Monday, March 24, 2014

Book Review: A Man Called Destruction by Holly George-Warren

This review must begin with an admission. I am not a member of the Church of Chilton.

Well, my power pop cred has just been blown to hell... but let me explain. It isn't that I don't dig Big Star. I do. It's just that in my view there are two, and only two, Big Star albums that are worth a damn, #1 Record, and Radio City. The dreariness that is Sister Lovers ( or 3rd or whatever the hell you want to call it) never, ever did a thing for me, nor did the majority of Alex Chilton's subsequent solo work or odd things like Panther Burns. In the end I simply was not impressed by the air of curmudgeonly pop/rock Svengali that swirled around the persona of Chilton during the 80's and 90's, iconic Replacements song notwithstanding.

That being said I approached this biography of Chilton (A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton from Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man, by Holly George-Warren, Viking Penguin, 2014) with a certain amount of circumspection if not downright skepticism. Would the author approach her subject with the zeal of a true believer or would there be room for a critical eye? The answer to that question would determine if the book would be a worthwhile read for a person like me or not. Authors of rock biographies have often been of the "enthusiast" variety, and if George-Warren fell into that category, well I would be in for a long uninformative ride.

Happily I can report that while this book is written by someone who obviously knew, liked and admired Chilton there is not even the hint of a trace of a sycophantic voice here. George-Warren also does a nice job of not over-selling or over-determining her topic. She provides a wealth of information and invites the reader to come up with their own conclusions as to why Chilton took the path he did. This is a particularly wise choice as even Chilton himself never seemed to be exactly sure when it came to his motivations. His mercurial nature, probably reinforced by his predilection for astrology, only meant wherever he was one day didn't necessarily have a bearing on where he would be the next.

The book does a fine job of covering the biographical necessities, providing a wealth of interviews and anecdotes to flesh out Chilton's early life and music career. George-Warren handles important but somewhat extraneous information well, such as the convoluted troubles with Ardent and Stax Records which ultimately doomed the initial Big Star releases to commercial failure, giving us enough context to understand what happened without drowning the narrative in waves of unnecessary detail.

There may be moments where there seems to be a bit of a hole in our understanding, but that seems to be the way Chilton wanted it. Seemingly he could be perverse for the sheer hell of it. It is a testament to the quality of this book as a biography that it doesn't degenerate into "one damn thing after another" even if the life Chilton lived invites us at times to adopt such a view. It is also a big part of why this book is so enjoyable, even for those of us who are not acolytes in the Church of Chilton.

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