Friday, April 01, 2011

Book & DVD Reviews On Gram Parsons, Cosmically Tragic Musical Troubador


Gram Parsons was on loan to us for a little while, but we didn't look up fast enough.

I'm a fast reader and usually race right through books. But there's been a lot going on in my young life lately, and during the couple of weeks that it took me to read a book on Gram Parsons and then watch a documentary on him, I had the opportunity to listen to a lot of the music that influenced the legendary signer-songwriter. This included folk, country, bluegrass, rhythm and blues, jazz and soul. Oh yeah, and rock, too.

That made my respect for Gram Parsons the musical innovator all the greater and my contempt for Gram Parsons the friendship-abusing junkie all the deeper.
The book is Twenty Thousand Roads by David N. Meyer, a fascinating biography of Parsons, who had a remarkably outsized influence on the course of American music in his mere 26 years on the planet. The greatest strength of the book is Meyer's ability to explain and make sense of the many threads that played into that influence.

documentary is Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel, which despite some wonderful live footage of Parsons performing, is pallid compared to the bio because of director Gandulf Hennig's inability to or disinterest in fleshing out that influence.

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A shortcoming of too many biographies is that the authors end up being in awe of their subject. Meyer had no such problem and pulled no punches, writing in the intro to Twenty Thousand Roads that:

"The simple facts are these: Gram Parsons looked like a movie star, sang like an angel, wrote like a poet, slept with every woman he wanted, took the most and the best drugs, hung out with the coolest people, and set the musical trends for the next two generations.

"Gram Parsons had everything – looks, cool, charm, charisma, money, style, genius, health, poetry, soul, chops, rapacious sexuality, and good fellowship – and threw it away with both hands, every minute of the day. As a musician, Gram was blessed with a high-lonesome tenor, the longest fingers anyone had ever seen, sufficient skills on piano and guitar, a discerning ear, a willingness to learn, an appreciation of history, an unerring instinct for the right place at the right time, and according to Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, 'better coke than the mafia.' "

Gram Parsons ("As in the metric measure, not the cracker," he would say when he met someone) was born Ingram Cecil Connor III in Winter Haven, Florida, in 1946. He was the grandson of a citrus fruit magnate and offspring of profoundly alcoholic parents. As a childhood friend told Meyer, "The dad's screwing the babysitter and the mom's screwing Jack Daniel's."

As his family disintegrated around him in a Tennessee Williams-esque drama, Parsons developed strong musical interests. He had middling chops on guitar and piano, but from adolescence on had an exceptional ability to use that high tenor voice. By age 16 he had graduated to folk music and his first professional group, the Shilos.

With folk all the rage, the Shilos seemed destined for fame, but in an early example of Parsons being his own worst enemy, Meyer says that he was instrumental in blowing a possible appearance on a popular TV show:
"How did Gram manage to avoid getting on The Ed Sullivan Show? It would be the first of many times in Gram's professional life that his determination to remain always in it, but not of it, would lead him to sabotage his own desires."
After briefly attending Harvard University but never going to class, Parsons' inner muse unexpectedly directed him toward country music.

Meyer asks what led to this fascination with a genre that was sniffed at by folkies, soul singers and rockers like:

"It took great courage – and massive insolence – to deliberately imitate what was regarded as the least worthy music in America. Gram had a perverse streak and a mischievous sense of humor, but no one with Gram's ambition would focus his career on music he didn't love. Gram had never been a pioneer for pioneering's sake. The motivation seems simple: Gram and band heard what they like and pursued it."
After more disastrous outings and more blown opportunities with several short-lived groups, the members of the enigmatic International Submarine Band upped and followed Parsons to Los Angeles with its myriad opportunities to expand his musical horizons as well as the kinds of drugs he could really abuse.

In 1967, the band recorded the Safe At Home album, which included my personal Parsons' favorite, "Luxury Liner," and other early examples of what become known as country rock, and then fell apart.

