Because I am an obsessive music geek, I was an early adopter of Big Star. I read of them as an influence on many bands, sort of a Velvet Underground of power-pop. Their first two LP’s are undeniable, and I especially like #1 Record (the first LP) the best. Bandleader Alex Chilton, the subject of A Man Called Destruction, Holly Geoge-Warren's book published in 2014,has developed a rabid cult following, helped tremendously by Cheap Trick, Paul Westerberg, Teenage Fanclub, and even Counting Crows. I’ve played with local bands that worship The Replacements and Westerberg, and by default Alex Chilton. I personally don’t really get it. In the Big Star story, Chris Bell (the other bandleader and songwriter) is my hero. He was the one that meticulously crafted #1 Record, then quit /or was kicked out of Big Star before Radio City (the 2nd Big Star LP) before dying in a car crash. I’m going to include a lengthy excerpt from a review of mid-period (1980) Alex Chilton live at Maxwells in Hoboken, NJ from Glenn Morrow (from the Individuals and Bar/None Records) that I think gets straight to the point about Chilton:
Sometimes you have to respect a guy for not trying. Alex Chilton, the laziest man in rock and roll, is back. At least he was for one week in September when he shuffled through a series of dates in the Metropolitan area….He has left the beautiful boo-hooing loser behind. The new Alex is a self-avowed swine tramp, throwing dime store pearls at the strangely doting crowd….Alex Chilton’s back as a stick singer with a three piece band to back him up. Does this mean he’s gone back to his Box Tops roots? Not exactly. Besides abandoning the guitar and the heartbroken stance, he’s abandoned his white soul inflections and his glorious falsetto for a half- spoken midrange. Occasionally, he’ll trail off into one of his better known registers just to show he’s still got it, but he doesn’t want to use it. …
Alex doesn’t want no sympathy, doesn’t want you to like him, he wants to annoy, and ultimately he comes off as pretty funny. Trash humor is what Chilton is all about, whether it’s singing ‘Chances Are’ in a mock lounge croon, or the bizarre waltz beat Porter Waggoner tune ‘The Rubber Room,’ in which Alex stretched his voice out of shape with hillbilly gurgling and rockabilly hiccups. On ‘Tramp’ he delivered some Otis Redding soul maneuvers with the greatest lack of care….
Like a Memphis version of Rock And Roll Animal, in fact, Clinton reminded me a bit of Lou Reed, circa 1975, slightly paunchy in plain t-shirt and jeans mixing banality with the occasional glimmer of greatness. ...I can’t say I was exactly moved, but he did make me laugh, and there was one inspired moment during ‘Tramp’ where Chilton started pumping through his old soul moves, whipping the band into a frenzy. I shivered once and saw the spectre of that 16-year-old kid who growled his way to the top of the charts so many years ago….To be so fucking talented, a great songwriter who doesn’t seem to be writing anymore, a gifted guitar played who chooses just to sing, a singer who chooses to warble off key. It doesn’t take much to sit in the corner laughing while the bull trashes the china shop. Come on, Alex, ain’t it about time you took the bull by the horns?
That sums it up beautifully. A Man Called Destruction was published in 2014, and Holly George-Warren is to be commended on such a fine, well researched and written book. She seems to talk to everyone involved with Alex all through his career. Still, it is the ultimate slacker story. Alex came from Bohemian parents (dad a jazz musician, mom an artist and friend of local artists, lived through an early tragedy when his brother died unexpectedly, and by sixteen was singing for the Box Tops, a band who made the Top 40 with 'The Letter' in 1967 with young Alex’s distinctive and deceptively wizened vocals at the center. Touring with the Beach Boys, singing Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham songs, Alex appeared to be living the pop star dream. The dream didn’t interest him much.
Big Star is portrayed as doomed by being the only white rock band on soul powerhouse Stax records. Still you would have liked to hear more. If you had a band that was given unlimited access to a state of the art recording studio (Ardent in Memphis) what would you do? They rehearsed little and hardly toured, Alex half-assing it most of the time.
After Big Star’s implosion, Alex went solo and had a few decades in the wilderness, drinking and drugging and womanizing. He was the kind of guy that would steal bandmates’ girlfriends. He also had a habit of using people up and discarding them. He lackadaisicaly “produced” the Cramps, moving the faders with his stocking feet (!). He adopted a no rehearsal policy, even for studio recordings. He truly was the laziest man in rock.
Alex then moved to New Orleans to clean up, and his renaissance began. Holly talks to the dB’s, who played with him in New York, but he quickly burned through Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple. The Replacements toured with him, and he found their drunken antics hilarious. Counting Crows took him on tour and gave him special perks. The Bangles wrote him a check on the spot for their cover of ‘September Girls,’ and Cheap Trick recorded ‘In The Street’ for That 70’s Show, providing a steady royalty paycheck for Alex. Finally, he and drummer Jody Stephens joined Jon and Ken of The Posies for a Big Star reunion. Even this promising combo really doesn't get anywhere.
Passing in 2010 from a heart attack, Alex is never portrayed as a mean guy, but someone who is immensely talented who never really tried. He abandoned his son, Timothee, who may be in prison now. He was the ultimate half-asser. A Man Called Destruction presents a strange and depressing tale of squandered talent. Holly George-Warren has written a corker of a book about American underground rock’s wastrel founding father.
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