Gram Parsons (Archives Vol. 1) by Eileen Myles
Gram Parsons has lately (for two years now) been my favorite musician and singer – and songwriter. I hear him in line with the killer and enduring Everly Bros. (of whom Dylan simply said: “We owe these guys everything. “) for his own rocky and impassioned style of sweet harmony-singing country pop – Parsons routinely these days gets called the father of country rock. His influence can be heard on country rock legends like Geraldine Fibbers and more obscure but also still working geniuses like the inimitable Vulgar Boatman (of Florida and Indiana) who do the droning Joy Division minimal version of all this. And still you can ¬really hear the Everly Bros. in them. But Gram Parsons, for me, is truly the man, performing his kind of acid country rock, inventing a whole genre out of the time he lived and was productive musically (62-72) and his own beloved and emotional southern musical tradition. He had a sweet sometimes raspy and breaking voice yet his singing was always informed by great force of pure feeling and need; He was a good all around guitar player, keyboardist and musical arranger, a musical visionary for sure. Rumor has it he co-wrote ‘Wild Horses’ with Keith Richards and he surely introduced the Rolling Stones of that time – Exile on Main Street, Sticky Fingers via Keith to a whole lot of country and blues which through them and Elvis earlier widely informed and re-routed the whole mainstream of 50s and 60s rock and roll.
Also Gram sits neatly in a permanent alternative place because whatever he does musically he does a little odd – both fragile and great at once. Besides the harmonies the Everly Bros. brought drums into country. First time drums were ever used in the Grand Opry. In Gram Parsons’ (who also played there) hands he utterly fused country with rock and roll. He went much further with the argument. The rock and roll of the time, which in the late 60s was pretty acidy. I mean quivering chimes and echoey organ music. I mean steel pedal guitar turning into a kind of Indian raga. No musical figure was intact but in the in between portions of a song it got all wiggly like light shows and carnivalesque and even creepy; but still it was a country song. He merged acid rock with all that. It was strangely direct. Not obscure at all. I just want to say that I believe I met Gram Parsons once in the 60s. When I was in high school I worked at the Harvard Coop. I remember an extremely cute guy in a topcoat with a southern accent who used to chat me up on my register. He often looked drunk. Gram went to Harvard for a semester about then. Studied theology. So it’s possible. One of the things I note about his singing style is ease. For instance he doesn’t use a forced fake southern accent when singing. Because he actually had a southern accent (from Georgia and Florida) he didn’t have to push it. You can barely hear it. It’s in the music where it belongs. There’s inevitability in a Gram Parsons song, a slow gallop moves the entire band (his best band, The Flying Burrito Bros.) forward.
And then there’s that acid tinkling in the music to justify the name of the genre (acid country) this treacly Hawaiian sci-fi sound that was so in the air and entirely claiming space in one song (“Hot Burrito II “) on this record I’m listening to.
[Hot Burrito II]
It reminds me of what I heard yesterday about porn being a historical document. Here music holds the late sixties like nothing else. And there’s doom here as well (“Long Black Limousine”) is perhaps what country permanently holds, country especially when we think of mountain tops lately getting sliced off reflects a world working class and pouring and a place perpetually gone.
[Long Black Limousine]
Country lives on stage and in the recording studio. Gram died very young (26) of basically an alcohol and drug overdose and then his friends tried to burn his body in Joshua Tree State Park but they discovered bodies don’t burn very easily. In all that surrounds Gram there’s a vivid and active respect for forebears. To be burned was his own actual request. A remark made at somebody else’s funeral. On the new live album I’m listening to Gram remark that a particular song is dedicated to the man (Danny Louis, or maybe Don Everly himself) who was the rhythm guitarist on all of the Everly Bros. records. Who in the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco in 1969 cared about that? I tried to nail the man’s name down for hours on the internet but clearly I have to buy a lot of records to find it out. Believe me, I will. My father gave me my first Everly Bros. record, a little transparent golden ’45, and I think it was the first record I owned. My father laughed when I played them – called them the Everly Sisters because of their sweet harmonizing sound but my father was very fond of Irish tenors so what’s the difference. I think of the Everly’s faintly Liberace looking hairdos and shirts and wonder if the brothers were gay.
