Sunday, June 13, 2010

Live Fast, Die Young, Leave a Good-Looking Corpse…

If anybody in music personifies this phrase, it would be Gram Parsons. Not many people know who Gram Parsons was, his work, or his impact on music. He’s credited by many as having invented “country rock.” He always hated that phrase. He preferred to use the term “Cosmic American Music.” He was very adept at taking musical forms like country, soul, and rock, throwing them all in a musical blender, and come up with a synthesis of all three. But I don’t think that was his biggest contribution to music. In my feeble mind, his big thing was introducing the world to Emmylou Harris. After his time with the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, he finally decided he wanted to do his own thing, but his own thing included having a female singing partner like George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Chris Hillman [the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers] discovered Emmylou Harris while on tour and told Gram Parsons about her. The rest, as they say, is history.

If anybody knows about Gram Parsons, it’s because of his death and the way he went out of this world. His passing is the stuff of legend. The legend even generated a movie called “Grand Theft Parsons.” While at the funeral of Byrds guitarist Clarence White, he made a pact with his road manager [Phil Kaufman]. He didn’t want a normal funeral – he just wanted to be taken out to Joshua Tree, California and cremated. Why Joshua Tree? Whenever he wanted to get away from all the hassles of the music business, Gram Parsons always liked to go to his favorite place, which was Joshua Tree. Joshua Tree was a spiritual place for him. He’d go there, commune with nature, take trips on LSD or magic mushrooms, and look for UFOs, usually all at the same time.

Gram Parsons did lots of drugs – you name it, he probably did them. His drug use caught up with him in September 1973. He had just finished recording his Grievous Angel album and was going to go on tour to support it. Before the tour he and several friends went to Joshua Tree for a vacation. They consumed lots of drugs and lots of alcohol. Gram Parsons died on this trip, having ingested too much morphine and alcohol. But before his step-father could claim his remains to fly them to New Orleans for burial, his road manager honored the pact they made at Clarence White’s funeral. He stole Gram Parsons’ body, drove out to Joshua Tree, poured gasoline on it, and set it on fire.

Bernie Leadon: “He was very alive – a lovely guy. He just had this dark side and really sort of a death wish.”

Keith Richards: “He could touch a core in people. We call it ‘high lonesome,’ and it’s a certain melancholy, and it’s sort of ‘beautiful pain.’ But he had that to the max.”

Pamela Des Barres: “Gram was rock and country. He bridged those two worlds. To see him standing in the middle of these two worlds, you know, bringing them together, uniting them, and that was his purpose.”

Chris Hillman: “We’re talking about a very classic Tennessee Williams play here. Southern money and alcoholism, just a tragedy.”

Gram’s mom [Avis Snively] came from a wealthy family in Florida. They got all their money from citrus. Gram’s father was a World War II veteran. Both had drinking problems. His father was affected greatly by the war. If he was alive today, he would be diagnosed as suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. This condition was recognized as a kind of disability until after the Vietnam War, so when Gram’s father went through it, the only way he coped was to drink a lot. When Gram was twelve his father committed suicide right before Christmas. He became the “man of the family” until his mother married Bob Parsons.

He went to prep school in Jacksonville. While he was in prep school, Gram’s mother had to be hospitalized for her alcoholism. Coincidentally [or maybe not], right after Bob Parsons paid here a visit in the hospital she died. Her death happened the same day Gram graduated from prep school. Avis Snively’s family didn’t like Bob Parsons – they thought he married her for her money, so when she died right after he visited her in the hospital, that just added to the suspicion that he was after her money. Shortly after Avis’ death, Bob married the family’s teenage baby sitter.