Riffing on this extraordinary album, Meyer writes that the most argued and least interesting question of Parsons' outsized legacy is whether he invented country rock:
"Anyone immersed in the history of American popular music understands that almost nobody invents anything. . . . Sounds emerge as synthesis, in evolutionary steps; musical styles bleed into one another; musicians at different ends of the continent have similar ideas at similar times.

"Almost four decades removed from the moment, though, it's hard to remember how radical a breaking down of walls, a liberating of ghettos, Safe At Home proved to be. In 1967 there was nothing like it being recorded in rock and roll. The combination of rocker exuberance, roadhouse scholarship, and Nashville session tradition generated a new form."
Parsons' stint with his next band, The Byrds, was over almost as soon as it began.

With several hit albums and singles that melded Brit rock and folk music under their belt, Byrds' leaders Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman had given David Crosby the boot while Gene Clarke had upped and left. They needed a replacement, although Parsons' rocky six-month stint was as a salaried musician, not a full-fledged member.

Nevertheless, that brief period yielded a masterpiece, Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968), which Meyer calls:
"[A] seminal work of art, one that changed so many perceptions: of what country music could be, of how the walls between American musical forms could be torn down, and of the likely future of rock now that psychedelia had run its course. [It] would bring a new white-roots and rural consciousness into rock and roll. This consicousness remains dominant not so much in rock but in recent commercial country. Following the trail blazed by Sweetheart, country music moved ever closer toward rock, as rock began to cannibalize country."

It was during this period that Parsons had the first of several flings with the Flying Burrito Brothers and became friendly with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones.

Parsons can be credited with steering the Stones toward country music as represented by the acoustic guitar and fiddle-dominated "Country Honk" on Let It Bleed (1969). Jagger soon tired of Parsons, but he and Richards became very close, a kinship built on Parsons' rich knowledge and deep love of country music and shooting smack.

As to precisely when Parson added regular heroin use to his drugging, Meyer writes:

"No one remembers a Eureka! moment. No one describes being shocked to discover Gram using. No one suggests that Keith introduced Gram to shooting up. It struck Gram’s friends as inevitable, another step on the path. . . .

"The drugs, music and elegant graveyard wit that Keith and Gram shared seemed only the signposts of a deeper bond. The two were so enmeshed that boundaries separating the two personalities began to erode."
Parsons' dedication to the Stones was rewarded when the Burrito Brothers were booked as the opening act of the disastrous Altamont Music Festival (see photo.)

But Parsons' greatest contribution to the Burrito Brothers, which ended up firing him, was on The Gilded Palace of Sin (1969), an artistic and commercial underachiever.

Asks Meyer:

"If The Gilded Palace of Sin had sold ten million copies, would Gram have done less heroin? He likely would have done more.

"But no one seeks negation, oblivion, as an artist. The drive to create, despite its tortured path to expression, yearns for success – for an audience – no matter how forcefully or unknowingly the self-hating artist might push it away.

"Gram's denial took the form of insisting that nothing was his fault. He masked his refusal to get out of his own way by being increasingly dissatisfied with everyone else. . . . While Gram worked that vein diligently, he also insisted on negating his own gifts. Even as he desired acclaim for his talents, he sought to minimize what they might produce."
In 1970, Parsons signed a solo deal with A&M Records and partnered with Terry Melcher, the son of actress Doris Day and producer of Mr. Tambourine Man, the Byrds' 1965 hit debut album, but the subsequent recording sessions were unproductive because of their mutual fondness for drugs and alcohol.

Parsons' last burst of creative energy came in 1971 after Hillman urged him to check out folk singer Emmylou Harris in a small Washington, D.C. club.

Harris has to be taken at her word that she and Parsons were never lovers in the physical sense, but Meyer acknowledges that they did have a powerful bond:
"Watching the scant, grainy live footage of the two harmonizing, eyes locked and hearts melting into one, it's clear Gram and Emmylou shared a profound connection. Their recorded music suggests a once-in-a-lifetime union of souls. It's a poetic, emotional bond that could make anyone jealous, never mind Gram's wife."
That would be Gretchen Burrell, a beautiful but needy enabler whom Parsons married in 1971 and left two year later.

