Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel DVD, Complete Reprise Sessions and An Intimate Biography of Gram Parsons by Jessica Hundley (2007/2007/2005)
We seem to have a multimedia “Gram Parsons assault” in progress. Over a relatively short period of time, we are 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.
When Gram Parsons died of booze and pills (natural causes said the coroner’s finding) in 1973 his friend and road manager Phil Kaufman lived up to his end of a deal that they had made earlier. He stole Gram’s body and burned it in the desert; at Joshua Tree, California. It was a moment typical of Gram’s desire for the big moment, the flamboyant gesture that would set him apart from the rest.
There’s a mystique that has built up around Gram Parson’s since his too short life came to an end that has been fuelled mainly by the amazing body of work he left behind and the haunting sound of his voice that lives on even after he’s been dead for more then thirty years. But who was this man who has inspired more posthumous tribute albums than people who achieved far more fame then he ever did, and is credited with being the influence behind the whole country-rock genre which birthed bands like The Eagles?
Gram Parsons Fallen Angel, a documentary film by Gandulf Henning attempts to answer the enigma of Graham Parsons by interviewing the famous, the family, and all of those who knew him during his brief, meteoric passing. Keith Richards, Emmylou Harris, Chris Hillman, and other musical luminaries talk freely and candidly about their times with Gram and his influence on them and their careers.
Going back into his childhood they attempt to find out the causes of his self-destructive behaviour. As Chris Hillman of the Byrds and latter The Flying Burrito Brothers said, “It was a classic Tennessee Williams play.” Now Southern Gothic may be all right to watch on stage, but growing up in that atmosphere sounds like it wasn’t the healthiest of upbringings.
His father shot himself when he was still young. His mother was an alcoholic who had been hospitalized for alcohol-related problems and died of mysterious circumstances. Her second husband whose name Gram would bear for the rest of his life, Bob Parsons, was known to have been in her room just prior to her death and had been sneaking her booze and pills up until she died. He latter married his adopted children’s baby sitter.
The emerging picture of Gram from these early years up until the end of his one-year stint at Yale University was of the poor little rich boy who could have anything money could buy, but no love. When he became interested in music in high school his parents converted a room in the house into a music room for him to rehearse in. He obviously loved the music but he also saw it as a ticket to being famous.
The film-makers follow Gram’s career from his early days in New York City, followed by his joining the Byrds, the birth and death of the Flying Burrito Brothers, and his short lived solo career where he worked with Emmylou Harris. At each stop along the way the people he played with say the same thing; when Gram was together he was the best.
His voice was the quintessential “high lonesome” which could make you feel the sadness of the world and rip your heart right out. Creatively he could be without equal as well. Hillman credits him as the driving force behind Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, one of the Byrds’ best albums. Songs like “Drug Store Truck Driving Man” with its country sound but socially conscious lyrics were part of his distinctive sound and the change he wrought on the Byrds.
But even then, according to the film, he was more interested in fame and the rock star lifestyle than the work involved with achieving it. Through Chris Hillman he met Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones for the first time and that began his fascination with what he saw as the glamour of their career.
The Byrds had come to London England as a prelude to going on tour of South Africa, and Gram had asked Keith Richards to explain what the situation was like there. Keith laughs about the conversation in an interview saying if he knew it was going to cause him to leave the Byrds he might not have told Gram about apartheid.
Gram used the situation in South Africa as an excuse not to make the trip, telling them two hours before the flight was to leave. But in Chris Hillman’s opinion he didn’t want to go because he wanted to hang out with Keith Richards instead.
This pattern of abandoning his own work because he was attracted to the lifestyle of fame and adulation continued with his own group, the Flying Burrito Brothers. According to Hillman, who obviously didn’t stay mad at Gram as he became part of the Burrito Brothers, Gram wrote some of the best music of his career during that time.
The filmmakers have pulled together old promotional clips from the time period of the Burritos performing together, and Gram’s voice is amazing even in these battered old pieces of film. But it was also him that suggested the band go out and buy the really expensive Nudie suits (the rhinestone cowboy outfits associated with Country and Western music to this day) they wore on stage and in promotional shots.
Everybody had their own personal suit designed and Gram’s became as infamous as him, covered with pills, booze, and marijuana plants. In an interesting little interview with the tailor who made the suits, he says he thought it interesting in retrospect Gram would ask him to cover the suit with all the things he’d use to kill himself.
But even while everybody being interviewed is painting a picture of a totally irresponsible and almost selfish individual, they talk about him with love and affection. Even when Hillman talks about punching a hole in Gram’s guitar on stage one night, he’s laughing as he recalls Gram, in all innocence asking, “Why’d you do that Chris?”
Everyone, from his wife Gretchen to the guys that played with him, talks about him like he was a miscreant child who didn’t know any better. He genuinely didn’t understand why Chris was frustrated with him for not rehearsing and nobody seemed to make the effort to tell him.
Part of it was the fact he had never needed to work for anything in his life. As a child and teenager he had all his material needs fulfilled by his mother’s family, and as an adult he had a trust fund which according to who you listen too ranged from $20,000 – $50,000 a year. Even the low end of that scale in the late 1960’s was more then most people’s annual salary. He was without a financial care in the world.
