artistic interests to pursue: She turned the ground floor of the home into a gallery, which became a gathering spot for members of the Memphis art scene, which included a photographer just starting out, William Eggleston. The couple’s four children went largely unsupervised. “Neither one of them pressured me to do anything,” Chilton said. “They were permissive, and the liberality of their state of mind fed into it.”
One thing never much on the mind of Alex Chilton growing up: school. Music — all types of it — was. And certainly somewhere on his mind as well: the death of Chilton’s brother Reid, who drowned in a bathtub after suffering a seizure. Alex, age 6, was with his mother when the body was discovered.
What exactly to make of the toll of such a loss on the Chilton family? George-Warren paints a picture of denial, which wasn’t exactly the case in the death of another family member. As Chilton would years later remark, “My mom taught me to always speak good of the dead — my dad is dead, good.”
But no denying in these pages Chilton’s early introduction to and use of alcohol and drugs. By the early ’70s, the booze, the pot, and the downers got some serious use. This was Midtown, and there’s a reason a favorite watering hole of Chilton’s in Overton Square was also known as “Quaalude City.”
No question either: Once Alex Chilton, post-Box Tops, got to know Chris Bell, they clicked, though they weren’t much alike — Bell: buttoned-up, a Beatles fanatic, and brilliant soundsmith; Chilton: loose, even sloppy, and musically all over the map — but the two respected one another’s talents, and in terms of song-writing, each fine-tuned the other. They could also bring out the worst in one another. The working relationship couldn’t last long. It didn’t last long. Bell left Big Star after the band’s first record and in 1978 crashed his car on Poplar and died.
Chilton’s marriage at age 18 to Suzi Greene didn’t last either. Nor did Greene. Battling depression, she committed suicide decades later. Their son, Timothee? Last we hear of him in these pages, he’s gone from “snarling teenager” to incarceration in an Oklahoma prison on an assault and battery charge. But in the closing pages of A Man Called Destruction, we see Chilton finally with a home of his own in New Orleans and a wife named Laura, who, in the words of friends, made Chilton “giddy” with happiness. But again not for long. On March 17, 2010, “Run the red light!” were Chilton’s last words as Laura rushed him, complaining of shortness of breath and chest pains, to a New Orleans hospital.
There are plenty of complaints to read of in George-Warren’s well-researched book: complaints about Alex Chilton’s behavior in the recording studio (even producer Jim Dickinson, who encouraged experiment, could lose patience); complaints concerning Chilton’s history of hit-or-miss performances; complaints from radio program directors (including Tony Yoken — husband of Memphis magazine’s food editor, Pamela Denney — who had to coax a “totally ballistic” Chilton onto the stage in upstate New York in the mid-’70s); complaints among musicians whom Chilton could befriend, then turn the evil eye on; complaints from girlfriends (except in the case of Lesa Aldridge, who could give as good as she got); and complaints from rock critics who could savage Chilton’s post-Big Star “reinvention” efforts. Or critics could praise those efforts, as when Robert Christgau wrote of one album, Feudalist Tarts: “After ten years of falling-down flakedom only a cultist could love or even appreciate, Chilton looks around and straightens up.”
Straightening up meant sometimes bowing out as frontman, with Chilton acting as sideman, “backdoor man,” mentor, journeyman musician, studio producer, and overall inspiration. But he also found freedom by joining in on the staged chaos that was the Memphis band Panther Burns; by bringing the hard-partying Replacements (who honored Chilton with the song “Alex Chilton”) to Ardent; and by engineering a record by the Cramps (reportedly) in his stocking feet and using his toes to mix the sound.
A fact remains. however, and in addition to the hard facts of an unruly life: Chilton’s charisma.
“His child-like visage fascinates me,” Andy Schwartz, editor of New York Rocker, wrote. “He seems to know something you don’t, but should. At the same time, there’s an air of contempt about him as he holds court. … With his sense of superiority and his admiring clique, Chilton is a kind of punk mirror-image of another Memphis rocker: Jerry Lee Lewis.”
Did these observations, if in fact he knew of them, upset Chilton? Did that comparison to “The Killer” maybe make him smile? We don’t know and never will. But Holly George-Warren is right to make us wonder. And no need for any modesty: A Man Called Destruction is way better than “will do.”