Alex Chilton, the 16-year-old lead singer of The Box Tops who spectacularly squandered his fame, money and talent and never again reached an equal measure of success following the 1960s hits “The Letter” and “Cry Like A Baby” may elicit an “Alex who?” from some casual ’60s aficionados. To others, Chilton was as much of an influence as anyone who ever scaled the heights of fame in the ’60s, and his devotees include R.E.M., The Replacements, Yo La Tengo, Pavement and Wilco.
Those revelations and more are what make Holly George-Warren’s A Man Called Destruction an essential read, one that should and will live for years on every professional and amateur music nut’s bookshelf. Everyone addicted to their band of choice knows that exquisite obsession where you not only absorb an artist’s albums into your blood, soul and DNA, but you also must know the name of their third-grade teacher and whether or not she is still alive and can you meet her, for example, or the setlist of that gig they did in Mobile, Alabama, in 1973. George-Warren interviewed more than 100 bandmates, friends and Chilton family members to write this account of the late singer-songwriter’s rise, fall, wretchedness and redemption of sorts as a producer, solo artist, trendsetter and leader of the ’70s band Big Star, though it seems to be universally acknowledged that he was one cantankerous son-of-a-bitch at times, too.
The book works as narrative or reference, and you may want to skip around at random with a finger and get off on certain scenes and recollections before attacking it cover to cover. There are some fascinating and fresh accounts of the state of the music business and AM radio in the late ’60s and ’70s as well as many “you are there” moments at concerts and in the studio, for better or worse.
As the 1960s recede and those who lived and composed its music continue to twist and shout toward the great Purple Haze in the sky, interest in the decade’s giants and their multi-billion dollar catalogs continues unabated. The biggest stars have been documented hundreds of times, of course, so bios of lesser-known artists like Chilton are welcome if only to spare us yet another account of Woodstock or The Cavern. However you absorb George-Warren’s book, this account is upon introduction the first and last word on the life of Alex Chilton.