March 22, 2014

NEVER TRAVEL FAR:

Book Review: 'A Man Called Destruction' by Holly George-Warren : After becoming a rock star at 16, Alex Chilton grew so contemptuous of his talent that he turned self-sabotage into a lifestyle. (STEVE DANZIGER, March 21, 2014, WSJ)


It was at Ardent, a local studio founded by John Fry, a sort of benevolent Fagin who provided free recording time to loitering oddballs, that Chilton began the partnership with Chris Bell that would become Big Star. Supercilious, petulant and clinically depressed, Bell was the tormented yin to Chilton's blasé yang, and along with bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens, they spent months shaping an album according to Bell's perfectionist demands. Sessions were often volatile; Ardent's office manager remembers throwing first-aid supplies at band members to keep their blood off her paperwork, and one emblematic scenario found Bell and Hummel shattering glass, noses and each other's guitars as Chilton laughed it off.

The resulting album, "#1 Record" (1972) rife with love of the Beatles and the Byrds, hooks and harmonies, made the band a paragon of power pop, a label that both categorizes and cheapens their achievement. Songs like "The Ballad of El Goodo," "My Life is Right" and "Give Me Another Chance," are delicious examples of pop songcraft and studio finesse, alive with yearning and a sense of delight in their creation.

"#1 Record" received superlative reviews, inspired high expectations and died. Ardent's distributor was Stax; unsure how to promote a white rock group, they botched the release. It's unclear whether Chilton cared; all Ms. George-Warren offers is "Alex took it in stride" and Chilton's stated desire to stay at Ardent to learn more about production. Bell, however, claimed a conspiracy, quit the band and, according to one witness, carved "pig" into the hood of Mr. Fry's Mercedes. One night, after he was discovered erasing the "#1 Record" tapes, he attempted suicide and was committed.

Though Ms. George-Warren's prose is anemic, the Big Star chapters are heavy with anecdote and portent, and it requires only a small romantic leap to conclude that Chilton and Bell's common tragedy was to need a partnership that neither was suited to sustain. Aside from the freakish creative chemistry, they tempered each other's most self-hampering traits--Bell's anger, Chilton's lack of focus--and without each other, their lives took ruinous turns. Bell floundered, recorded erratically and died at age 27, after taking a Mandrax and bourbon cocktail and driving into a utility pole. Chilton shepherded the second Big Star album, 1974's "Radio City" (featuring the superb "September Gurls"; distribution was botched this time by CBS), but while recording "Third" the next year he was starting to collapse. According to producer Jim Dickinson, sessions began with Chilton "shoot[ing] Demerol down his throat with a syringe." On one occasion, Chilton's girlfriend Lesa showed up with black eyes, and on another, Mr. Fry told Dickinson, "We can't have blood on the console. Please speak to Alex about it." "Third" would eventually be regarded as a classic, but the consensus at the time, in the words of Memphis musician Tommy Hoehn, was that it was "crap." Hit with yet another failure, Chilton cut his wrists and ended up in the same hospital that Bell had been taken to four years earlier.



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Posted by at March 22, 2014 3:18 AM
  
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