Parsons was also a dandy, appearing in photos in ruffles and eye makeup but apparently that was fashion fallout from hanging out with the Rolling Stones who one of his own band members described him as being puppy dog-like around. Gram’s father was a war-hero and very rich owner of citrus groves who killed himself when Gram was young. His mother remarried (the Parsons) and then quickly drank herself to death. It makes sense that Gram would be dissolute mascot to the older and bigger Rolling Stones since he was a needy and passionate kid with something of great value to impart. There’s something scholarly about his relationship to them since he and Keith spent hours hanging around getting fucked up and Gram playing Keith records. Listen to this, listen to this. He was a handsome geek. One of those kids. Much of what we know as rock and roll is the result. I think of him and also Janice Joplin as misfits who made a mission of carrying the musical tradition they loved and grew up on into white rock n roll – died doing it, their deaths not resonating as “authenticating” gestures but certainly as the young and impossible gestures of extreme alcoholism and drug addiction in the service of emotional necessity and the present and history of rock and roll. You sort of get only one shot this way (better be good) and it’s effective to think of Parsons’ influence and death as fertilizing a tradition rather than occupying it as one of its majors stars. It reminds me of a story I heard in Estonia about the dead king sleeping underground and fertilizing his own land, literally. Gram Parsons gave a lot of other bands a leg up and was on his own way down as they crested. Or maybe he was getting a little better or a lot better for a moment and was starting to collaborate with Emmylou Harris when he overdosed though in the tragic narrative of drugs and alcohol he died because he had become healthy and then he turned back. Something in a person must want that early death. It’s like oh I forgot my glasses but it’s my life.
The two CD record I bought at Amoeba in LA two springs ago is released by their own house label. Apparently the tapes of these two shows at the Avalon Ballroom in SF in April of 1969 were sitting in the vault of Bear the Grateful Dead’s recording engineer for almost forty years. Sounds fresh as a daisy. Sounds young, and it is. It reminds me of listening to the scant recordings of Robert Johnson. Something precious and rare and influential. I’m not able to compare this recording Gram Parsons to the more known recordings by Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Bros. I’m not so much an aficionado as an excited Johnny come lately connecting the dots of what I like and enjoy. I had a friend in high school also named Eileen and she was always several steps ahead of me in terms of music. She loved music and was also obsessed with cute boys and Gram Parsons was one and I remember her talking about him in the late 60s I guess when he was still alive. His name has simply bobbed around in my memory for about 38 years till I was walking through Amoeba one aimless spring afternoon. It was one of those special CDs the staff picks. I picked up Gram Parsons, finally: who is this guy, and agreed with Eileen like it was yesterday yes he is very cute. Gram Parsons in the accompanying CD pamphlet is sitting in ruffled shirts looking gorgeous and dizzy and drunk. There’s all goofing around pictures in there like he’s one of your friends. Really more fond than the standard butch presentation of rock and roll. He’s a little brother. Who fathered a lot. It’s an eternal youth heard aloud now in a wonderful couple of live sessions and also in the moments caught in these gender shifting photographs of this very special and temporary person laughing in the sun.
[We've Got To Get Ourselves Together]
I do a lot of
stretching a meaning (my name)
into a world
it calls Ei
I look up
you don’t know
hearing I do
lazy (I lean)
me – loving
but I am balanced
of sound. You
Eileen Myles is a poet who lives in New York. Her novel The Inferno/A Poet’s Novel will be out before the end of the year. She is teaching this spring in Missoula, MT.
Questions, compliments, (hopefully not) complaints? Contact Jackie Clark: afterthoughtgraveyard [at] gmail [dot] com. Check out previous POP essays here: http://pop.coldfrontmag.com/