When to get some background for this GA post, I purchased Parsons’ biography, Twenty Thousand Roads, by David Meyer, I was appalled. I was expecting a 40 page pamphlet. Instead there are 456 heavily-footnoted pages. I mean – come on – the guy only lived 26 years – how much can you write? There are an additional three full-length biographies of Gram (of which I have read only one which was inferior). Meyer’s biography is occasionally lyrical (some of the best of which are quoted below), exhaustive, and beyond that relentlessly judicious. Page notations are from Mr. Meyer.
(at xix and xx)
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 did not become increasingly, tragically romantic as drugs, self-destruction, and anomie took hold. He became something much more interesting than a wasting Byronic angel. Gram Parsons became an unregenerate, unrepentant dick: careless of his talents, faithless to his women, heartless to his friends, and heedless of his professional responsibilities. He abandoned his wife, cheated on his girlfriends, left every band he ever started, and made certain that no one could depend on him for anything. By Gram’s own admission, if his lips were moving, and he wasn’t singing, he was most likely lying.
Gram was born heir to the enormous Snively citrus fortune – such that he never needed to work. His parents were a fast crowd moving in an alcoholic haze in the southern towns of Waycross, Georgia and Winter Haven, Florida. He had everything he could ask for in a material way. One friend recounts bird-hunting with Gram as a boy; the two boys wasted most of their ammo on tin cans before finally finding some birds – a helicopter came out with more shells. Gram’s father blew his brains out two days before Christmas when Gram was 12. His mother then married Bob Parsons; Meyer described Gram’s relationship to Bob Parsons as akin to being “the son of Hugh Hefner.” His mother died at the age of 42 from cirrhosis the day before Gram graduated high school. It takes prodigious alcohol to pickle a liver by 42.
Gram had a vision – the cosmic American music – a mix of soul and rock and jazz and country and western and gospel and folk. He preached that vision passionately to all of America’s musicians. The Stones (who of course are not even American) with Exile on Main Street may have been the first to realize the ideal, but that vision has spread across the musical landscape, and I remain grateful for it.
Gram became a hired player for the Byrds, the premiere American rock band in 1968. He convinced them to make Sweetheart of the Rodeo – a commercial failure as was everything which Gram ever did – but a gorgeous album which influences even today. The liner-notes speak of Gram as a Byrd, but they paid him scale. He stiffed the Byrds; but then got the Byrd, Chris Hillman, to join with him in the Flying Burrito Brothers. If anybody upon the planet should have been able to provide sufficient discipline to Gram to make his talents show results, that person would have been Chris Hillman. And some results remain, but far too few.
One of Chris’ and Gram’s best songs was “Sin City.”
Years later when Gram toured solo, groups of people would show up with Sin City shirts and ask him to play it.
Note the Nudie suits.
The lyrics are near great. The second verse and the second half of the chorus ring utterly brilliant. The first and third verses comprise fine efforts. The first half of the chorus wants. Earthquake refers to a natural catastrophe, which fails to fit in a song of man-made corruption. The second line of the chorus just feels hackneyed. Here are the lyrics to be followed by a contest. (the lines in red are the subject of the contest – and my apologies to Mr. Hillman for daring to suggest improvements be made to his masterpiece.)
This old town, filled with sin.
It’ll swallow you in,
If you’ve got some money to burn.
Take it home. Drive away.
You’ve got three years to pay.
But Satan is waiting his turn.
This old earthquakes gonna leave me in the poor-
house…It feels like this whole town’s insane
On the thirty-first floor,
A gold-plated door
Won’t keep out the Lord’s burning rain.
The scientists say:
It’ll all wash away.
But we don’t believe any more.
Cause we’ve got our recruits
And our green mohair suits.
Please show your ID at the door.
A friend came around
Tried to clean up this town
His ideas made some people mad.
But he trusted his crowd;
So he spoke right out loud.
And they lost the best friend they had.
