YOU EITHER KNOW EVERYTHING there is to know about Alex Chilton, or you've never heard of the guy. As such, a Chilton biography—touted by the publisher as the first volume dedicated solely to the man—is an interesting proposition. It comes with a built-in readership, yes, but will it simply preach to the choir, or will it attempt to bridge the gap for the casual book-buyer by offering both an entry point and a valuable perspective on the sometimes-prickly catalog of the underground legend?
Holly George-Warren's well-researched A Man Called Destruction does quite a bit more than toss treats to Chilton-holics, although it does assume you have absorbed and memorized all three of Big Star's classic '70s albums. Exploring the areas outside Chilton's years with the seminal power-pop band, however, is where George-Warren's book will appeal to both seasoned fans and newcomers alike. Chilton's pre-Big Star career as a teen idol with the Box Tops is particularly interesting; I hadn't realized how much other worthwhile music the Memphis group had recorded beyond their 1967 smash hit "The Letter."
The tumultuous Big Star years are well documented, too, of course, although George-Warren—a former Rolling Stone editor—doesn't explain those records' historical import, or offer her own critical evaluation on those perhaps exhaustively evaluated records. When Big Star fizzled (the band's significant influence was not felt until years after their breakup), Chilton sank into an underachieving solo career, marred by alcohol and drug use and disillusionment with the music biz. His first solo records are choppy, raw affairs that George-Warren is obviously fond of—it's doubtful that anyone other than fanatics will feel the same way.
After fronting a hugely successful pop band in the '60s and a tragically neglected one in the '70s, Chilton's subsequent years aren't exactly uplifting: He lived with his parents well into his 30s, earning money by driving a cab in his hometown of Memphis. Later on, he washed dishes in New Orleans and spent years living in a tent in rural Tennessee. But also during that time, he cleaned up his act and reconnected with the jazz and blues music he'd loved since his youth.
With tons of interviews, quotes, and well-cited sources, George-Warren's book touches all the bases, although it doesn't linger on them long enough to provide penetrating or lasting insight. Rather, it functions as a complete but perhaps overly succinct document of Chilton's life and influence. (Two suicide attempts, a gay encounter, and Chilton's premature death at 59 are mentioned almost with nonchalance.) Both fanatics and casual readers are likely to want something more.