A new book revisits Alex Chilton's lifelong struggle with his own talent
A Man Called Destruction:
The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man
by Holly George-Warren
$27.95 List Price
People in the arts talk about talent all the time: who has it, who discovered the person who had it, its peaks and valleys, and when it has been “lost” or “wasted.” It’s all said as if we know what talent is, when we don’t. It is more than aptitude or being a quick study. It is more than skill, and closer to ease or sparkle in the skill’s application. It somehow forms a trinity with effort and inspiration, but without talent, those two can seem like sad and misguided cul-de-sacs.
But there is also a talent to having talent, and to living with it. Talent can seem like an alien invasion of the self, a kind of parasite that requires its host to do things it might not otherwise do. It’s like the toxoplasma that brainwashes a field mouse to surrender its life to a cat because the feline anatomy is where the parasite is next driven to feed and breed. Cultural history includes many figures who seemed antagonistic to their talent—to resent it, wrestle with it, defy it, even wish to purge or abandon it altogether like Rimbaud. That struggle seems to be a formula for dying young, as if the daemon is fiercer than the mere human, and the only way to destroy it is to kill the vessel, too.
By those measures, Alex Chilton didn’t do too badly by making it to the spring of 2010 at the age of fifty-nine. Those who knew him thirty years earlier wouldn’t have bet on it. If you know Chilton’s work no other way, you’ve probably heard “In the Street,” the teenage hangout anthem that was rerecorded by Cheap Trick to be the theme song to That ’70s Show. But like many avid rock listeners in the