Kirk Bane: Review of David Meyer's Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music (2007)
Country rock pioneer Gram Parsons died in 1973 at the age of 26, victim of an overdose of morphine and barbiturates. During his brief life, Parsons recorded three seminal, though woefully underappreciated at the time of their release, albums: Safe at Home (1968—with the International Submarine Band); Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968—with the Byrds); and The Gilded Palace of Sin (1969—with the Flying Burrito Brothers). He also made two stellar solo albums, GP (1973) and Grievous Angel (released posthumously in 1974), with the help of Emmylou Harris and Elvis Presley’s backing band. Gram’s work brought together “the sex of rock and the pain of country.” Physically attractive and immensely gifted, Parsons was a visionary. Gram preached the gospel of what he called Cosmic American Music, “a holy intersection of unpolished American expression: gospel, soul, folk, Appalachia, R&B, country, bluegrass, blues, rockabilly, and honky-tonk.”
David N. Meyer, who teaches cinema studies at the New School in New York City, has written a gripping, thoroughly researched account of Gram’s chaotic, creative life, Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music (New York: Villard, 2007). “The simple facts are these,” Meyer asserts, “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.” But Meyer refuses to romanticize Parsons. Indeed, he rails at Gram for his self-destructive, wastrel ways.
Parsons, Meyer contends, “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 the drink and drugs took their toll, Gram became “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.
Yet even at his worst, everyone recognized the tragedy Gram embodied and everyone spoke of how sweet he was. Gram found that the most talented musicians in America would do anything for him, would tolerate all his whims…just for the chance to hang out and be part of his music.” Parsons, the consummate tortured artist, came from an extremely wealthy, though terribly dysfunctional, family. He experienced crushing heartbreak early on. Gram’s parents, both heavy drinkers, died tragically. His father, a World War II hero, committed suicide in 1958. And his mother, after years of alcohol abuse, died in a hospital on Gram’s high school graduation day in 1965.
A globetrotter of sorts, Parsons lived in such places as the American South (he was born in Florida and raised in Georgia), Massachusetts (where he attended Harvard for one semester), New York City, Los Angeles, England, and the south of France (where he stayed with the Rolling Stones during the Exile on Main Street sessions). Gram died in Joshua Tree, California. Parsons kept company with an artistic, fast-living crowd that included musicians John Phillips, Terry Melcher, Chris Hillman, and Keith Richards; actors Peter Fonda and Brandon De Wilde; and author William S. Burroughs.
Meyer examines the close relationship between Parsons and Rolling Stone Keith Richards. The two outlaw-musicians “had a profound musical, drug, and soul connection.” Gram became Keith’s tutor, instructing him in “the mechanics of country music.” They “played together nonstop,” discussing “the fine points of Nashville versus Bakersfield, the styles of George Jones versus Merle Haggard.” Gram’s influence on Mick Jagger and Keith Richards is apparent on such Stones cuts as “Country Honk,” “Sweet Virginia,” and “Torn and Frayed.” Richards and Parsons shared a deep affinity for drugs. “Gram was as knowledgeable about chemical substances as I was,” Keith confessed. “We liked drugs and we liked the finest quality.”
On stage, sporting his custom made Nudie Cohn Western outfits, Gram was an unforgettable sight. Meyer describes his outlandish appearance at the Altamont Speedway Concert in December, 1969, where the Flying Burrito Brothers opened for the Rolling Stones. “Gram wore brown suede pants with a wide, low-hanging, big-buckled belt and a python-patterned rhinestone Nudie shirt with thunderbirds on the front, Indians on the deltoids, and a dancing Indian warrior on the back. Beneath that shirt he wore what appears to be a truck-stop waitress’ tube top that left his belly exposed. His hair, frosted with blond streaks, fell down below his shoulders. He was a beautiful androgyne, a new model of rock style, citing so many different sources and ideas in his outfit—and they all worked. No white rocker in America dressed as Gram did at the time…Only Sly Stone could equal Gram for outrageous style.” Gram’s most famous Nudie suit hangs on display in the Country Music Hall of Fame. “It reflects his passions and contradictions, Gram’s brazen sense of humor and his insistence that his most outrageous statements be grounded in country traditions,” Meyer explains. “The belled pants are jean-cut and hang low, with scarlet flames reaching up the legs and poppies on the front pockets. Poppies cover the back pockets, too. A naked woman, rendered as an old-school sailor’s tattoo, adorns each lapel of the belt-length, silk motorcycle jacket; red poppies embellish the shoulders. Growing up the chest are carefully articulated, deep-green marijuana leaves. On the sleeves are embroidered Seconals, Tuinals, and a sugar cube representing LSD. In blazing contradiction to the women and the drugs, the back of Gram’s jacket is covered, top to bottom, by a flaming red cross surrounded by radiating shafts of blue and gold light.”
Gram avidly studied country music and became an “encyclopedia” of the genre. He particularly admired the work of Buck Owens, George Jones, Merle Haggard (whom he lobbied, unsuccessfully, to produce one of his solo albums), Porter Wagoner, and the Louvin Brothers.
Gram also adored Elvis. According to Roger McGuinn, Gram’s colleague in the Byrds, Parsons aspired “to be the world-champion country singer.” Today, Gram’s musical heirs include Steve Earle, Jeff Tweedy, Jay Farrar, Ryan Adams, and Dwight Yoakam. Earle, who saw Parsons and Emmylou Harris sing in Houston in 1973, vividly recalled that “Gram’s first solo record was an event in my little circle of musicians. When I heard that Gram and company were coming to Texas I was off like a prom dress, down the I-10 to the big city. It was loose but it was tough. Gram’s hair was frosted and his fingernails were painted red. He sang through his nose with his eyes closed while the band played catch-up for most of the night. I saw and heard Emmylou Harris for the first time. I left a little bit in love and absolutely certain of what I was going to be when I grew up.”
Twenty Thousand Roads is solidly researched; clearly, Meyer has done his homework. He interviewed Gram’s family members, childhood chums, teachers, classmates, friends, lovers, admirers, and fellow musicians. Moreover, Meyer is well-versed in the available secondary sources. He cites, for example, such essential texts as Peter Doggett’s Are You Ready for the Country: Elvis, Dylan, Parsons and the Roots of Country Rock, John Einarson’s Desperados: The Roots of Country Rock, and Richie Unterberger’s Turn! Turn! Turn! : The ‘60s Folk Rock Revolution.
In his book’s powerful epilogue, Meyer damns the drugs and exalts Gram’s talent. “Gram’s death,” he concludes, “offers not the slightest trace of romance. It was sordid. Gram liked drugs a lot, did more than he should, and drugs ate him up.” However, when Parsons “cleaned up even the slightest bit, he made some of the most exquisite, moving, thoughtful, and soulful music of the century. Operating at such a diminished capacity…Gram produced so much. The quality of what he left behind is astounding, inspirational.” Chris Ethridge, who played with Gram in the Flying Burrito Brothers, observed, “He was a good Southern boy, loved to rock and roll…[ was] sad all the time. He wanted to go out like Hank Williams, and he did. He rock and rolled out and it was his fault.” How heart-rending, how true.
Oscar Chamberlain - 3/3/2008
I came to Parsons well after the fact. At first he was too country for my taste--but "$1000 Wedding" cut through that. It ached with anger and with compassion, for the guy left at the alter, for his friends, and even for the girl "who only knew she loved the world." It can still break my heart to hear it.
It sounds like this biography also aches with anger and compassion. That's fitting.