Kirk Bane: Review of Bob Proehl's The Gilded Palace of Sin
The Flying Burrito Brothers should have been one of the best-selling American bands of the late Sixties. The pioneering group was comprised of three former Byrds (Gram Parsons, Chris Hillman, and Michael Clarke), a future Eagle (Bernie Leadon), skilled session player Chris Ethridge, and Sneaky Pete Kleinow, “the Jimi Hendrix of the pedal steel.” But drugs, egos, laziness, and numerous other factors doomed the Burritos. Still, out of a handful of LPs, they managed to record one classic, 1969’s The Gilded Palace of Sin. In his stellar new history, The Gilded Palaceof Sin (New York: Continuum, 2008), country music scholar Bob Proehl asserts that the Burrito Brothers “injected the country of the past with everything at hand, anything they could find that mattered to them. They stuffed it full of club girls and pot and dead Kennedys and soul and hippies and riots and rhinestones.”
The trailblazing L.A. outfit played a brilliant, groundbreaking hybrid of country, soul, and rock. Parsons brashly labeled it “Cosmic American Music.” This new blend “would embrace Southern music by black and white performers and drag it into the multicolored lights of the California psychedelic scene,” Proehl explains. “It would be Buck Owens singing Aretha Franklin songs, on acid and plugged in, barreling forward on a Tennessee two-beat and sprawling out in fuzzbox and wah-wah.” Moreover, Parsons reached out to both flower children and rednecks. Might the Burritos’ music help unite these polarized camps? Proehl contends that Parsons “was determined to show the hippie kids that country music was vital, and show country audiences that a California longhair could play it just as well as anyone.”
Parsons and Hillman, co-leaders of the Flying Burrito Brothers, shared similar musical tastes. Both young men had a “deep, abiding love” for C&W, particularly the work of Cash, Owens, and Jones. “While other folks in L.A.’s hippie scene viewed country as quaint and hokey,” Parsons and Hillman “felt it pulsing in their brains, heating in their blood.” Both Burritos lost their fathers early. “From that point on,” Proehl observes, “the dominating male voices…in their lives would come from their radios and record players.” Parsons and Hillman turned to “the stoic baritone of Johnny Cash for moral guidance, the playful tenor of Buck Owens for recreation, [and] the trembling high lonesome sound of George Jones for emotional comfort.” Other influences on the Burritos, drawn from the worlds of country, rock, and soul, included Hank Williams, Porter Wagoner, Merle Haggard, Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and James Carr.
Parsons and Hillman wrote the majority of The Gilded Palace of Sin in late 1968. Their songs spoke to the day’s most urgent concerns, including draft-dodging, militarism, the murder of Bobby Kennedy, and Chicago’s turbulent Democratic National Convention. “Sin City,” the album’s strongest cut, is a jeremiad against smug, materialistic, iniquitous L.A.: “This whole town’s filled with sin/It’ll swallow you in/If you’ve got some money to burn/Take it home, right away/You’ve got three years to pay/But Satan is waiting his turn.”
Proehl cleverly constructs his book around the Seven Deadly Sins: avarice, envy, gluttony, lust, sloth, vanity, and wrath. Consider three examples. In his examination of sloth, Proehl contrasts the work habits of Hillman and Parsons. The former Burrito possessed a “hard-nosed work ethic,” his partner a “shaky” one. Parsons, who had the luxury of a trust fund, lived fast and hard, and tended toward idleness when it came to rehearsing. According to Hillman, Parsons “wanted it all, but he didn’t work at it…He didn’t put his time in. Discipline was not a word in his vocabulary.” Hillman fired his indolent partner in 1970. In his chapter on envy, Proehl maintains that Parsons had a burning desire to become a Rolling Stone; he all but abandoned the Burritos to hang out with the English rockers. The Stones “awed” him. He particularly clicked with Keith Richards, whom Parsons tutored on the finer points of country music. “People have speculated,” Proehl states, “as to whether or not Gram Parsons wanted to be a Rolling Stone, but come on, who wouldn’t want to be a Rolling Stone?” And as to gluttony, Parsons had a ravenous appetite for alcohol and drugs. He drank heavily, smoked massive amounts of weed, took loads of pills, and acquired a heroin habit. Just twenty-six years old, Parsons died of a drug overdose in 1973.
The Flying Burrito Brothers sported gaudy, rhinestone-studded Nudie suits. Rodeo tailor Nudie Cohn had sewn Western outfits in California since 1947. Among his clients were stars Tex Williams, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hank Williams, and Elvis Presley. Nudie’s suits, Proehl avers, “were almost hallucinogenic. With imagery personalized to the performer and rhinestones encrusting the embroidery and often extending onto the fringe that trimmed sleeves, yokes, and bibs, the suits were amazing show pieces, performances unto themselves.” Parsons just had to have one. He “wanted to be a country star, and country stars wore Nudie suits with all the trimming.” In keeping with his counterculture lifestyle, the “trimming” on Parson’s outfit featured poppies, pills, cannabis leaves, and naked women.
Though they sold few records, the Burritos influenced numerous bands over the years, including the Eagles (whom Parsons loathed), R.E.M., Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown, and the Old 97s. Music fans have “canonized” Parsons. Today he is revered as “the patron saint of alt-country.” Unfairly, Hillman’s contributions have been largely ignored or forgotten. Proehl reminds his readers, however, that The Gilded Palace of Sin was truly “a collaboration, two individuals at the peak of their abilities, coming together to form something larger than either.”
The Gilded Palace of Sin is part of Continuum Publishing’s superb 33 1/3 Series, which numbers over sixty titles, and includes John Dougan’s The Who Sell Out, Jim Fusilli’s Pet Sounds, Geoffrey Himes’s Born in the U.S.A., Miles Marshall Lewis’s There’s a Riot Goin’On, and Warren Zanes’s Dusty in Memphis. Boldtype praises the 33 1/3 texts as “religious tracts for the rock ‘n’ roll faithful.” Rolling Stone calls them “ideal for the rock geek who thinks liner notes just aren’t enough.” And The New York Times Book Review declares that “it was only a matter of time before a clever publisher realized that there is an audience for whom Exile on Main Street or Electric Ladyland are as significant and worthy of study as The Catcher in the Rye or Middlemarch.” Pop culture historians should check out the Continuum books; they’ll not be disappointed. Proehl’s study is a welcome addition to the collection.
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