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April 23, 2014

Book Notes - Holly George-Warren "A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man"

A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Holly George-Warren's A Man Called Destruction is an impressively researched and definitive biography of Alex Chilton, both the man and his work.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"A thoroughly reported biography illuminating the life and work of one of the more mystifying and influential cult figures in rock.... Chilton receives the biography he deserves."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In her own words, here is Holly George-Warren's Book Notes music playlist for her book, A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man:

Probably the best part of writing A Man Called Destruction, my biography of Alex Chilton, was filling my days and nights with his music: on the computer, on the stereo (CD player, boombox, and turntable), and in the car. I had so much music to listen to, including his albums and singles with the Box Tops, his work with Big Star, his solo recordings dating back to 1969, and lots of one-off things, albums he produced, and recordings where he played guitar. Much of it I'd been collecting since the late 1970s, including 45s, EPs, LPs, audiocassettes, and CDs. Collectors sent me lots of fantastic bootlegs of live performances, outtakes, and never-before-released songs. Not to mention all the stuff I found on YouTube…

So it's impossible to list and discuss all the songs I listened to while researching and writing the book. But I can point out a few treasures that kept me company along the way:

Box Tops Coca-Cola commercials – These three ditties were such a great find and lots of fun: Alex is using his "Letter" voice and the lyrics describe a band of teens on the road, on the prowl for cute girls and a certain refreshing beverage.

"I Shall Be Released" : Alex does a great interpretation of the Dylan song on this Box Tops single (inspired by the version by the Band). It was one of the first songs that Alex got to choose to record; usually his producer Dan Penn called the shots. By the time of the fourth album, Dimensions, which included this track, the Box Tops were produced by Chips Moman, who gave them more leeway.

"All We Ever Got From Them Was Pain" : This is Alex at his most vulnerable; the track was never released during his lifetime, but came out on Free Again: The 1970 Sessions (Omnivore) in 2011; after what I'd learned about the tragedies in Alex's young life, the song brought me to tears.

"Thirteen" : From Big Star's #1 Record, this is another sensitive Alex song, which I discovered my son and his friends playing on guitar and singing at his sixteenth birthday party - proving what a timeless classic it is.

"The Ballad of El Goodo" : I never knew what this song – a longtime favorite from #1 Record – was about until researching the book and discovering that Alex's brother Howard was charged with resisting the draft. "El Goodo," honed during Alex's early-seventies NYC troubadour days, alludes to that. Big Star shot a little music video for the song, with Alex at the Draft Board building in Memphis.

"September Gurls" : Another timeless song that's a highlight of Big Star's Radio City. It's a crime this song wasn't a hit in 1974!

"Motel Blues" : Alex started covering this Loudon Wainwright III song when he lived in New York in 1970, playing open mic nights at Village coffeehouses. I first heard him do it on the 1992 CD, Big Star Live, a document of a 1974 radio performance at WLIR in New York. He really makes the song his own.

"Nighttime" is a portrait of love and pain on Big Star Third, also known as Sister Lovers. When that album was reissued with more tracks, another one that really got to me is Alex's haunted version of "Nature Boy." The whole album takes me to a dark but beautiful place – perfect for 3 a.m. alone at my computer.

"Can't Seem to Make You Mine" : The flip side to his 1978 single, "Bangkok," is Alex's uber-angsty version of the great Sky Saxon's Seeds classic. I can play this one over and over about a dozen times.

"Alligator Man" : Likes Flies on Sherbert, maligned by many, is the Alex Chilton album that turned me on to all kinds of roots music and honky-tonk, from the Carter Family to Ernest Tubb. I love Alex's version of this Cajun tune, originally a hit for Jimmy C. Newman.

"Thing for You": Alex used to say that this pretty song (from High Priest) was the best one he ever wrote; I wouldn't go that far, but its melody does stay with you.

"Dark End of the Street" : This collaboration with Scottish band Teenage Fanclub is an amazing cover of the Dan Penn/Chips Moman song that Alex started singing back in his Memphis days; here, Alex and his pals performed it on the BBC in the ‘90s.

"Rubber Room" : The Porter Wagoner psycho classic… as only Alex could have interpreted it; he started doing this song live right before he quit drinking in the early 80s.

"You Can Bet Your Heart on Me" – Alex recorded this Johnny Lee country song for a cool, extremely hard-to-find compilation LP called Love Is My Only Crime. For years, I only had an audiocassette dub of it from a friend's record. It came out last year as a bonus track on Electricity by Candlelight.

"Devil Girl" : A song that really shows Alex's sense of humor and fun on his '95 album, A Man Called Destruction – his last solo LP including several of his originals (half of the tracks).

"Look for the Silver Lining" : This was one of Alex's favorite Chet Baker songs (written by Jerome Kern and B.G. Desylva) and he does a beautiful version of it on a Chet Baker tribute LP called Imagination. The NYC session is where he met his future longtime drummer Richard Dworkin.

"Step Right This Way" : An obscure Glen Sherley song that Alex sang live at the Knitting Factory in February 1997, the night the power went out, and he kept playing when someone handed him an acoustic guitar. I was there and can hear myself in the audience calling out for "Alligator Man." The recording was a bootleg for years and finally came out on CD – as Electricity by Candlelight – just as I was finishing the book. It was quite cathartic to hear it again, right then at the point where exhaustion meets exhilaration.

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

Bookforum review
BookPage review
Flavorwire review
Kirkus review
New York Times review
NPR Books review
Paste review
Philadelphia City Paper review

Memphis Flyer interview with the author
Rolling Stone interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists

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