By Christopher Scapelliti
A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man
By Holly George-Warren (Viking Adult, $27.95)
“Invisible man who can sing in a visible voice,” the Replacements sang in their tune “Alex Chilton,” and it was a fitting assessment. Chilton’s voice was an evocative instrument, whether conjuring up older-than-his-years soul vocals on the Box Tops’ 1967 hit “The Letter” or crooning like a heartsick teen on “September Gurls” with his early Seventies group, Big Star. But Chilton himself remained virtually anonymous to all but the coterie of fans who’d discovered Big Star lurking well below pop’s radar. By the time the Replacements were singing his praises in 1987, Chilton was drifting around New Orleans, where he washed dishes and trimmed trees when he wasn’t trying to scrape together a music gig.
The history of rock music is rife with the dashed careers of one-hit wonders, but the Memphis-born Chilton was truly gifted, both as a player and a songwriter. Box Tops hits like “The Letter,” “Cry Like a Baby,” and “Soul Deep” showed the depths of his vocal interpretative talents, but when the group split up in 1969, he drifted, honing his guitar work (Stax great Steve Cropper was an influence) and forming Big Star, where his talents shone brightest. The group defined power pop and inspired alternative acts of the Eighties, like R.E.M., the Posies, and, of course, the Replacements. But by 1974, Big Star were finished, and Chilton was aimless again.
It’s here that his story splinters, as he wanders north to New York City and south again, to New Orleans, but the aptly titled A Man Called Destruction brings his long years in the wilderness into sharp focus. Written by longtime acquaintance Holly George-Warren, the biography fleshes out Chilton’s ghost through the author’s knowledge of the man and reminiscences from Chilton’s family, friends, and bandmates. It’s a compelling read about one of popular music’s most enigmatic artists.