We seem to have a multimedia “Gram Parsons assault” in progress. Over a relatively short period of time, we treated to a book, a DVD, and a cd reissue with a wealth of alternate takes and interviews. Interestingly, Parsons is the first member of the Byrds to receive this royal treatment, so maybe we can hope that similar works are in progress for the original Byrds.
Grievous Angel:An Intimate Biography of Gram Parsons
I’m not usually a big fan of “rock” biographies. They tend to go overboard with praise for the artists and have a difficult time in keeping the artist’s pedestal modest. In the case of Gram Parsons, one of the pioneers of country-rock in the late sixties, we are dealing with a true enigma…he helped steer the Byrds into pure country with his involvement on “Sweetheart of the Rodeo”, founded the legendary Flying Burrito Brothers with Chris Hillman, carved out a solo career that featured some of the most heartfelt and emotional canons of songs I’ve ever heard, and became a mentor to Emily Lou Harris. All this before he died of a drug/alcohol overdose in a motel room in Joshua Tree, California at the age of 26. Did I mention that his body was stolen by his manager, Phil Kaufmann and taken out to the desert to be burned as part of a pact the two made shortly before after they attended Clarence White’s funeral. If this doesn’t have “movie” written all over it, nothing does. Johnnie Depp…if you’re reading this…
“Grievous Angel” is a solid biography of a brilliant, but tragic musician. When the book stays close to telling his story, it is an inspired read. Parsons’ influences are made clear and his progression from a rich, spoiled folkie to rock legend gains greater clarity as we begin to understand how his dysfunctional family situation when he was growing up caused him to seek solace in music and the approval of others…no matter whether their approval was necessary.
There are numerous interviews scattered through the book and they vary considerably in their value. Conspicuous in their absence are any interviews with Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman. As former band mates in the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers, I think that their perspectives would have been welcome additions.
This book is a must read for anyone who has an affection for country (or country rock). It’s a very disturbing read on some levels and serves to remind us of the uglier side of the Sixties legacy.
Fallen Angel DVD
The second installment of Gram Parsons material is the best of the group. This film (Fallen Angel) was a long time in the making (6+) years and has an entirely different feel about itself. The film pays homage to every stage of Gram’s career but also shows the pain he caused to his closest friends and family members with his addictive behavior.
The perspective seems unique (to me) perhaps because Henning doesn’t stoop toward adulation…he recognizes Gram’s brilliance and contributions, but doesn’t shy away from the seamy side of his legacy either.
“Fallen Angel” spends a good amount of time in delivering a perspective from many of the musicians that Parsons worked with, from the International Submarine Band, Flying Burrito Brothers, back up players from Parsons’ solo albums, and Emmylou Harris. Phil Kaufman is given ample opportunity to offer his side of the story that involved his stealing Gram’s body from LAX and driving it out to Joshua Tree Monument where he carried out his friend’s request that his body be cremated in his favorite spot. Now, more than 30 years later, we see some degree of reconciliation with Gram’s family over the issue.
Henning brings an uncanny perspective to the country rock emergence which is very admirable given his youth and the fact that he grew up in Germany. The most touching comment came from Ms. Harris when she asked that people remember Gram’s music as his legacy…not the way he died. This DVD is a must see for any rock fan…it’s almost a primer of lifestyles to be avoided.
The Complete Reprise Sessions 3CD Box
There have been a number of CDs that attempt to cover Gram Parsons’ career. Most tend to focus on his work with the Flying Burrito Brothers. Rhino has issued re-mastered versions of his first two solo efforts (“GP” and “Grievous Angel”). Both have been released in some form previously, but the sound is much cleaner here. The real attraction from my perspective is in the bonus tracks on each of the solo efforts and the 3rd cd which is comprised entirely of alternate takes. These cuts simply shine even though they’re not fundamentally different from the released versions. Standout cuts are “Return of the Grievous Angel #1”, “In my Hour of Darkness”, and a stunning read of “Brass Buttons” (a song written about his mother Avis, who died of alcohol poisoning when he was a young man). There’s a version of “Hickory Wind” that tops any version previously released, including the Byrds’ version on “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” (a claim I don’t make lightly).
There are a number of interviews that fill out the 1st two discs. This is a great compilation of Parsons’ solo efforts. No country (or country rock) fan should be without this set.