Monday, November 09, 2009

Live Fast Die Young

Gram Parsons was one of the main driving forces behind country rock -- what they sometimes called "hippie-billy" -- music in the late sixties and early seventies. A member of the International Submarine Band, the mid-cycle Byrds, and the Flying Burrito Brothers, he was a good-looking rich kid whose family owned big orange groves in Florida.

Raised, apparently, mostly by the servants, his alcoholic father suicided, and his mother also drank herself to death.

Bad genetics to get into drugs. Gram Parsons ODed on a combination of whiskey, downers, and morphine at the ripe old age of twenty-six, in a hotel room in Joshua, California, in 1973. It was a miracle he lasted that long; at one point, Keith Richards threw Parsons and his girlfriend out of his French mansion because he thought Gram was doing too much heroin. That ought to tell you something right there, when Keef thinks somebody is doing too much dope.

Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse.

Parsons was ambitious, but lazy. Stoned much of his life. He hung out with Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones, who once allowed that Parsons had better cocaine than the Mafia. He was an inspiration for The Eagles, and would sing country music in hardcore country music bars wearing rhinestone suits and long hair, and win the rednecks over.

Because he had a trust fund that paid the bills, he never really needed to work, and when he got bored with a band or a woman, he would just stop showing up. Writer David Meyer's biography, Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music is unsparing in its overview of Parsons.

Parsons was, according to Meyer, as he traveled down the road to self-destruction, "... 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."

Once you read that in the introduction, how could you not want to see the train wreck that follows? Morrison, Hendrix, and Joplin, they were victims of success; Parsons never quite made it to the big-time. Yes, he was the first to record the Richards-Jagger song, "Wild Horses," before Mick and Keef got around to it. And he was a pretty good singer. He loved country music. His guitar and piano chops were good enough, if not in the same class as many of the players he ran with, and that was never an impediment to becoming a rock star anyhow.

Meyer's book is heavily researched, well-written, and in spots, wickedly cutting. The opening line in the chapter entitled, "The Byrds:"

"The Byrds were a nest of vipers. Lord of the Flies with guitars."


(If you are an Eagles fan, Meyer likes them even less ...)

Dying young in the entertainment industry sometimes gets you more fame than you would have had if you'd lived a long life. Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and a handful of rock gods and goddesses who killed themselves with drugs or fast cars offer plenty of evidence to support this. Retiring as the unbeaten champ is different than continuing to step into the ring until you are punch-drunk and losing every round.

Parsons has a certain genius-mythology connected to him. When the Burrito Brothers's first album The Gilded Palace of Sin, came out, Bob Dylan named them his favorite country-rock group. Rolling Stone Magazine fell all over itself praising it. The British rock weekly NME spoke of the "sheer magnificence" of the music.

Despite the critical acclaim, the album tanked. Peaked at #144 on the charts, then disappeared. A&M didn't support it, mostly because Parsons and the band racked up a fortune in expenses while on the road, missed gigs, and in general behaved like a bunch of stone fuck-ups.

Partially, it was because the music was too hippie for the country crowd, too country for the hippies. Ahead of its time.

They played at Altamont -- after the Hell's Angels beat up Marty Balin of the Jefferson Airplane, and before the Angels stabbed a guy to death during the Rolling Stones set ...

They might have stayed at it and gotten another shot, but the Burrito Brothers didn't rehearse, did a lackluster follow-up album, arrived so stoned for gigs they sometimes couldn't play, and, in general, got in their own way at every turn. At points, the band would unplug Parson's amp he was so far out of tune and timing. Mostly the audiences either didn't notice or care.

Apparently the pedal steel guitar player was the only guy who ever showed up straight and it wasn't enough.

Gram Parsons was rich, handsome, talented, and ambitious. And every time he was a few steps ahead of the game and about to cross the finish line first, he would stop, pull a gun from his belt, and shoot himself in the foot ...

Gotta love rock bios.

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