In the interim, Parsons recorded GP (1973) and Grievous Angel (1974), both modestly successful albums with Harris singing duets with him and the legendary guitarist and session man Clarence White, among others, as a sideman.

In July 1973, White was killed by a drunk driver while loading equipment in his car for a concert. At the cemetery following White's excruciatingly plain-vanilla Roman Catholic funeral, Parsons and Burrito Brothers member Bernie Leadon launched into an impromptu and touching rendition of "Farther Along."

Writes Meyer:
"The moment crystallized why Gram Parsons is a legendary figure and should be. Grief-stricken, irritated by the priest, heartbroken over Clarence White's death and loaded on pills, liquor, and likely heroin, Gram remained the one person at the grave who knew how to illuminate that precious moment. When all around him were paralyzed -- and when all were likely far more competent in day-to-day problem solving than Gram -- Gram alone understood the poetry necessary to deal with the pain."
That night a distraught Parsons is said to have informed road manager Phil Kaufman of his final wish: To be cremated in Joshua Tree National Monument, a phantasmagorical desert environment with huge boulders where Parsons and his entourage often went to do psilocybin and LSD, look for UFOs and contemplate their navels.

Parsons' penultimate trip to Joshua Tree was on September 17, 1973, where two days later he died of an overdose, reportedly of morphine and heroin, after being injected by an unidentified woman who had her two-year-old daughter in tow.

In a story that has taken on legendary stature, Parsons' body disappeared from Los Angeles International Airport, where it was being readied to be shipped to Louisiana for burial. Maintaining his alleged promise, Kaufman and hanger-on Michael Martin managed to steal the body and drove it in a borrowed hearse back to Joshua Tree where they attempted to cremate it by pouring five gallons of gasoline into the open coffin and throwing a lit match inside. This reportedly left Parsons only partially cremated and considerably mutilated when they were scared away by car lights in the distance.

Meyer says that Kaufman did not lack for bravado, but smarts were another matter:

"He's proven incapable of describing [his actions] as anything but a drunken, drug-soaked lark. Kaufman's narrative, in all its ugliness and crudity, tainted the memory of Gram's death for everyone who loved him.

"The headlights were drawing nearer. Gram's bubbling flesh shot flames and gray smoke into the desert sky. Fearful of the cops, Kaufman and Martin slammed the back door or the hearse, jumped in, and raced away on the dusty road. The hearse left behind darkness and Gram's body blazing, alone.

"When Lord Byron attended the seaside cremation of his friend and fellow poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1922, he gazed into the pyre and was astonished to see that Shelly's heart remained intact amid the flames. Martin and Kaufman were too drunk and stoned, and drove off too quickly, to record whether Gram Parsons' heart likewise refused to burn."

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I long ago stopped playing the "what if" game when it comes to great musicians who checked out before their time. As in what the future would have held if Buddy Holly hadn't gotten on that plane in a snowstorm, "Mama" Cass Elliott hadn't choked on a ham sandwich, Jimi Hendrix hadn't OD'd, Sandy Denny hadn't fallen down a flight of steps, and so on.

One of Parsons' most intimate friends, whom Meyer quotes several times in Twenty Thousand Roads, told me that she believed that he "missed the spirit of Gram Parsons by a mile."

I beg to disagree. Meyer captures that spirit beautifully and, where appropriate, reverentially. But he does not shirk his responsibility to tell the whole story and that story could not have ended any other way:
"Of course the temptation to get all bourgeois on Gram's ass is irresistible. To assert that he should have played less and toiled more. To look at his life and try to find the crossroads at which he strayed . . . it's impossible to say of someone consuming drugs at Gram's pace and volume when the person ceased to exist and the drugs took over."
Photograph © Robert Altman

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