The letters came in from all over the world. “I desperately want to buy this record,” they wrote. But the stores didn’t have it, and they couldn’t order it.
The record, Big Star’s second album, Radio City, was dead on arrival in 1974 due to distribution troubles between Ardent Records and its Memphis parent company, Stax. Frustrated Ardent founder John Fry said he kept a file “about three inches thick of letters that came in… We usually would send them the record for free.” For each fan who took the time to write in about Radio City, he wondered how many more would have snatched up the album if they could only have found it: “Should I multiply the number by 100 or 1000, or what?”
Or what. Though the band’s name—Big Star—would turn out to be a sad, devilish joke, the group itself eventually came to define the concept of a “cult” band. The late Alex Chilton and his band mates were and are beloved by many thousands. (Certainly not the “children by the million” the Replacements so cynically joked about in their famous tribute.) For those faithful, Big Star’s music means a lot more than just a pretty melody or a power-pop jolt.
For Chilton, though, finding meaning could be elusive. As author George-Warren points out in this bio, the pop craftsman arrived as a punky nihilist before punk broke and proved a D.I.Y. deviant more than a decade before indie rock.
“Alex’s process was to create something that’s beautiful,” said musical collaborator Tav Falco, “then the next stage was to destroy it.”
Those desperate letters from Big Star fans arrived just a handful of years after his lone number one hit record, “The Letter.” The soulful teen pop song featured a freakishly mature-sounding, 15-year-old Chilton. The Box Tops, his first band, would tour with the Beach Boys and crack the Top 40 six more times, but the stars would never quite align again for Chilton. The lifetime astrology buff gave up looking to the sky while still in his twenties.
A Man Called Destruction details (maybe a bit too ardently) Chilton’s early years in the Box Tops, a concocted studio band that spent a few grueling years on the road before getting around to becoming Big Star. Originally featuring Chilton and fellow songwriter Chris Bell, along with drummer Jody Stephens and bassist Andy Hummel, the radiant, absurdly tuneful Big Star should have been bigger than Badfinger, the Raspberries or Cheap Trick, three commercially successful power-pop bands of the day. All three of Big Star’s albums (including 3rd/Sister Lovers, not released for four years after recording) have been named on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
After Chris Bell left, Big Star became increasingly disillusioned under the hard-partying Chilton. “You Can’t Have Me” might have been directed at the record business as much as the singer’s paramours, and any song called “Holocaust” was bound to be uneasy listening. The dream ended once and for all when Bell died in a car wreck in 1978, crashing his Triumph into a pole while under the influence of Mandrax and bourbon.
“I felt bad about it,” Chilton would recall. “Really bad.”
The last third of the book, after the Box Tops and Big Star eras, hurtles through Chilton’s “lost” years, when he briefly associated with the New York punk scene, produced the Cramps and the Replacements, and moved to New Orleans. He recorded haphazardly, on various small labels, often neglecting his own songs in favor of semi-serious renditions of “The Christmas Song” and other standards. At one point, he played afternoon covers in a Bourbon Street tourist bar for $20 a shift.
“In a way, it was the best time in my life,” he said.
He never felt the need to apologize, or explain. “Rock & roll is supposed to be out of control,” he once told an American Studies class at the University of Texas. “It’s crazy, and it’s supposed to drive you crazy.”
Legendary Memphis producer Jim Dickinson once recalled hearing a drunken recording of Chilton singing “The Dark End of the Street.”
“You get to the end of the first bridge, Alex says, ‘Hit me, band,’” Dickinson recounted. “And then nothing happens. Finally they start to play again, and it was like a lightbulb went off over my head, and I thought, ‘He hears the band in his head.’”
That was what the producer hoped to capture when he worked with Chilton: “I want the band that’s in his head.”
So do a lot of us. Many thousands of us.
James Sullivan can be found in condensed form online at www.jamessullivanauthor.com.