The late Gram Parsons is, of course, one of those figures whose shadow looms large over the music scene of the last 50 years in far greater measure to his record sales or profile during his lifetime. In a similar way to other artists destined to die before their time, such as Nick Drake or Tim Buckley, he never went close to chart success or big sold-out venues, yet the amount of respected musicians since citing him as an influence would make it seem as if he had a Hendrix-like appeal rather than his niche, some would say cult status. This book goes into his life story, and tries to put into perspective exactly what made him special, and conversely what made him fail to achieve his potential. On both scores, it succeeds.
The book is a thought-provoking and entertaining read, and highly recommended for the fan or casual rock historian, as I will come to, but there is one major flaw which must be addressed first. This is a new edition of the book (with an updated Epilogue), as it was originally published in 1991, and reprinted again in 1998. Despite this – and I do not have the earlier editions with which to compare it – the editing is unforgivably poor. As an author myself I know how easy it is for some typos to sneak past the most diligent proofing, but there are simply too many obvious grammatical mistakes here, which really should be easily picked up. Not the fault of the author entirely, of course, and these can be largely overlooked, but when there are such things as ‘he was sitting in a junkyard of house’ and ‘Gram’s friend Gram’s friend Dickey’ cropping up very early on, to give two examples, it becomes noticeable. The Grand Ole Opry is referred to on one occasion as The Grand Old Opry (an unforgivable lapse in country terms!), and the Rolling Stones’ regular sax player Bobby Keys becomes Bobby Keyes (this last one being deeply ironic as the author snipes throughout at people who spelled Gram’s name wrong throughout his career). If these issues were present in the previous editions, it is baffling why they weren’t fixed this time out – and if they weren’t previously present then it becomes even more confusing!
Still, with that caveat out of the way, how is the book? Well, speaking for myself as someone who, while not a particular devotee of Gram’s work, have always been interested in him as a character and, of course, the infamous scenario following his death when his body was stolen, taken out into the desert and burned. His life, and his close relationship with the Stones, and Keith Richards in particular, has always had the makings of a true rock-and-roll tale in the grand tradition, and this book allowed me to fill in all of the gaps – including the fact that Gram actually came from a very wealthy family who had made its considerable fortune in the orange and other citrus fruit business in Florida. To read of his family’s many troubles with alcohol, his father’s suicide and the fact that he didn’t grow up listening to country music at all, and in fact worshipped Elvis, is all fascinating stuff. What makes this more interesting to me – though others may disagree – is that, despite it being pitched in the introduction as a reverent attempt to celebrate his life, and to ‘hopefully not let down’ all of those old friends and family who helped in its research, this is far from a polished and cleaned up portrait of some sort of plaster saint. On the contrary, this is warts and all in the best sense, and at every turn one is left thinking that, in truth, Gram Parsons quite frankly doesn’t come out of this all that well!
At various times he is portrayed regularly as being easily distracted, short on self discipline even – or especially – when it came down to his music. His decision to leave The Byrds high and dry on the eve of what became a disastrous South African tour is broadly intimated to have been done as much from self-interest as the conscientious decision he claimed it to be, and many of his musical collaborators are reported to have felt wounded or betrayed by his lack of loyalty. His treatment of the women in his life is often shown as far from admirable, to say the least. His first major recording, the album Safe At Home by The International Submarine Band is depicted as a cynical move to use the band name despite him assembling a new group of musicians in place of the recently disbanded group, while his two albums with The Flying Burrito Brothers also come in for accusations of sometimes sloppy recording, poor treatment of band members and a controlling attitude which at times went too far. He is shown as trying the patience of the Stones (except for, largely, his soulmate Keith) and being thrown out of the Exile On Main Street sessions for being out of control with his substance issues, having by this time taken up heroin – and if the Stones threw you out for being too out of it in 1972, that’s saying a lot! Tours are described as often embarrassing, as he recruited substandard players and under-rehearsed them, and he is really only portrayed as living up to his potential when recording his final album, Grievous Angel, just before his death (it was released posthumously, and remains his most celebrated work). There is constant reference to his desire to create a new form of country music blended with a rock attitude and influence, which both longhairs and country traditionalists could enjoy equally, but there is little evidence given as to him actively trying to put in the work to achieve this, and the impression lingers that his thunder was stolen by such acts as Poco and The Eagles as he spun his wheels in a fog of inactivity and lack of motivation.
And yet, for all that, such flawed impressions are what makes this book so fascinating. It is far from a hatchet job – indeed Gram Parsons is referred to as a figurehead and a misunderstood genius regularly, and yet the determination not to airbrush any mud out of the picture at the same time gives the real feeling that one is reading about a complex personality who vacillates constantly between a grand vision he has, and the self discipline required to achieve it, and leaves a tangible sense of frustration that he sabotaged himself at every turn. Ironically, the only point at which it seems as if he is cleaning up his act is during the recording of Grievous Angel, and the weeks leading up to his fatal overdose of morphine. Of that tragedy at the Joshua Inn Motel, several questions are raised about the real truth, and inconsistencies between witness testimonies are exposed as full of holes, with the identity of the person who supplied the fatal overdose left unknown. In fact. far more could and should have been made of exploring this shady incident, rather than the very brief chapter it receives.
In all, the book is very much like its subject. It is sprinkled throughout with infuriating flaws, and yet remains fascinating and ultimately a success, reflecting in microcosm the life and career of Gram Parsons himself. This book may not send you scurrying to track down all of his recordings, as some are certainly damned with faint praise, but it will certainly make you feel as if you have got to know the man and looked into his troubled soul. And that’s worth more than a fistful of superficially glowing reviews of his musical legacy in this reader’s opinion. If you’re any kind of student of rock history, you will get a lot out of this.