What hasn't been said about Alex Chilton?
From his youthful grind as the lead singer of the Box Tops ("Gimme a ticket for an air-o-plane...") to his triumphs and tragedies as co-leader of Big Star to his wilfully chaotic solo discography, Chilton has to be among the most discussed, revered, and, frankly, misunderstood (possibly overrated) figures in rock's mile-long list of misfits. There's been a book or two (not to mention detailed musings in books dedicated to things like Memphis music and power pop) and innumerable liner notes, magazine articles, blogs, and so on dedicated to overturning the enigma that is Alex.
All of this seemed to come to a head in 2012's desultory Big Star documentary, Nothing Can Hurt Me, which rendered the band's story on screen without insight or provocation, simply retreading the group's accepted history. Frankly, I figured that, with regards to Chilton, the bottom of the barrel had not only been scraped but had been punched straight through.
I was wrong.
Holly George-Warren's extensive new tome is dynamite. Every page seems to offer some new wrinkle or revelation, either uncovered by her own extensive research or by contrasting a few different viewpoints to startling, illuminating effect. With a subject as self-effacing, contradictory, and enigmatic as Chilton, George-Warren had her work cut out for her. Rather than superimpose her own image of what Alex could have or should have been, she takes on the excavation with the tireless dedication and rigorous attention to detail of an investigative journalist just one source, one interview, one clue away from breaking something big.
The thing is, we won't get to the bottom of Alex. There is no big break. And George-Warren knows it. So she simply lets the story unfold through the eyes of those who knew him in each (or several) of his many eras...A Man Called Destruction ably charts a path stretching from his overnight success with the Box Tops, his wayward transitional time in New York, the formation and dissolution of Big Star (who seemed to really have trouble being a band outside of the studio), his years-long lost weekend that resulted in the absolute masterpiece Like Flies on Sherbert, and his resurrection as an eclectic journeyman crisscrossing the U.S. and Europe with his trio, mixing a dwindling supply of originals with a growing grab bag of soul, R&B, country, blues, and pop covers. Each period is given ample examination, and her eye for detail is astounding...
What could have esaily descended into another "first he did this, then he did that, then he did that" music bio becomes, in George-Warren's hands, a vital, dynamic timeline. An endless supply of colorful, thoughtful interviews with associates, lovers, family members, and more enrich the narrative, giving it such momentum that when we reach Chilton's untimely demise, the tragedy and suddenness of the event lands with visceral force. Not particularly found of introspection, his life just kept hurtling forward, and it seems like it could have for decades more...alas.
A few reviews have described this book as heartless. Quite the opposite. True, George-Warren (wisely) keeps her own immense affection for Chilton to herself. Rather, she vividly conveys the deep love that a vast network of people felt for a man who, honestly, wasn't always that loveable. No mean feat. And, more than anything, this book will leave you anxious to reinvestigate Chilton's music – which is the ultimate compliment that can be paid to any biography of a musician.