Alex Chilton, A Personal History
Alex Chilton, Robert Burke Warren with Burke Warren's son, Jack, outside of Chilton's New Orleans home. (Photo by Holly George-Warren)
Technically, my wife Holly George-Warren worked on A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton for about three years, but she'd been talking about it for almost two decades. A fan since the '70s, she met Alex when he was washing dishes in New Orleans in the early '80s. He was in the "rags" part of his riches-to-rags-to-riches arc, scraping jambalaya off tourists' plates to make ends meet. Holly and Alex hit it off. A couple years later, he produced her band Clambake, an early step on his winding path back to musical activity. I came on the scene in 1987, when Holly's band Das Furlines and my band the Fleshtones shared a bill. All I knew of Alex was that he'd been the 16-year-old white singer of The Box Tops, a kid who'd sounded like a 40-year-old black man on the 1967 smash "The Letter." I'd heard-tell of his '70s cult band Big Star, but I'd not checked them out. I learned more -- a lot more -- via Holly's stories of Alex, and her expansive record collection, which included Box Tops LPs and the Big Star oeuvre alongside Alex's eclectic, occasionally slapdash, intentionally confounding solo work. Holly also possessed The Cramps classic debut LP, Songs the Lord Taught Us, which Alex produced. I am partial to Big Star, but Holly loves it all.
As Holly's writing career progressed, she and Alex remained friends, and I hung out with him a couple times. She interviewed him for various magazines, and while he loved talking about music in general, he consistently deflected praise for Big Star, his most popular stuff. Unlike most interviewees, especially in our compulsively confessional age, he rarely spoke at length of the odd circumstances of his unusual childhood, his participation in crucial moments of '60s, '70s, '80s, and '90s music history, and his personal life. That was not his way. He preferred talking about music, everything from Brownie McGhee to J.S. Bach to ? & the Mysterians.
A Man Called Destruction
He knew his was a great story, though. In the late '80s and early '90s, Alex's surprise third act began; the Replacements' recorded their ode to him, "Alex Chilton," the Bangles covered his "September Gurls," and R.E.M. and other rising "alternative" acts cited him as a major influence. This must've emboldened him, because around this time he asked Holly to help him write his memoir. He wanted to title it I Slept With Charlie Manson, referencing a 1968 night of revelry, when the Box Tops partied with the Beach Boys and a teenaged Alex awoke beside the cult leader, then a kind of protÃ©gÃ© of Dennis Wilson.
He was perverse like that. Gleefully offensive, elliptical, and unpredictable. The memoir didn't happen, of course, in part because Alex got busier and busier, and when he wasn't busy, he went off the grid. He once called our St. Mark's Place apartment from a pay phone in Tennessee, stoned, looking for Holly. She wasn't home, so we chatted about music in general, but not his. I asked him what new music, if any, he liked. With as much gusto as I ever heard from him, he insisted Holly and I check out The Country Rockers, who were playing that night at CBGB, and about whom he would give no details. He just said they were better than anything, anything he'd ever done. They turned out to be two old men from Memphis, touring with Alex's bassist. They looked like corn liquor drunk grandpas who'd stumbled on their grandkids' instruments and plowed through old C & W and rockabilly tunes, just screaming, and joking awkwardly between songs. It was money well spent. But yeah, Alex was perverse like that. A trickster.
About a decade later, Holly and I, with our infant son Jack, visited Alex at his lopsided Treme, New Orleans cottage, which he was restoring when not hitting the oldies circuit with The Box Tops, or barnstorming colleges and clubs with the re-formed Big Star. He was laconic and laid back, in shorts and T-shirt, his glasses on a chain around his neck, smoking incessantly. He really came alive when his neighbors -- salt-of-the-earth local folk -- walked by his crumbling stoop and shot the breeze. His story -- or what I knew of it -- hung about him like a multi-colored aura. Teen stardom, genius of oddball '70s pop band, NYC punk scenester, dishwasher, and elder statesman of alt rock. Also, a guy who'd danced with chaos, disappointment, and adversity, and made it back from darkness, a guy who'd conquered the demon alcohol, and never given up on music. He was living like a bachelor carpenter, his hands raw from work, which seemed to make him genuinely happy. And that's what we talked about: his house, and architecture. As a new dad, I recall thinking, "My son needs to know people like this." I knew it would take a village to help raise Jack, and I experienced a keen desire to populate his world with rare birds like Alex. Difficult people, yes, but worth the trouble. Artists.
Alex Chilton and Holly George-Warren (Photo by Dan Howell)
Jack was 12 when I received a distraught phone call from Holly in Austin, telling me Alex had died of heart failure, a few months past his 59th birthday, and on the eve of a highly anticipated SXSW Big Star show. Over the years, Holly and I had lost several friends, and Alex's passing added to that widening pool of grief one simply learns to live with. Soon thereafter, Holly got the deal from Viking to write Alex's biography. Throughout her process of writing the proposal, honing it, pouring her broken heart into it, I knew she was the one for the job of telling Alex's story, and I said it aloud again and again. I enjoyed helping her, listening alongside her with a new openness, grappling with words to describe Alex's extraordinary life and music. That brought us back to an intimate place from which we'd strayed. And while Alex's music played nonstop in our house for a couple years, Jack and I often looked at each other, sometimes aghast, sometimes enthralled: "What's that?" "A cassette of a live show from Max's Kansas City." "That's awful." Or: "What's that?" "That, my son, is Radio City." "Mmm."
Jack's sixteenth birthday party coincided with the final stages of A Man Called Destruction. Our house in the Catskills was packed to the rafters with arty, flinty teenagers. Holly and I served cake and ice cream, patrolled our four-bedroom Victorian like hapless hotel detectives, and eventually took refuge upstairs. As the party was winding down, kids produced guitars and commenced playing in the living room. To Holly's and my astonishment, "Thirteen," Alex's ballad to a lost childhood, sung campfire style by our son and his friends, wafted upstairs. Holly wept. I almost ran downstairs with my iPhone to record it, but I restrained myself. I just listened, and was still. It was an unforgettable moment, one for the time capsule, a moment so filled with promise and hope it blots out all grief and struggle that has come before. It was a gift. Several folks Holly and I wanted to be part of our son's life were gone. But Alex, it turns out, remains.