Wednesday, January 21, 2009
God's Own Singer
Gram Parsons dips just below my Holy Trinity of rock n' roll - Stones, Aerosmith, Gn'R - but he never sold anywhere close to as many records as they did, received the accolades or fame and fortune or any of that. Most idiots can drunkenly karaoke "Sweet Child O' Mine" or "Honky Tonk Women" or "Walk This Way", but it is a rare person indeed that regularly spins The Gilded Palace Of Sin or G.P. Gram came to me four years ago as an extension of my Keith Richards fandom; they met around 1967 (I think...) and despite a little jealousy from Mr. Jagger, Keith and Gram formed a close bond, trading guitar strums and country albums. As much as Anita and Marianne are to thank for the Golden Era of the Rolling Stones beginning with Beggar's Banquet, Gram is as well; you can hear his influence on everything from "Country Honk" to "Wild Horses" (which he covered with his band the Flying Burrito Brothers). Gram was an exquisite boy and a visionary artist. He grew up wealthy but troubled; his father committed suicide when Gram was a boy and his mother Avis went mad and was committed. The family was embedded with money, alcoholism and depression. Gram, priviledged and bright, got into Harvard, only to fail out after his first semester (lack of attendance and discipline, of course, not smarts).
His first band to make some noise was The International Submarine band, whose debut Safe At Home is heralded as the first sort of "country rock" album (a problematic term that Gram rejected). The album is good, but by no means fantastic. It's simple and inoffensive and not recorded terribly well, but you can see glimmers of Gram's vision and songwriting ability. When he joined The Byrds, he got the first real taste of stardom, recording 1967's Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, widely regarded as a classic of its time. It features an original of Gram's "Hickory Wind", which he didn't get to sing lead vocal on (unfortunate, but he later did). The Byrds weren't working out, and Gram left, joining forces with buddy Chris Hillman and forming The Flying Burrito Brothers, who were the toast of Los Angeles. Mick and Keith were staying in the Hollywood Hills and would often go out and see the band at L.A. nightclubs. Gram was utterly romanced by the fame and decadence of the Stones, a critical validation he always wanted for his music and a celebrity status he wanted for himself. And Gram should have been a celebrity. Ultimately I think his priviledge got in the way; when you're pretty much a trust fund baby, there's a lot less motivation to succeed. It isn't as if your livelihood depends on it. And yet, Gram had the talent, the looks and the connections to make it huge. What did he lack? The luck? The discipline? The work ethic? Who knows.
The Flying Burrito Brothers got to play at Altamont thanks to Gram's BFFness with Lord Richards. When the Stones took off on that rather apocalyptic day, Gram was one of the few people in the heliocopter, leaving his bandmates behind in the bedlam. I think he had a habit of abandoning them to hang out with Mick and Keith, which makes perfect sense to me, but was perhaps not the best way to nurture a working relationship. Gram and wife Gretchen (kind of a bitch) were invited to Villa Nellcote in that glorious Exiled summer of 1971. Some people say you can hear him sing on "Tumbling Dice" (I've listened and cannot, but that doesn't mean he wasn't in the harmony of singers...in fact, he probably was). He absolutely had a hand in at least the inspiration of "Sweet Virginia", an acoustic favorite from Exile On Main St. Sadly, this was the last real hurrah he and Keith got to spend. Gram and Gretchen were finally kicked out of Villa Nellcote and Gram died two years later. I think Keith still feels badly about this.
The Burritos put out a slew of amazing tunes, my favorites being the two "Hot Burrito" numbers, "Sin City", "Juanita" and others. Gram had a beautifully vulnerable voice, a shaky tone that made you think he just might shed a tear, that he believed in what he was singing that much. His solo albums with Emmylou Harris, G.P. and Grievous Angel are his best achievements, though like all his work, they earned more post-humous praise. He died of an overdose in the Joshua Tree hotel and scandalously had his body stolen and burned by road manager, babysitter and friend Phil Kaufman. His ashes were scattered among the desert, like he would have wanted. Gram, Keith and Anita used to spend a lot of time out there, taking hallucinogenic drugs and spotting UFOs.
Gram Parsons is one of my favorite musicians who has ever lived. If you haven't checked out any of his material, I highly suggest you do so.
"It's a hard way to find out
That trouble is real
In a far away city
With a far away feel
But it makes me feel better
Each time it begins
Calling me home