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Big Star's Alex Chilton Wrote the Script for Every Indie-Rock Recluse

Phillippe Brizard/Wikimedia Commons

In the summer of 1967, The Box Tops’ first single, “The Letter,” took over American radio so fast that the Memphis band’s tour schedule filled up before anyone outside Tennessee even knew what they looked like. In between gigs with The Beach Boys and The Doors, they were also occasionally booked at black venues, whose owners assumed the gravel-voiced singer would fit in fine. But when a wispy-haired white boy barely old enough to drive showed up to play, managers were mystified. One booking agent at the Philadelphia fairgrounds forced bandleader Alex Chilton to sing a capella just to prove who he was.

That summer would be Chilton’s last experience with superstardom, but the next four decades of his music career were marked by similarly bemused audiences and parried expectations. His second band, Big Star, was a soulful pop-rock group who barely sold any records in the 1970s; Chilton responded by pushing the band in an ever less-commercial direction then embarking on a willfully shambolic solo career. As time wore on, he retreated further and further from the mainstream music industry, playing the occasional club show but more often noodling the piano in his beloved house in New Orleans’ Treme neighborhood.

But by the time Chilton died of a heart attack in 2010, aged 59, he had become an icon of intensely pure artistic integrity and an acknowledged influence on innumerable later acts including R.E.M., the Replacements and Elliott Smith. Rather than the failed or self-destructive pop star he appeared to be by 1980, Chilton had come to embody a new archetype: the unpopular pop musician, a performer whose reputation rests on a willful rejection of commercial considerations altogether. Without him there could have been no Tom Waits, who exchanged his piano for percussion instruments literally borrowed from junkyards; no Jeff Mangum, who disappeared from public life right after his band Neutral Milk Hotel recorded one of the ’90s’ most revered albums; no Jeff Tweedy, whose critical viability was secured when a major label dropped his group Wilco for making an “uncommercial” record with abstract lyrics and tape loops.

Holly George-Warren’s new biography bears the subtitle “From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man,” promising to tell how, exactly, the growling teen idol gave way to the romantic songwriter, who in turn became a punk icon, jazz crooner, and alt-rock figurehead. The book is a welcome tribute to a protean talent, but despite drawing on 100 interviews with Chilton’s friends and fellow musicians, A Man Called Destruction—named after one of his later solo records—offers no real explanation or understanding of his actual character.It’s a fan’s treat to finally read the details of his life, but Chilton remains the most inscrutable rock musician not named Bob Dylan.

Chilton’s tenure with Big Star remains his most celebrated work, but A Man Called Destruction is most useful as a reminder of just how odd this period was in relation to his greater career. Chilton wrote only a few songs for The Box Tops, none of which registered on the charts, and his smoky inflection sounds a little contrived compared to the highly emotive tenor he later developed for Big Star. After that group dissolved during sessions for their last record, Chilton began singing in a flat affect, and by the ’90s, he barely wrote at all. Other than two Big Star reunion albums, one of which was a live album that contained no new material, he spent his final two decades recording obscure R&B, country and jazz songs, often with only his own electric guitar as accompaniment.

Far from a late-career eccentricity, George-Warren shows that Chilton was a musical magpie from childhood, and that this curiosity helped steady him amid a chaotic household. Chilton’s parents would host artists and musicians for days on end in their Memphis home while he more or less roamed as he pleased. This foundationless adolescence was made even chillier by his family’s refusal to ever speak of older brother Reid’s tragic death by drowning.

Chilton was only sixteen when he recorded “The Letter,” and he spent the rest of his early youth on the road and in the studio. The Box Tops were officially a six-piece group of fellow high-schoolers, though truly the group was a Pygmalion project for the legendary songwriting duo of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, who wrote “Dark End of the Street,” “Do Right Woman,” and many other hits. They pushed Chilton to early heights as a performer and professional musician, though he eventually felt manipulated by the arrangement, financially and otherwise. In 1969, he started recording demos with two friends at Ardent Studios, music that was finally released in 2012. That record sounds gleefully juvenile, less elaborately produced than the Box Tops material of the time, more crass yet often more tender. This is where Chilton discovered the high tenor and plaintive lyrical voice that he would master with his Big Star a few years later.

For a group of 20 year-olds, Big Star sounded remarkably confident from the first, and remarkably wistful. A Man Called Destruction shows that both of those qualities were hard-earned. A road-tested, veteran musician by the time he joined the band, Chilton was also prepared to celebrate his relative freedom and reconnect with the teenage joy he’d stifled. That’s what makes a song like “Thirteen,” his campfire paean to young love and rebellion, so touching. Only a man who missed out on his adolescence—and therefore never recalled his immaturity with embarrassment—could render that age so lovingly. It remains one of his signature songs, a favorite of fans who love his pleading and romantic side.

The rest of the band’s regrettably thin catalogue is a feast of sensitive machismo. Songs like “In The Street,” “The Ballad of El Goodo,” or especially “September Gurls,” are as addictive as the best British Invasion hits yet as vulnerable as the gentlest singer-songwriter records of the era; they helped invent what was later deemed “power-pop.” For its innovation, Big Star was repaid with bungled distribution and nonexistent radio play. Chilton grew erratic and started drinking heavily, while Bell died in a car crash after years spent struggling with depression. 

As a solo artist he scrapped the wistfulness but strengthened his push for personal freedom, following a zigzagging muse down through his record collection and offering scant praise for his earlier bands. George-Warren charts Chilton’s ’80s and ’90s perfunctorily, listing the facts of his career without daring to interpret them. She also sprints through the final decade of his life in only three pages. But Chilton’s stubborn dedication to his own vision and taste shines through nevertheless, and whatever his stylistic influence on certain jangly rock bands, that uncompromising attitude is his most lasting legacy.

Big Star’s eventual celebration in the ‘90s is one of the great resurrection stories in rock history, and Chilton is now chiefly remembered as the writer of a dozen-odd canonical, beloved songs and as a singer of startling vulnerability. But his impact was greater than that. After Alex Chilton, a songwriter’s artistic integrity rested on his perceived insouciance to popularity itself. Critical respectability now rests on an artist’s refusal to kowtow, even to their own adoring fans or their innate talent for melody. This is the archetype that Alex Chilton created during all those years when he seemed resistant to creation itself.