I think the first thing I bought of Gram Parsons’ music was the anthology Sacred Hearts & Fallen Angels. It is the place to be introduced to his music as it has the best from his solo work, his first band [the International Submarine Band], his work with the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers. His body of recorded work wasn’t large so it’s easy to summarize in a couple of CDs what he left behind. That anthology collection was the hook, so I just had to get the sources. The first source I decided to get was Sweetheart of the Rodeo from The Byrds. I read awhile ago that many of Gram Parsons’ vocals were wiped from the final release due to a contract dispute with another record label, but I also read those mixes still existed. So being the compulsive music buyer that I am, naturally I had to get the “special edition.” Having heard the Byrds come up with the likes of Eight Miles High, So You Want to Be a Rock N Roll Star, and other rock classics, it was quite a shock to hear them do an all-country album [or as close to country as the Byrds could play it]. Such were Gram Parsons’ powers of persuasion. According to Roger McGuinn, they “hired a keyboard player and instead got George Jones in a Nudie suit.” Most of the songs on the album were country covers. There were songs from Bob Dylan, the Louvin Brothers, Merle Haggard, there were traditional songs. Gram Parsons had the only original songs – Hickory Wind and One Hundred Years From Now, both of which Chris Hillman said were two of the best songs Gram had ever written. But the sleeper track [for me, anyway] was You Don't Miss Your Water, a soul/R&B song from Stax Records recorded written and recorded by William Bell. This was the embodiment of Gram’s “Cosmic American Music,” a blend of a soul song with a country feel.

Gram Parsons lasted only one album with the Byrds before he moved on to other musical things. The Byrds toured England in support of Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and they met the Rolling Stones. Gram became great friends with Keith Richards immediately. They talked about South Africa, which was then in the throes of apartheid. The Byrds were going to play some shows in South Africa. Once Keith told Gram what South Africa was like, and the segregation that persisted there [which made Gram think “oh, like in Mississippi” – he was a son of the South after all…], Gram told the rest of the Byrds he wouldn’t go with them to South Africa. So Gram was no longer with the Byrds. To this day Chris Hillman thinks the real reason Gram didn’t want to go to South Africa was because he wanted to hang out with Keith Richards, not because of any sensitivity to racial matters.

Almost immediately Gram hooked up with Chris Etheridge, a bass player with whom he had worked before. They decided to form a band. Shortly thereafter, Chris Hillman came back from South Africa, patched things up with Gram, and told him it was a mistake for the Byrds to go to South Africa. He also told Gram he was going to leave the Byrds, and could he join Gram’s new band? Thus was born the Flying Burrito Brothers. At first they didn’t have a permanent drummer [they eventually got Michael Clarke, another ex-Byrd]. They had a steel guitar player named Sneaky Pete Kleinow who had a very distorted, fuzzy sound. The Burrito Brothers didn’t have a proper lead guitar player. Their first album was Gilded Palace of Sin. It’s very good. It didn’t sell a lot. In fact it still hasn’t been certified gold, and it’s been out for forty years. But I’ve read that most of the people who bought the record started bands themselves. If that isn’t influence I don’t know what is.

The very first song from the record was called Christine’s Tune, the story of a girl who caused trouble for everyone in the Byrds. As it turns out, she was Christine Hinton, David Crosby’s girlfriend. They later changed the name of the song to Devil in Disguise because Christine was killed in a car wreck and they wanted to keep her identity secret – they didn’t want to explicitly speak ill of the dead. It’s a very catchy song with Gram and Chris Hillman sharing lead vocals, as they did with the next song, Sin City. Chris Hillman was going through a horrible divorce at the time, the Byrds manager was ripping them off, so he thought Los Angeles was a whole town “filled with sin.” Another song that really grabbed me was The Dark End of the Street. Like the song You Don’t Miss Your Water, The Dark End of the Street was a soul standard that Gram Parsons turned into a country song. I thought that was Gram Parsons’ finest vocal performance. Chris Hillman said he thought Hot Burrito #1 was best song he had ever written, the best vocal on record, on any recording. Both it and Hot Burrito #2 were songs about love gone sad [I like #2 better].

Chris Etheridge described Gram’s voice as a “soulful, almost a ‘help me’ voice, like he had a voice that when he would sing it was almost like he was asking for help or something – it’s kinda hard to explain. I don’t know what it was, but it seemed like everyone almost felt sorry for him. But the women really loved him, loved the way he sang.” Keith Richards – “Gram Parsons is the only guy I know that could make every chick in the audience weep, which is a rare quality. I remember being in the Palomino Club in California and hardened old peroxide waitresses who have been there for yonks [sic], tears streaming down their eyes while they were listening to Gram play.” Yes, he was that good of a singer. He was very convincing.