Contest rules: lfq will judge -- although any and all Bloggieites may suggest that a different result is superior. Replace these two lines paying attention to rhyme and meter. The first line needs to end with the “or” sound and the second with the “ain” sound. Points will be deducted for using the word which rhymes with poorhouse and begins with “wh”, but this is not necessarily dispositive. This may prove a necessary word. We can perfect this song. I challenge Bloggie.
“Older Guys” is a light fluffy song from the Burrito days. Here is a music video of the song
—and one of the very first music videos ever. Note that Chris Hillman appears in at least part of it as if he would rather be having a root canal.
Later when on tour with the Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram appeared on stage so smashed that he would repeatedly start singing a song which was different than the music which had begun. – Mid-concert, Chris Hillman took him out back, fired him, and broke his guitar to pieces. Chris said later, “I shouldn’t have broken his guitar, but that was better than breaking his head.”
Shortly thereafter, Chris Hillman introduced Gram to Ms. Emmylou Harris. She worked with Gram on his next and last two albums.
Clarence White was a fine guitarist. He made a good living playing. He was run down by a drunk driver in mid-summer of 73 while loading an amp out of his car.
His funeral was dismal. At the Catholic funeral, the priest evidently knew nothing of Clarence’s life. No music sounded at the funeral of a musician with scores of world-famous musicians in the pews. The priest changed from a black to a pink cassock on the way to the cemetery.
The mood at the graveside was somber and confused. The musicians stood by the grave, packed shoulder to shoulder, looking at one another. No one thought Clarence was being given a proper send-off, but no one knew how to respond. Suddenly Gram opened his mouth and began to sing Farther Along….
Once Gram and Bernie [Leadon of the Burritos and Eagles] started, those gathered joined in. Most knew the words; most sang with tears in their eyes. Their voices soared over the grave. The song was Clarence White’s true, sincere and righteous eulogy.
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 what the soul of the moment required. He understood the poetry necessary to deal with pain. With his own profound connection to grief and loss, Gram understood how to grant the assembled throng catharsis, and Clarence White release.
I have rooted about trying to find Gram Parsons singing Farther Along. I cannot find it on u-tube although there is a fine recording on The Flying Burrito Brothers. Clarence White once recorded it with the Byrds. Copyright stops me from posting these, but I give you this link
to a more than adequate recording by Glenn Campbell and Larry Gatlin.
After Clarence White’s appalling funeral, Gram made a pact with his road manager that when one died the other would cremate the body and spread the ashes in the desert. Gram particularly loved the Joshua Tree National Monument where he and Keith Richards had put a barber chair on a mountaintop. They would go there to hunt for UFOs.
Ms. Emmylou and Gram made gorgeous music. I had wanted to put up a u-tube of In My Hour of Darkness, but it does not exist. This song eulogizes three persons including Clarence White and appears on Gram’s last album, Grievous Angel. The chorus prays a most intriguing prayer which I in fact pray every day now:
In my hour of darkness
In my time of need
Oh Lord, grant me vision.
Oh Lord, grant me speed.
Hear Grievous Angel (lyrics by Thomas Buchanan).
– feel free to ignore the video portion (which is a hotel ad for a grampire’s hotel) and just listen.
The McGariVision video ended with the words in white letters: “Gram Parsons’ heart stopped due to an excess of alcohol and drugs on September 19, 1973.” He died at the Joshua Tree Desert Inn just outside of the Joshua Tree National Monument.
When I first read of Gram’s death, I thought, “What a waste.” But the fact is that if Gram had not died on September 19th, he would have died shortly before or thereafter. He had pushed it far too hard and far too long. When Gram stumbled into the church, the mourners at Clarence White’s funeral said to each other, “He’s next.”
Gram’s stepfather arranged to have his body shipped back East for burial. Gram’s road manager and a friend borrowed a candy-red Cadillac hearse and stole Gram’s coffin and corpse off the tarmac at LAX in the dead of night. They then drunkenly drove it to Joshua Tree, poured in five gallons of gasoline, and tossed in a match setting off a fireball which burned until morning. Slowly over the last 35 years, his legend has far eclipsed his fame in life.
And at the last I give you Miss Emmylou’s elegy for Gram in "Boulder to Birmingham"