Classic Rock Review

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Gram Parsons – Sacred Hearts and Fallen Angels: The Gram Parsons Anthology (2001)


For better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That’s why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

I suspect we should be thankful for all of the British rock magazines’ page-length features on lost classics, often titled “Classic Albums Revisited” and “Buried Treasures”: more so than radio or Behind the Music, they’ve generally served to remind us why it is we like what we like. A few exceptions aside, most of the interesting pop music of today is directly informed not just by the obvious, such as the Beatles, Dylan and the Beach Boys, but by less well-known artists of a bygone era. In many cases, as the phenomenon known as the One-Hit Wonder reminds us, the legacy is simply one song. Without our friends at Rhino, Sundazed and Charly, these recordings might otherwise never again see the light of day.

Beginning at least with the issue of the Byrds boxed set in 1990, one reputation saved from the dustbin of history by these features was that of Gram Parsons. Parsons almost defines the Great Lost Legend: inconsistent though remarkable genius, debatably difficult childhood (life musta’ been rough at Harvard), famous admirers, early death, drug abuse, and unrequited love. Yup, Gram had it all.

And his reputation reflects it. All of it. In fact, listening to Rhino’s new Sacred Hearts and Fallen Angels: The Gram Parsons Anthology made me wonder whether all the mythologizing was really warranted. Does Parsons’ music really support the legend? Did he really invent a new kind of music? Is Gram’s contribution to pop music really as significant as all that?

To be honest, yes, no and I don’t know. Really. As definitive as any compilation of Gram Parsons’ music will likely ever be, a 45-track 2-CD set spanning from his early days with the International Submarine Band to the posthumous solo album, Grievous Angel, SHFA should clarify that, and it does … to a degree. But putting Parsons’ bonafide genius in its proper context is not an easy proposition.

Put simply, though many would disagree, the best music Parsons did in his life was when he was self-consciously working to create something new, what he would come to call “Cosmic American Music,” cut from the fabric of country, R&B, pop, and psychedelia.

The “cosmic” is most in evidence on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ first album, The Gilded Palace of Sin. The record finds Parsons, with cohorts Sneaky Pete, ex Byrd-mate Chris Hillman, and Chris Etheridge creating a kind of music that, despite the legions of imitators, no artist has really replicated. With its hamfisted fuzz-tone guitar (“Christine’s Tune”), traditional R&B (“Dark End of the Street”) and shades of Beatlesque pop (“Hot Burrito # 1 and 2”), the Burritos’ opening salvo would prove more overtly psychedelic than any of Parsons’ previous music with the ISB or the Byrds’ seminal “Sweetheart of the Rodeo”. It’s also the least pure country of his albums, which I would guess raises the suspiscions of the most hard-core Gramophiles.

But it’s the most original, perhaps because much of the music is co-written by Etheridge and Hillman. Further, at a time during which we are now inundated with the alt-country “American Music,” a little cosmos is fairly welcome. By the time Gram stumbled, literally, into the studio to record his two solo albums, GP and Grievous Angel, he was a bona-fide buddy of the Rolling Stones and had dropped almost all of the sixties pop-stylings, spinning instead somberly irreverant tales with a much more countrified bent.

Both albums are wonderful (and there’s a CD two-fer containing both), but the fact is that they’re fairly straightforward, far less trailblazing than some would have you believe, though no less accomplished. But they deserve the magnifying glass treatment: yes, “$1,000 Wedding,” “Brass Buttons” and “Hearts On Fire” are stone-cold classics, as brilliant as anything Parsons had ever done, but they and their accompanying albums reflect a refined and mature songcraft, not an expansion of the bold new American music he’d been part of only a few years earlier.

I’m sure the above heresies would get me kicked off the Grievous Angel mailing list were I on it, but you don’t have to be an expert to realize that by 1973, Gram Parsons had passed the apex of his creativity: it’s there in the music. His voice, a truly stunning instrument in its day and his most direct line to his country heroes, is noticably wobbly by Grievous Angel. And there are no “If-He’d-Only-Lived” scenarios to imagine; anyone who dies with a bunch of ice shoved up his ass (reportedly to restart his drug-stopped heart) was clearly at the end of the line. The fact is that his music of that period reflected that, burningly personal though it was.

Ultimately, SHFA is a fine tribute to the Parsons, and the song selection is nothing if not comprehensive. His best Byrds and ISB tracks are almost all accounted for, all but two songs from Gilded Palace of Sin are present and most of GP and Grievous Angel made the cut as well. So give Emmylou Harris, who sings her ass off on those last records, and every other alt-country songwriter who worships at the Shrine of Gram their due: much of GP’s music did change the world. Even the music that didn’t move the earth is still fantastic. But, as SHFA proves, Gram Parsons’ ultimate goal seemed less to change the world than to cram the rise and fall of one Elvis Aaron Presley, fat period and all, into a mere nine years.

May 16, 2010 - Posted by | Gram Parsons Anthology |

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