A Man Called Destruction NPR coverage of A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, from Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man by Holly George-Warren. News, author interviews, critics' picks and more.
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A Man Called Destruction

The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, from Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man

by Holly George-Warren

Hardcover, 370 pages, Penguin Group USA, List Price: $27.95 |


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A Man Called Destruction
The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, from Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man
Holly George-Warren

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NPR Summary

Drawing on interviews with more than 100 close associates, a revelatory account of the late music artist's career traces his fame as a teen rock star in the 1960s and descent to humble jobs before his comeback as a solo artist, producer and innovator in the indie-rock genre.

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Chapter 11

Free Again

Alex started the seventies by heading to Ardent to cut more tunes. Living at his parents' house, he worked on songs inspired by his trip to London, as well as memories brought on by being back on Montgomery Street. Seeing his brother Howard, now a graduate student in Indiana and home for the holidays, also reminded him of the past. The result was "All We Ever Got from Them Was Pain," perhaps the most personal song Alex ever wrote: "I see sadness in your eyes, I do think that I know why/They left us on the street to live or die."

Alex had voiced his plan to leave the band in London, but, according to Swain Schaefer, the band's replacement bassist threatened "to beat him up and put him in the hospital" if he quit. Gary suggested they start a new group with a different name. Neither idea appealed to Alex. The band's fortunes continued to decline. "Soul Deep," their last bona fide hit, had only reached #87 in 1969's year-end survey. Alex and Gary each retained lawyers to sue Roy Mack for money owed them, though they eventually didn't pursue legal action.

Back in the studio, Alex began developing his own voice as a singer- songwriter. "I was trying to learn to write," Alex later said about the sessions with Terry Manning. "Trying to learn to play. We would approach some things in a very organized way, and some other things we would just be wailing off the top of our heads with the tape running."

"He had started 'The EMI Song' in England," Terry remembers. "At Abbey Road Studios, Alex went into the big room there and sat at the piano. He said the first thing he played was those chords, and then he quickly hummed part of the melody in his head. When he brought it back and we started recording, he said, 'Well, I've got a partial little ditty with just some chords,' and played it. I said, 'Oh, I love that, we've just got to finish it!' I can still see it exactly: We sat down at the piano and just went through the whole thing and finished it up, with a lot of new chords and things. But the little intro, the first part of it, he had that with- out the lyrics." Alex sang "The EMI Song (Smile for Me)" in a vulnerable tenor, backed by keyboards, guitar, bass, and drums. In Terry's mind the shimmering love song would be the centerpiece of Alex's debut album.

Terry was floored by the deep emotion conveyed when Alex fingerpicked and sang "All We Ever Got from Them Was Pain." He joined Alex on Everly Brothers–style harmonies on the song's chorus, "They never gave a damn for us, they never gave a hand to us."

"I think it was [about] a family thing," Terry says. "I've always thought it was about his parents or his family life situation." The song was never included on a proper Chilton release until 2012, because previously, he adds, "Alex wanted the song left off — he said it had a meaning to him [and for that reason] he really didn't want it released at that point. I think he felt that it would make somebody feel bad."

Some days in the Ardent studio, Alex was up for just having a good time, occasionally accompanied by Swain Schaefer. "Alex and I'd get loaded and go into Ardent," Swain remembers. "I'd play organ, and he'd play piano. He liked Scott Joplin and played a couple Joplin tunes like 'The Entertainer' pretty well." Other covers were more contemporary, like the Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash." Alex's loping version had a kind of kids-in-the-garage amateurism, which Terry captured on tape.

More surprising was the day Alex insisted on doing "Sugar, Sugar," the chart-topper by the Archies (cowritten by none other than Andy Kim, who also sang on Archies recordings, as did songwriter Toni Wine, Chips Moman's future wife).

On "Sugar, Sugar," Alex and Terry were on a tear, laughing and joking throughout the song, turning it into a throbbing guitar fest and screaming out, "We're gonna be stars!" When Alex kicked it off on his Telecaster, Richard Rosebrough thought, " 'What do you want to do that teenybopper, bubblegum stuff for?' Later I got to understand where he was coming from, and I would appreciate a song [like that]. I realized there was something in 'Sugar, Sugar' that made it a stand-up, stand-alone song." Alex later said it was "a sort of humorous thing, meant to be the heavy version, like Iron Butterfly doing 'Sugar, Sugar,' real spontaneous." He certainly had the ear for a good tune, and in this case it was one that also caught the attention of Wilson Pickett and Ike and Tina Turner, who cut their own funky renditions of the song.

At home, although Mary (who had dropped the "Evelyn" except among old friends) had closed her art gallery, the salons continued. Alex occasionally stopped in to see Sidney play piano in a jazz combo in West Memphis clubs like the Sharecropper, but a distance had grown between father and son. Alex wondered if his parents had given him the advice he needed as a sixteen-year-old pop star. "I really wanted to quit [the Box Tops] right after the first record," he told Gordon Alexander in 1979. "I think, looking back on it, that would have been a really sound move. [But] I was young and kinda scared. I felt like an amateur. I was looking for guidance from my parents, and all they said was, 'These guys [Roy Mack, Dan Penn, and Chips Moman] know what they're doing.' I stayed against my better judgment."

From A Man Called Destruction by Holly George-Warren. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House company. Copyright 2014 by Holly George-Warren.