Having been a longtime fan of Alex Chilton, I fell into a deep dark hole in between any official activities reading the exhaustively researched new LX bio A Man Called Destruction by Holly George- Warren. Chilton would be a rather daunting subject for any biographer due to his rambling, idiosyncratic career and sharp turns in musical orientation. Given all that, the author (who was well acquainted with Chilton for some years) offers a sometimes harrowing but detailed tribute to an artist who didn’t always know what was best for him, perhaps, but created a wealth of his own music (Big Star and various solo permutations) and produced heaps of other fine projects (The Cramps, Tav Falco’s Panther Burns, and many more). Chilton was a pop star of sorts crooning soul with an affective, mature voice as a teenager with the Box Tops (The Letter, Cry like a Baby) recorded three LPs with the innovative pop band Big Star, and then travelled a winding road of treacherous anti-fame and fortune, in that commercial potential mattered not at all to him in comparison to lively, spontaneous improvisational music that drew from eclectic sources: rock and roll, r and b, blues, country, folk, jazz, classical, noise. Chilton died suddenly of a heart attack in 2010 at the age of 59 in his adopted home of New Orleans, and this feels no less jarring as George-Warren’s account comes to a close. The book dishes out plenty of dissolute rock and roll gossipy anecdotes along the way but is delivered in a measured, readable prose that generally avoids hagiography and rounds out the too often flattened portrayals of this very complex character. I have my own biases, having seen Chilton perform, loving his records for decades, but also thinking a lot about the kind of rather perverse decisions he made in the name of “artistic independence.” But if you are at all interested in one of the most fascinating figures of rock and roll and alternative music, do check out this book, and if you don’t know his music some beautiful stuff (and totally wild shit) awaits you. (You can read an excerpt of the biography here.)
Perhaps not everyone will want to read a 600+ page book on Johnny Cash. But if you are that sort of person, Robert Hilburn’s new biography is a much more comprehensive tome than any of the previous attempts to filter through the manifold complexities of the Man in Black’s psyche. While Cash’s contributions to American music are pretty much incontestably clear today, this hasn’t always been the case. As Hilburn outlines, in painstaking fashion, throughout the 1970s and 80s, even as Cash became lionized as an iconic figure of popular culture, his record sales were poor, production values mediocre, and he was dropped from his longtime label. Of course the rejuvenation of his career during the later years working with producer Rick Rubin turned this around to an enormous degree, enabling a reconsideration of Cash’s importance to so many musical genres: rock and roll, rockabilly, country, blues, folk, and gospel. Hilburn, a veteran music critic gets his facts straight, sometimes at the expense of a gripping narrative, as the second half of the book gets rather more pedestrian. Cash’s own autobiography, while sketchy in terms of some of the particulars remains a riveting read and offers a nice compliment to Hilburn’s archival and journalistic foraging. However both are probably good recommendations for airplane reading if you are a Cash fanatic, and if you aren’t, what’s keeping you?