“I guess my life has been a series of flukes in the record business. The first thing I ever did was record the biggest record I’ll ever have,” Alex Chilton once said, a quote recounted in Holly George-Warren’s essential biography, A Man Called Destruction, about the musician who was canonized as a rock and roll saint even before his death in 2010. And yes, if you’re only judging by how much money it made, “The Letter,” the single from his teenage band the Box Tops, was Chilton’s biggest hit. Yet if you took everything else he did, from his work with the band Big Star to his production work on the first Cramps album and for The Gories, Chilton’s importance in the history of music actually resembles that of John Cale (founding member of the original greatest band that nobody paid attention to while they were around, responsible for few solo albums that should be considered classics, and producer for artists from Nick Drake to Patti Smith). George-Warren, an apt biographer with a long history of writing about music, doesn’t hide the fact that Chilton was a troubled genius who only started to accept the importance of his Big Star period towards the end of his life. She also recalls, “The first time I met Alex Chilton, I threw up in his sink.” It’s understandable; Chilton’s work, especially the first two Big Star records, #1 Record and Radio City, are considered holy artifacts by many that George-Warren’s starstruck nausea doesn’t seem all that strange. A Man Called Destruction is also the only thing about this criminally under-appreciated band you’ll ever need to read. It does more than all the articles, books, documentary films, and cover albums with liner notes written by famous fanboys about how important and life-changing Big Star’s recordings were combined.
Big Star’s albums are important, and listening to them for the first time might actually alter the course of your life. But, wisely, George-Warren doesn’t make the entire book about the star-crossed band that played together for under five years. This is a biography about a person, not a band. Yet it shouldn’t go unnoticed that A Man Called Destruction makes listening to Big Star an even more bittersweet experience by forcing readers to realize that long after the band broke up — and co-founder Chris Bell died in a car accident — Chilton was still walking the earth, just another guy to most people, while thousands of willing indie kids took the sound he made and ran with it. The first time I visited Memphis, I kept spotting strangers and thinking, “That guy could be Chilton. Maybe I should go say something…” I obsessed over this person who created songs that I consider perfect. He was a songwriter who made me want to fall in love with a girl born in September just so I’d have someone to sing “September Gurls” to. He’s the guy I wanted to see “children by the million sing for… when he comes ’round” (as The Replacements put it), because if more people listened to his music, the world would be a better place. That’s why fans constantly cite and discuss Chilton’s output, why people can recall the first time they heard the opening strums of “Feel” from Big Star’s debut, and still get emotional listening to “Thirteen.” Chilton was a master of taking things that shouldn’t really work and making them perfect. The Cramps albums he produced, the Gravest Hits EP and Songs the Lord Taught Us, are both immaculate displays of utter imperfection that would have been tossed to the dollar bins of history if they weren’t perfectly messed up. When Chilton touched something, it became classic. And while Big Star’s story has been told over and over, “The Letter” still plays all the time on oldies stations, and everybody from Teenage Fanclub to Wilco continue to record and tour with a sound reminiscent of what Chilton helped create, nobody has done such a great job telling his story before. This is what makes Holly George-Warren’s achievement such an important one, and A Man Called Destruction one of the most important books on the life and work of a musician to come out this year.