The next album, Burrito Deluxe, was ok, but it wasn’t so tightly focused as Gilded Palace of Sin. Some of the songs were good, many of them felt like they were rushed. They lost the magic they had on Gilded Palace of Sin. Burrito Deluxe is notable in that the Burrito Brothers cut and released the Rolling Stones’ Wild Horses [from Sticky Fingers]. This was a big deal because the Rolling Stones didn’t give songs to anybody. In listening to Burrito Deluxe it appeared Gram Parsons had lost interest, like all he wanted to do was be a star, get high, be high, and stay high. He started to miss rehearsals, and he was spending more time with the Stones than he would with his own band. One time Chris Hillman tracked him down at a Rolling Stones studio session for Let It Bleed and dragged him out to do a show. Chris Hillman had enough of Gram’s shit and fired him.

Free of his Burrito Brothers commitments, Gram went to France to hang out with the Stones while they made Exile on Main Street. Gram wasn’t on Exile on Main Street, but Keith Richards claims Gram was still very involved in the making of the album. There’s a lot of country-ish music on Exile, so perhaps Keith was right. But one side effect of this association with the Stones was drug abuse. Gram Parsons discovered heroin. In Chris Hillman’s words, he had gone from this thin good-looking kid with nice brown eyes into this overweight, loud stupid person. Gram’s dissipation kept him out of the game until 1973. He finally recorded his first solo album, GP, with Elvis Presley’s TCB Band. Unlike his work with the Burrito Brothers, GP was [to these ears anyway] a straight-up country record, complete with banjos, dobros, fiddles, steel guitars, and female harmonies. There was nothing rock and roll on this album, but this wasn’t a bad thing. Unlike Burrito Deluxe, there isn’t a bad song on the album. There are some Gram Parsons originals mixed in with songs written by others, like Harlan Howard’s Streets of Baltimore. The whole album is a joy to listen to.

Gram Parson’s final album was recorded in the summer of 1973. Grievous Angel is a continuation of what was on GP, only the songs are mostly Gram Parsons originals. Of all the originals, the very last song on the album, In My Hour of Darkness, caught my ear. It sounds like a spiritual [“O Lord grant me vision, O Lord grant me speed”] There were three main verses to the song, each telling a story of someone who Gram Parsons knew. The first verse was about a young man who died in a car accident. Upon further review I found the young man in question was the actor Brandon De Wilde. He was a friend of Gram’s who was killed in Colorado – “who’d have ever thought there’d be such a deadly Denver bend” as the song goes. I had to think long and hard who Brandon De Wilde was and then it hit one night as I was watching the John Wayne movie “In Harm’s Way.” Brandon De Wilde played the part of the young ensign who happened to be the son of John Wayne’s character. I couldn’t think of anything else he’d been in, but I was finally able to put a face with thee name. The second verse dealt with a country singer whom Gram Parsons had known. In this case it was Clarence White. As the song goes: “Another young man safely sung his silver-string guitar/and he played to people everywhere some say he was a star/But he was just a country boy his simple songs confessed/ And the music he had in him so very few possessed.” “Then there was an old man, kind and wise with age/And he read me just like a book and he never missed a page/And I loved him like my father, and I loved him like my friend/And I knew his time would shortly come, but I did not know just when.” The song is the last a very good album. The album has other very good songs, including $1000 Wedding, Ooh Las Vegas, and Love Hurts just to name a few. Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris harmonized perfectly together. The work she did with Gram Parsons is what got me interested in Emmylou Harris’ work.

Gram Parsons did not leave a large recorded legacy. He never had a hit record. He’s one of those legendary cult-like figures that you really don’t know much about. What would have happened if Gram Parsons could control his demons and overcome his addictions? He’s been lauded by many as this great singer and songwriter. I agree with half that assessment. He was a great singer, but I think he was a good songwriter, not a great one. Be that as it may, that doesn’t keep me from listening to and enjoying his music. It’s just a shame there isn’t more of it to enjoy.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Emmylou Harris - An Appreciation [and the Gram Parsons connection]

