Self-Made Man

The life and times (and music) of William Alexander Chilton.



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Early Box Tops promo shot | Photograph by danny smythe

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.”

Author Holly George-Warren

 

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