The Burritos dissolved after the night Chris put his fist through Gram’s guitar and the other band members went on to other gigs. Gram and Gretchen were invited to visit Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones in the South of France for a summer as the Stones prepared for their next album. While neither Keith nor Gertrude mention it, it’s implied by another Gram became involved in heroin at this time.
It was when Gram got back from France he embarked upon the final stage of his career and life. He managed to convince a record company to fund him for a solo album, and this was when Emmylou Harris became his backup vocalist. Like everyone else she adored and respected him, but at the same time recounts at how frustrating he was to work with.
She talks about being amazed that the album G.P. was ever released because she never saw anyone else actually do anything. When they prepared for their tour they never actually rehearsed a song from beginning to end, and it wasn’t until they were fired from their first gig for not being able to play one song she took matters into hand.
She ended up becoming the road “mother”, making everybody sit down and rehearse properly and ensuring they could all begin and end a song at the same time. After that she claims the tour was a huge success with audiences loving everything they did. I don’t know if you’ve heard Emmylou and Gram sing together, but it sounds like their voices were designed for each other.
There are some grainy clips included in the film of the two of them from this tour; they would stand at right angles to each other so that Emmylou was sideways to the audience but looking at Gram. In a voice over we hear an old interview with Gram talking about singing with Emmylou. He says all he had to do was make eye contact with her and she’d know exactly how to harmonize a song, even if she’d never heard it before.
The filmmakers have done an amazing amount of research and the interviews included in this documentary are with people from all aspects of Gram’s life. The one thing everyone agrees upon is he was a musical genius whose time ended far too soon. But even those who loved him the most – Chris Hillman, his wife Gertrude, and Emmylou Harris are all too aware of his failings as well.
Something else that becomes clear is that nobody ever really did anything to get him to change. The first person that seems to have been able to exert any sort of authority over him was Emmylou Harris, when she imposed her will on the band to make them rehearse for that tour. Up until then everybody else seemed content to suck what they could from Gram and than discard him when he became too difficult.
Maybe nobody could have done anything for him. Perhaps the seeds of despondency had been planted too deep by the deaths of both his natural parents. His sister Avis who grew up in the same circumstances ended up spending years in mental institutions because of what they survived as children.
While this movie was an attempt to show who Gram Parsons was and try to answer questions about why he did what he did, it also raises questions about the people who were around him. Why would they let him continue stuffing himself with booze and drugs in the last six months of his life when they knew he was so self-destructive?
Sure he always said he wanted to go out in a blaze of glory – hence the funeral pyre in Joshua Tree – but how could they let him have the means to his destruction so readily available. He had separated from Gertrude and for his own protection was living with friends, which in her opinion was a joke. They were as big as users as he was.
Gram Parsons Fallen Angel fills in a lot of holes in the biography of Gram Parsons the person. For those of you who didn’t know much about him before, this is a great introduction and summary of his all too brief life and career. A real sense of loss and waste for what Gram could have been pervades the whole movie.
What I found most disturbing about the movie was the image it left of a lost little boy who everybody continued to indulge no matter what. Everybody was just happy to be along for the ride and with a few exceptions, sat back and let him self-destruct. These same people still seem content to bask in his reflected glory to this day.
This is a great documentary which reveals things I don’t think the subjects being interviewed realizes are being unveiled. Their own sense of self-importance is more damning to them as accomplices in his self-destruction than anyone’s accusations.
Gram Parsons Fallen Angel doesn’t shy away from anything in regards to its subject matter or the circumstances of his life and death. This is a must see for any fan of Gram’s because even with its warts and all portrayal it does nothing to diminish his musical accomplishments. In some ways it makes them seem all the more remarkable.
The legend of Gram Parsons was cemented almost immediately after his death in 1973 when tour manager and friend Phil Kaufman stole his body from the Los Angeles International Airport and attempted to cremate it in Joshua Tree National Park. The myth and mystery surrounding that unfortunate incident long have overshadowed Parsons’ life and his music, both of which have had a significant impact upon an array of contemporary country and alt-country artists. In his documentary Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel, German director Gandulf Hennig takes a chronological approach to telling Parsons’ story.
Throughout Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel, friends and band mates alike give detailed accounts of Parsons’ work in The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers and as a solo artist, while his family and hometown pals provide insight into his upbringing as well as his family traumas. This includes the rampant alcoholism of his stepfather and his parents, his father’s suicide, and his mother’s death from cirrhosis of the liver. All of these form the backdrop for Parsons’ own story, which, in some respects, is one of privilege and excess, and in others, is one of dedication and inspiration. In the opening moments of Fallen Angel, former Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers band mate Chris Hillman summarizes Parsons’ life best by declaring that it was comprised of the stuff of a Tennessee Williams’ play.
In these ways, Fallen Angel answers many questions about Parsons the man, while also lending a voice to both sides of the argument about his motivations and his wishes. Hennig gives both Phil Kaufman and Parsons’ sisters a chance to sound off on the notorious attempted cremation. He also allows Keith Richards and Chris Hillman to have their say about Parsons’ departure from The Byrds in order to hang out with the Rolling Stones in London. On the other hand, he shies away from other lingering uncertainties, such as the details of Parsons’ relationship with singer Emmylou Harris. Overall, however, Hennig effectively explores Parsons’ musical journey, his influences, his battles with drugs and alcohol, and his untimely and truly tragic death, and in the process, he creates a portrait of Parsons that digs deeper than anything that has come before it.