Some time ago I got heavily into listening to the music of The Byrds. After finding their “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” CD, I picked up on Gram Parsons. Gram Parsons has been credited with inventing “country rock.” Gram Parsons didn’t like that term – neither do I because of the connotation of lesser talents like The Eagles. He preferred the term “Cosmic American Music.” Gram Parsons’ music was more than just taking rock music and putting it into a country context. More like he took country music, which he loved since he was a teenager, and put it in a rock contest. Roger McGuinn once remarked that he thought that when he hired Gram Parsons, he was hiring just a piano player, but instead he got “George Jones in a Nudie suit.” “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” was Gram Parsons bringing country music kicking and screaming into rock. He also brought soul music, like the William Bell chestnut “You Don’t Miss Your Water”, and merged it with country, hence the term “Cosmic American Music.” After his short stint with The Byrds, Gram Parsons co-founded the Flying Burrito Brothers with Chris Hillman, also of The Byrds. Their first album “Gilded Palace of Sin” laid the blueprint of Gram Parsons’ “Cosmic American Music.” Gram Parsons lasted one more album with FBB [“Burrito Deluxe”] before Chris Hillman fired him. With little to do, Gram Parsons hung out with the Rolling Stones during the making of their last great album, “Exile on Main Street.” Soon afterwards, Gram Parsons set out on his own career under his own name. He had expressed to Chris Hillman that he wanted to find the perfect female singer with whom to harmonize. While in Baltimore, Chris Hillman found such a singer waiting tables and singing in a small club. That singer was Emmylou Harris.

Gram Parsons shortly thereafter contacted Emmylou, and soon she began her recording career in earnest. She recorded two albums with Gram Parsons – “GP” and “Grievous Angel.” Emmylou can be heard harmonizing with Gram Parsons on such songs as “Ooh Las Vegas”, “In My Hour of Darkness”, “Love Hurts”, and other country standards and Gram Parsons originals. Shortly after completing “Grievous Angel,” Gram Parsons died of a drug and alcohol overdose in Joshua Tree, California. Unexpectedly at a career crossroads, Emmylou had made friends with Linda Ronstadt. Linda Ronstadt persuaded Reprise Records (Gram Parsons’ label) to sign Emmylou to a record deal. It is reported that one condition of her being signed was that she have a “Hot Band.” Using many of the players whom she recorded with on Gram Parsons’ albums, she had her “Hot Band.” Her Hot Band has included the likes of Ricky Skaggs, Rodney Crowell, and Albert Lee. Her debut, “Pieces of the Sky”, was released in 1975. It contains Emmylou’s first tribute to her mentor Gram Parsons, “Boulder to Birmingham,” a song she still sings in concert today. She released many more albums on Reprise. In addition to “Pieces of the Sky”, I have “Elite Hotel”, “Luxury Liner”, “Blue Kentucky Girl”, and “The Ballad of Sally Rose”, a concept album that is loosely based on Emmylou’s relation ship with her late mentor Parsons. Emmylou Harris is not a prolific songwriter. She has admitted that songwriting does not come to her easily. She prefers to interpret the songs of others, including the likes of Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Townes Van Zant, the Beatles, the Louvin Brothers and, yes, Gram Parsons. Her career picked up where Gram Parsons’ left off so prematurely.

Since leaving Reprise, Emmylou has since recorded for Nonesuch Records. In doing so, she has pursued a more experimental direction, working with Daniel Lanois. Lanois is known for his work with U2, Peter Gabriel and Bob Dylan. She has worked not only with Lanois, but also the likes of Neil Young, Willie Nelson [“Teatro”], and Mark Knopfler [“All the Roadrunning”]. She has produced acclaimed work such as “Wrecking Ball”, “Red Dirt Girl”, and “Stumble Into Grace” [the last two containing mostly Emmylou Harris originals]. I have them – I think they’re great. They definitely aren’t the heavy metal fare I usually listen to. Country records these are not. They didn’t get any country radio airplay, but she got the attention of alternative rock listeners. She recorded for soundtracks of movies such as “O Brother Where Art Thou?” and “Cold Mountain.” She's released two "Trio" albums with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. Her latest CD is “All I Intended To Be.” It's another good one. She has been awarded a dozen Grammy awards for her work in country music, and she was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in February 2008. She is highly respected throughout the music world, and rightly so.

Since her beginnings with Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris has followed his vision of "Cosmic American Music." She learned well from her mentor. If there is one word I can use to describe Emmylou Harris’ voice, it would be “flawless.” What more can one ask for from a performer? If you haven’t heard Emmylou’s work, you’re missing out on something special.