November 4, 2015


Like many people who grew up in the 1990s, I became enamored of the music of Big Star - mostly through word-of-mouth testimonials. (That Replacements song about Big Star's Alex Chilton didn't hurt, either) So I easily fell in love with the sensitive, shimmering songs of #1 Record, the harder-edged-yet-brittle Radio City, and the flat-out darkness of Third.

(And if you don't find yourself repeatedly listening to September Gurls after hearing it the first time, there's something seriously wrong with you)

But the band's legacy has been explored in detail within the past two years, with the 2013 documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me and Holly George-Warren's biography of Alex Chilton, A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man . Both are invaluable guides to how one man pursued his creative vision....descending into self-destruction and then a kind of redemption.

Of the two, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me is the more revelatory piece about Alex Chilton, with its sole focus on the band and its limited output. It's a story about how a small studio gained slight prominence, bringing in local talent and fostering a sense of community. It's about two polar creative opposites finding their way into collaboration. But most importantly, it's about the output - there's a great mix of testimonials and actual music that shows why Big Star gained the hearts and minds of many people. (It's almost as good as the Replacements documentary Color Me Obsessed).  It shows why, for a band relatively unheard in its own time, Big Star has an appeal for many people....

....and A Man Called Destruction places it in the overall context of Alex Chilton's life. Granted, she starts with a little too much detail (did we really need to explore the history of the Chilton family?), but Holly George-Warren does a splendid job of highlighting some of the various aspects that drove Chilton: unusual parenting styles, the death of a sibling, the effects of early stardom as lead singer of the Box Tops - all of these factors influenced some of Chilton's later behavior.

If there's one complaint about A Man Called Destruction, it's that there's never really a sense of Chilton as a person. Of course, perhaps the idea that Chilton was so erratic in his career, and that his musical choices were a bit....eccentric, to put it mildly. (To paraphrase a Paul Westerberg quote, Chilton was either a massive genius or a guy who lost it a little too quickly).

Long ago, I used to have a Record You Should Own podcast, which I gave up due to personal commitments. Big Star has a prominent place in my top recommendations, and both Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me and A Man Called Destruction provide great justification for that reputation.

Read and watch both.  And you'll never again travel far without a little Big Star.

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