Chilton Book CoverWriter, editor, producer and music consultant Holly George-Warren is a familiar figure to rock and pop fans through her reporting and long-form journalism, including a biography of Gene Autry as well as children’s books about the pioneers of Country & Western and Rock & Roll music.  Her latest effort is a moving and revealing biography of Alex Chilton, the legendary musician who joined the Box Tops as a teenager, was a founding member of the beloved Big Star, and had a sporadic solo career and a turbulent life prior to his death in 2010 at age 59.  A two-time Grammy nominee, she discussed “A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man” with ReNew Music editor Jim Fusilli by phone from her home in the Catskills.

RNM:   I had no idea you and Alex had discussed writing a book together.

A:  Though I knew him for 10 years, I didn’t do my first interview with him until in ’92.  We talked about books in general and a book I’d done on the creative process.  (Editor’s note:  The book was reissued recently as “It's Not Only Rock 'n' Roll: Iconic Musicians Reveal the Source of Their Creativity.”)  Also, I assisted Ben Fong-Torres when he was writing “Hickory Wind,” his Gram Parsons biography.  I gave both books to Alex and I guess he was impressed with them   He called me out of the blue.  He wanted to do a book on his travels with the Box Tops.  He was going to call it “I Slept with Charlie Manson.”  I went down to see him in New Orleans, but by the time we got together he had realized the amount of time it would take to do a book.  He wasn’t one to stick to any one thing for a long while.

But knowing he thought about doing it with me gave me a bit of a boost when I was writing his biography.  It’s a great responsibility to tell a story of a person’s life, especially one as complicated as Alex’s.  Having had that history with him kept me going in my hours of doubt.

 

RNM:  Members of Alex’s family lived in or near the hometowns of Bo Diddley, Jimmie Rodgers and Muddy Waters.  Makes you believe in fate, doesn’t it?

A:  Alex didn’t come out of vacuum; there is a family history leading to who he was.  He was surrounded by music growing up in an incredible hotbed like Memphis and he had his dad, who had jazz musicians playing in the house.  But his other siblings didn’t pursue music when they were young.  Alex was born a gifted musician.

 

RNM:  How critical to his development was the sudden death of his brother when Alex was young?

A:  Even though I knew Alex for a long time, I didn’t know about his family history.  It was shocking to find out about his horrific incident and the effect it would have on his emotional life.  Being a parent myself, I couldn’t help but have great empathy for the Alex and the family.  As late as 2007, in an interview Alex described his brother’s death and he sounded so anguished – 50 years after it happened.  It clearly had a huge impact on his life.

I’m not a psychologist, but he did have trouble sustaining relationships with musicians and girlfriends.  There’s no black and white when there’s comes to understanding someone, but he was a peripatetic person who wanted to move from one type of music to the next.  Alex knew the expression “one must destroy to create.”  I think he lived his life that way in music.

 

RNM:  Do you think he understood he was in a precarious situation almost from the beginning of his career with the Box Tops?

A:  He was at a pretty tumultuous point as a 16-year-old adolescent.  Just think about what happens to a teenager at that period.  There are so many changes and it takes a while to assimilate them.  He didn’t have any support system in place when he was thrown into stardom.  “The Letter” was a fluke, really; a stroke of luck.  It was the first time in the studio for Alex.  He didn’t write it and it wasn’t like he had been playing it for a while with a band.  It gave a sense of falseness to the success.

 

RNM:  You quote producer Jim Dickinson saying he wanted to capture the band Alex heard in his head.  Do you have a sense of what the sound might’ve been like?

A:  I was just thinking about that listening to his bootlegs.  He did “Dark End of the Street” with Teenage Fan Club, recorded by the BBC in ’97 or ‘98, and I couldn’t help but wonder if that wasn’t the sound he was trying to find.

He was incredibly critical of his music.  There were certain songs that he liked, that he said were his favorites:  “September Gurls,” “In the Street.”  But he was so hypercritical of his own musicianship.  He was always working to get better.  As far as him ever becoming satisfied, it’s hard to know if he ever was.  In time, I think he was able to look back with a more equanimity.  He liked the sound of the Big Star records.  On “Third/Sister Lovers,” he was at his most vulnerable as a songwriter.  It was a self-portrait and musically incredible, but because he wasn’t a part of it when it was released, he felt betrayed.  It’s sad and depressing.

Alex did get artistic control in the late 80s and early 90s, but he never had a big budget.  He never got to do what he might’ve wanted to.

 

RNM:  Do you think he understood that people loved his work?

A:  For him, that was a double-edged sword.  He did not want to be pigeonholed.  Most Alex Chilton fans totally glommed onto one period of his career – Big Star or Box Tops or jazz solo or rockabilly.  A few people embraced all of his art, but if they loved some of his stuff, they excluded his other material.  Near the end of life he found that kind of amusing, but earlier on when he was a more volatile state, it bugged him.

RNM:  Where were you when you learned Alex had died?  What was your reaction?

A:  I was on a little shuttle van in Austin (at the South by Southwest Festival) to go see Wanda Jackson.  A guy was on the phone; he was sitting right next to me.  He said, “I’m sorry, y’all.  I’m really upset.  Alex Chilton just died.”  I burst into tears.  I had been trying to get in touch with Alex that morning.  I kept getting this bizarre busy signal.  To hear that news was devastating.

It was hard writing the book.  I really miss the guy.  To hear about some of the tragedies in his life, it stabs you in the heart.  I wish I could’ve reached him on the phone.

 

RNM:  You write that he died “a satisfied man.”  Can you explain?

A:  Last time I saw him was ’04, but people who knew him for a long time who were at his performances – like the Box Tops reunion of 2009 – say he was so upbeat.  His personal life was in a good place.  He was at age when he could find peace with each part of his career.  Financially, things had stabilized.  He enjoyed doing the different reunion shows and his old music.  He didn’t have anything to prove to himself anymore.  When he first moved to New Orleans, he said he just wanted to find happiness and a peaceful life.  I think he found that.