Sunday, 10 January 2010

That Pioneer Spirit

I have just finished David N.Meyer's biography of Gram Parsons, a passionate, freakishly well researched thesis on he who was born Ingram Cecil Connor III, even if at times Mr Meyer's tone is just that: very thesis-like (repeat that holy formula: argument-quote-conclusion) . He is also guilty of some clunky philosophising and even offers his own psychological take on Gram's inner demons and musical evolution. Meyer is very keen indeed to interpret Gram in certain way and ensures his research fits into his own boxes. Nevertheless, a fine read.

He comes to some odd conclusions though, does Meyer. Writing of the continuing gossip and melodrama surrounding whether Gram and Emmylou Harris had any sort of affair while they were recording and touring in 1972-3, Meyer writes with marked cynicism that "the great-love-but-never-lovers trope is a cornerstone of the Emmylou Harris brand."

Is it really? Maybe in America, but sheesh, I think her brand is more to do with the fact she has made three or four genuinely superb albums, and to many remains the silver-haired goddess of country. For no one (neither the goddess herself or any witnesses) to confirm an affair, Meyer reckons, is to both preserve Emmylou's dignity (and retain that necessary mystery, of course) and avoid the humiliation of Gram's then-wife, Gretchen. "Gram and Emmylou remaining chaste serves both Gretchen and Emmylou's agenda," he writes. The evidence points to a them having a platonic time of it.

Anyway, in tribute to Meyer's effort, here are some interesting things about Gram Parsons I have learnt from his book:

* Gram wrote the song 'Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man' while he was in The Byrds in response to a horrible redneck DJ they ran into while in Nashville. Now, of course, a pregnant Joan Baez picked up this song and performed it at Woodstock as a heartfelt protest song, with her backing musician Jeffrey Shurtleff dedicating it to Ronald Reagan, then Governor of California, while Baez herself invoked the plight of her husband, in jail for draft dodging.

This is interesting, what with Gram being famously apathetic towards causes and anything remotely political (his refusal to tour South Africa with The Byrds being notoriously due to a wish to get baked with Keith Richards than genuine moral zeal). That his song is now recognisable as a protest tune because of Baez marks it as an anomaly in his body of work. Baez also played Gram's 'Hickory Wind' at Woodstock.

* Gram Parsons and Neil Young crossed paths in a taxi in Houston in 1973, an incident I first read about in Jimmy McDonough's biography of Young, Shakey. Producer Jack Nitzsche was with Young and was shocked by Parsons' drug-addled squalor. "You look like Danny... and Danny's dead," he portentously said, referring to Young's friend and bandmate Danny Whitten (enigmatic singer and guitarist with Crazy Horse) who had overdosed on heroin the previous year.

* Roger McGuinn. According to Meyer, not such a nice bloke.

* Gram's authenticity. Despite the wealth and privilege, the Harvard, the trust fund and his general sickening affluence, Meyer makes it clear that the sound he arrived at was the result of a childhood and adolescence of more or less constant, self-motivated music scholarship, from early rock 'n' roll to Greenwich village folk to Bakersfield and Nashville country. He was not a tourist riding the coattails of any fad, or trying to use country music as some kind of Hollywood fashion accessory to grab attention in the rock world. He came to the form as a true trouper with the appropriate background and sensibilities to pull off what he did. Let's not forget either, how deeply uncool it was to be country in the mid-sixties.

In short, he achieved what he did not because of his riches, but in spite of them. Even though his family's millions might ostensibly have made his musical dabblings the mere toy of a spoilt kid, he somehow achieved authenticity in the face of it.

* Just how rich his mother's family, the Snivelys, were. Gram's grandfather made the fortune that Gram was born into from Florida citrus groves, but even before him the Snivelys were old money, stretching way back. Apparently ancestors loaned George Washington $450,000 to help finance the war against the English. The debt still stands and descendents are trying to recoup the money to this day. With interest they are owed over a billion dollars.

* Gram met William S. Burroughs whilst hanging with the Stones in London.

* It was odd that Parsons and his wider circle of friends and hangers-on didn't come across Tim Buckley at all (at least as far as I know). In the late 60s/early 70s Buckley was recording in Los Angeles just when Parsons was with The Byrds, The Flying Burritos and afterwards. Meyer paints this time in LA as extremely incestuous, with a wide circle of musicians collaborating and working together. Buckley, with his more avant garde tendencies, probably kept well away from what was a hipster scene. The closest Gram ever came to avant garde was when Frank Zappa threw him out of session he was producing.

* Gram's family's curse is comparable with the Kennedys. He was an orphan by 18 after his father shot himself and his mother died of alcoholism (allegedly her new husband, Bob Parsons, giving her her last drink). Then Gram himself died in 1973, of course, followed by his stepfather a couple of years later, also from alcoholism. Gram's little sister Avis and her daughter were killed in a boat accident in 1991. Last one standing seems to be Polly Parsons, his daughter, who went through her own addiction hell in her youth.

* Finally, Gram Parsons avidly loathed The Eagles. Impressively, he called them a 'plastic dry-fuck'. This was because of, as Meyer puts it, a music that was "soulless, over-rehearsed, antiseptic, schematic, insincere and sentimental", going on to proclaim them "the most consistently contemptible stadium band in rock." Amen.

Three songs: 'Dear Undecided' by Captain Nemo and The Sundowners, 'Lights Up' by Field Music and 'Amber' by Kevin Barker'.

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